Weinke Returns Home

<P>Chris Weinke has played at the Metrodome before, but he's never gone against his beloved Vikings there. Sunday, he will.

Weinke, in his first NFL game, will be the starting quarterback when the Carolina Panthers open their season against Minnesota. Plenty of Weinke's family and friends will be on hand, but, he says, he hasn't had to line up tickets for them. They already have them.

Weinke grew up in Minnesota, and grew up a Viking fan. He tosses the names of Fran Tarkenton and Chuck Foreman around like household names (which they were where he grew up), but to many in the Panther lockerroom, they are unfamiliar names, or names of guys they've vaguely heard of.

Oddly, the pressure of having his first start occur in front of his home crowd, doesn't seem to bother this rookie. Part of it is because he's 29, part of it is that he's seen it all before. He's spent years riding busses in the minor leagues, while pursuing a baseball career. Part of it is because he's played in plenty of big games while leading Florida State.

There's also the element of low expectations. Folks aren't expecting much from the Panthers this year, and with top defensive back Mike Minter out for this game with a sprained knee, many expect to see the Vikings offense roll to an easy win. The Panthers, in fact, are the first team to start a season without a quarterback who has thrown an NFL pass on the roster, since 1977. Then, it was the New York Giants.

The Panthers are going with Weinke, Dameyune Craig (who has played in the regular season, but only as a receiver and running back), and Matt Lytle, who played one play for Seattle last year, but didn't throw the ball.

Panther fans are expected to have a lot of patience with the seemingly unflappable Weinke. He was drafted in the fourth round, and quickly moved to second on the depth chart. Jeff Lewis' somewhat unsurprising implosion in the pre-season, handed the starting reigns to Weinke much earlier than most expected. Weinke has made mistakes, but understands that this is a learning process, and doesn't let them faze him. He has quickly earned the respect as a leader among his teammates.

Should he lead the Panthers to a miracle upset in the opener...well, that's the kind of stuff legends are made of. Last time he played in the Metrodome, his high school team lost in the closing minutes.


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