CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Carolina coach Ron Rivera said his players are approaching their six-day trip to Florida this week like it was a college bowl game.
The Panthers wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of the Democratic National Convention that is being held in Charlotte so they decided to practice in Florida and prepare for their regular season opener at Tampa Bay.
President Barack Obama will give his acceptance speech at Carolina’s home stadium Thursday night and security around the facility is extremely tight.
The team (No. 20 in the AP Pro32) leaves for the IMG Football Academy in Bradenton, Fla., on Tuesday.
Rivera says he hopes the week together will help players bond even more before the start of a long season. The Panthers will return to Charlotte on Sunday night after the game.
“It’s definitely different,” Rivera said. “A lot of guys are like, ‘Hey coach it’s like getting ready for a bowl game.’ They have the right attitude and the right mental frame of mind going in.”
Rivera believes that approach will help his players.
“This can be a rallying cry for us, it really can,” Rivera said. “It’s an opportunity to get away and focus in on an opponent and focus in on football. I think the attitude is going to be about coming together. So I think it’s going to be fun how we handle things and how this all develops for us.”
Said wide receiver Steve Smith: “It’s no different than going to the Super Bowl.”
Panthers linebacker Jon Beason sees other benefits to practicing in Florida this week.
Beason played college ball at Miami, so he knows just how hot it can be to play in Florida in early September. The forecast for Sunday in Tampa is for a high of 86 degrees and plenty of humidity.
Beason thinks spending a week in Florida will help the Panthers get used to it and not be as bothered by it come Sunday.
“I think it’s going to be a little humid down there so getting out there and having a whole week of practice in Florida versus getting off the bus in Tampa the day of the game and all of a sudden that Tampa weather hits you…,” Beason said. “Yes it will help us.”
Smith said while having the convention in Charlotte is great for the city, there’s no denying it’s been a little bit of a distraction for the players.
DNC officials began setting up at the stadium about two weeks ago, installing generators, miles of wiring, and decorations for the event. Hundreds of workers are in the stadium every day and security has grown extremely tight as the speech draws near.
Even as the players spoke about convention, several police helicopters hovered over the practice fields adjacent to the stadium and police patrolled the outside of the stadium.
The entryway to the stadium is now heavily guarded and only employees who’ve been cleared have access inside the facility. Players have had to change parking spaces and check in with security.
“It’s a lot of red tape to go through, so I’m glad coach Rivera and everyone involved was proactive in getting this trip taken care of,” Smith said.
General manager Marty Hurney said the Panthers began exploring potential practice sites once NFL schedule was announced in the spring.
He said the Panthers looked at four places around the country and a handful of others in the Tampa area before settling on the IMG Sports Academy, a place where quarterback Cam Newton and several other NFL players train during the offseason.
“We scouted a few places in the Tampa area and IMG made the most sense,” Hurney said. “The facility offers the privacy and infrastructure that we need to prepare for the season opener.”
Smith, for one, is taking a lighthearted approach to what he jokingly refers to as “camping out.”
“We’re staying out there so they have the marshmallows and the graham crackers ready and the bonfire going,” Smith said. “Someone has the karaoke machine with ‘Kumbaya’ all ready to go and we’re just going to sleep in sleeping bags… and have a good old time.”
Rivera said he likes that players aren’t complaining about the move because it shows some mental toughness and dedication to the task at hand, which is winning the season opener.
“We can easily accept (the move) and say it’s a reason why or we can say it’s the reason because,” Rivera said. “That’s the way I look at it. That’s my whole point. I’m going to leave it at that.”
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