SPARTANBURG — Will Grier grew up at Carolina Panthers football games.
From before the time that Will could walk in 1996 when the Panthers moved into their downtown Charlotte stadium, the Grier family had the same 12 seats in section 229 at then Ericsson Stadium for all the home games. Will tailgated outside the stadium and throwing the football with his dad, and uncles and grandfather before kickoff.
Like most kids, Will would dream about leading the Panthers to a last-second victory or a Super Bowl championship. By the time he was a teenager, he was a star quarterback in his own rights around the Charlotte playgrounds.
But when he’d go to Panthers games, he didn’t wear a No. 17 Jake Delhomme jersey or later, a No. 1 Cam Newton jersey, the primary Carolina quarterbacks of his youth. It was always a Steve Smith jersey, honoring the Panthers' All-Pro wide receiver.
“Steve Smith was always Will’s guy,” said his father Chad Grier, the head football coach at Mount Pleasant’s Oceanside Collegiate Academy. “Don’t get me wrong, he loved Jake and Cam and would watch them during games, but he always wore that Steve Smith jersey to the games. Steve really was the Panthers’ first superstar.”
One of Will Grier’s prized possessions as a kid was the autograph he got from Smith.
“I got a lot of Panthers stuff when I was a kid,” Will Grier said. “I had some Steve Smith stuff, DeShaun Foster's too. We never made it to training camp, but I was able to watch a couple of practices and get them then.”
More than two decades later, Will Grier is getting the chance to live out his childhood dream as a quarterback for the Panthers. Grier, Carolina’s third-round pick in April’s NFL draft, has gone from lifelong Panthers fan to prospective back-up quarterback as the team opens training camp this week at Wofford College.
“It’s kind of surreal for me,” Grier said. “I was sitting in the stands watching these guys play when I was a kid and now I’m out here trying to earn my spot on the team. I’m so blessed to get this opportunity.”
Grier has taken part in the Panthers’ rookie mini-camp in May and gone through the team’s offseason training activities (OTAs) already, but this week was his first taste of an NFL training camp.
Like every rookie, Grier has had that ‘welcome to the NFL’ moment. It’s not a matter of if, but when it occurs. For Grier it came during one of the Panthers’ first OTAs after the draft. Just before the snap of the ball, he looked across the line of scrimmage and into the eyes of Panthers perennial all-pro linebacker Luke Kuechly.
“I think that’s when it hit me that I was actually in the NFL,” Grier said. “Obviously, the draft was a huge moment for me and my family. To get drafted by the Panthers and to be able to come back and play in Charlotte was a great feeling. But lining up against Luke Kuechly and throwing the ball to Christian McCaffery that’s when it kind of became real for me. Those guys have a different gear. It’s such a big jump from college to the NFL. Bigger than high school to college. Those first couple of OTAs were great, I got some great reps and I got to learn a lot and now I’m just trying to learn something new every day I’m out here.”
While Grier only has a couple of NFL practices under his belt, he has already impressed the Panthers coaching staff.
“I think Will has thrown the ball well,” said Panthers head coach Ron Rivera. “I thought Will was poised, he made some really good, quick decisions and delivered a bunch of good balls. All three of our young quarterbacks have confidence and that’s exciting.”
Grier is battling Kyle Allen and Taylor Heinicke to become Newton’s back-up when the season opens in September.
“Will has had a couple of really good practices,” said quarterback coach Scott Turner. “He’s a young player and he has a lot to learn. He needs to process things a little quicker, but he’s doing well and coming along nicely.”
When Grier was in high school and the family would sit in the end zone at Bank of America Stadium, Newton was just beginning his NFL career. Grier was an immediate fan. He admired Newton’s athleticism and the swagger he brought to the team. Now, he’s sitting in the same quarterback meetings with his former idol.
“It was a strange feeling at first, but Cam welcomed me from the beginning,” Grier said. “Cam brings the energy every day. He’s an awesome guy. I feed off his energy like everyone else does. I’m grateful that I’m getting the opportunity to learn from an MVP and a guy who wants everyone around him to get better so they can help this team win.”
Grier spent about two weeks in the Lowcountry right before the opening of Panthers training camp, working with his father, who was a quarterback at East Carolina. When Will had been a quarterback for his father at Davidson Day School, he had thrown for more than 14,000 yards and 195 touchdowns during his career and had been named ESPN’s national player of the year during his senior season.
“He’s been coaching me my whole life and there’s a comfort level there,” Will said. “He knows me better than anyone else.”
Grier signed a four-year $3.8 million rookie contract and if things work out he has considered buying a home in Charleston to stay during the offseason.
“It’s really preliminary at this point, it’s something my dad and I talked about,” Grier said. “Charleston is such a great city, you’re near the beach, great restaurants, near my family. What’s not to like? But right now, I’m just focused on getting better each time I step on the field.”
As Grier made his way from the practice field to the locker room after his first training camp practice, he made a point to sign as many jerseys, hats and footballs as he could.
"Things have kind of come full circle for me," Grier said.
He remembers being on the other side of that fence not that long ago.