SAN FRANCISCO — Kyle Love lost himself trying to live the “Patriot Way.”
Under the rigid rules of New England coach Bill Belichick, he said, uniformity was required and outspokenness was discouraged. Slowly, he and other teammates began to feel like machines instead of men.
“You ever seen those horses in the parades that have those blinders on? That’s basically what you are,” the Panthers defensive tackle told Newsday about his three seasons in New England from 2010-12. “Some call it being a robot. And honestly, that’s how you start feeling. I got so lost into the Patriot Way. And a lot of guys get like that when they get there.”
But no longer is Love shackled by the restraints of monotony. With Carolina, he’s found a team that revels in winning, an organization that praises personality and a head coach who’s committed to understanding his players on a personal level.
“It’s completely opposite,” Love said of life with Belichick compared to Panthers coach Ron Rivera. “It’s night and day compared to here. That’s what I love about being a part of this organization.”
Be who you are. It’s simplistic but sage advice. And it’s an adage that has served the Panthers well to this point.
Rivera’s players — viewed as the new kids on the block — will face a storied franchise in the Broncos and a future Hall of Famer in Peyton Manning in Super Bowl 50 tonight. The teams couldn’t be any more different in terms of their style of play, their road to Levi’s Stadium and their quarterbacks.
Manning, 39, is a four-time AFC champion and a former Super Bowl MVP. His counterpart, Cam Newton, is 26 years old and playing in his first Super Bowl.
But while Carolina “crashed the party,” as Rivera put it this past week, his Panthers have no plans to change their winning formula.
“Keep your personality. Be who you are,” Rivera said of his message to the team during Super Bowl week. “Be true to yourself. Don’t be more, but don’t be less. Be exactly who you are. That’s what got us to where we are today.”
And his players can’t help but make an entrance. From the super-tight, $850 gold-and- Zebra-print Versace pants Newton wore on the team charter to the Bay Area last Sunday to the luchador mask cornerback Josh Norman wore during Super Bowl media night, it’s clear the Panthers don’t care about the opinions of outsiders.
Newton certainly feels that way. “His personality is ‘I’m here; I’m going to do it my way because it’s the right way,’ and we like that,” running back Jonathan Stewart said. “I think as a team, we gravitate toward that because it’s the right thing. I wouldn’t have any other QB over Cam, and it’s been fun this year.”
Criticisms of their confident nonconformity have taken center stage in recent weeks. But to understand the Panthers, you first have to understand their coach.
Rivera, the son of a U.S. Army chief warrant officer, grew up on five military bases in three different countries. That experience helped shape his foundation as a man and a head coach.
“I think there’s a lot of things you learn in terms of discipline, work ethic, chain of command,” said Rivera, a former linebacker and Super Bowl champion with the 1985 Chicago Bears. “I think growing up in that type of an environment has certainly developed me into the person I am today.”
But the military brat learned early on that being overly strict wasn’t always the best approach.
“I’ve come to realize that the one thing you’ve got to be careful of is, you don’t want to take who they are away from them by having too many rules and being too strict and too uptight about things,” Rivera said. “I’ve learned to be flexible with it. I think that’s part of my upbringing. It’s the military. You have to be able to adjust to things as they happen. I think that’s kind of what I’ve done — try to adjust and develop our own way and our own personality as far as this football team is concerned.”
And that’s why Love adores playing for the Panthers.
“[Cam] would not make it in New England,” the former Patriot said, referencing Belichick’s relationship with his quarterbacks.
Love took issue with the assumption that Newton is brash and conceited, adding that his quarterback exemplifies what it means to be a role model.
“He’s having fun, he’s able to be himself, he’s able to speak his mind if he needs to, and I love that,” he said. “That part gets lost sometimes in the game. And we haven’t lost that here. That’s why we’ve had success.”
And that’s why the Panthers aren’t the least bit fazed by the attention garnered by their fun-loving ways.
“That’s us and that’s how we got here,” linebacker Shaq Thompson said. “All the negativity is going to come with it, but that’s our personality and we aren’t going to change for anybody. Football is about having fun, and people forget how to see the game. You got to have fun out there, and that’s what we do. We are having fun, being ourselves expressing our personalities. Like Coach always says, you got to be yourself and you shouldn’t change for anybody.”