People who are as competitive as NFL players tend to have a lot of pride in what they do. When they get a chance to go up against former teammates, there’s a little extra juice involved, especially when it comes to heading back to a place you called home for five years.
When Minnesota Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and his teammates head to Charlotte for Sunday’s game with the Carolina Panthers, for most of the players, it’s just another day at the office against a daunting opponent that hasn’t lost at home in almost two years.
For Munnerlyn, the preparation for this game came when the 2016 schedule was released in April.
Sept. 25 was just another day on the calendar for most back in April.
Munnerlyn flipped his calendar forward and adorned that date in Sharpie.
“I definitely circled it,” Munnerlyn said. “I’m excited to go back and play against my old teammates and play in that stadium. I still do remind those guys that I do have a record there. At the same time, I want to just to go compete and help my team get a win.”
The coaching staff hasn’t consulted Munnerlyn about the Panthers personnel, much of which has remained the same since he played there. But, like all NFL teams, the turnover is significant, too – from Josh Norman on down.
Asked if the coaches were picking his brain, Munnerlyn deferred to their experience since the Vikings humbled Cam Newton and the Panthers at a frigid TCF Bank Stadium in 2014.
“We played them two years ago, so they know what they like to do,” Munnerlyn said. “They’re still in the same system. They like to run the ball. Cam can make every throw on the football field. He’s very big and very physical. He’s got some big receivers now and those guys are big and physical. At the same time, we’ve just got to do our job and stop these guys.”
As the rest of the world has come to know, Newton is a specimen at quarterback that is unique in the way he can dominate games. Munnerlyn knew him in his formative years and, even then, it was only the rest of the NFL catching up to what he was seeing that made Newton the new prototype for the modern NFL quarterback.
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"It was crazy,” Munnerlyn said of playing with Newton. “He's a very competitive guy that don't like to lose at anything. If you try to tie your shoe faster than him, he’s going to want to beat you in that. He's a guy who always wants to win every single thing. Being in the room with him, he was a great teammate and the practice battles were fun. He competes and we went out there and competed against him … and made plays on him.”
Munnerlyn spent his early 20s in Charlotte and his teammates were his extended family when he was with the Panthers. It’s a rite of passage in the NFL, where well-paid young men who excel at a game they love form a rare bond that goes beyond the 60 minutes of a game.
One of the first players to take Munnerlyn under his wing was linebacker Thomas Davis. He and Munnerlyn were more than teammates, they were family. With brothers by choice and not birth, there was always some serious jaw-jacking going on, but they became more than teammates.
“Thomas Davis was a groomsman at my wedding,” Munnerlyn said. “We talked trash the whole entire time I was in Charlotte. ‘We’re going to beat y’all.’ ‘No, we’re going to beat y’all.’ I texted him last week and (told him) make sure you beat San Fran because you don’t want to start the season 0-3. We’ve definitely been going back and forth, but I’m probably going to stop talking to those guys today.”
While there will be a little extra hitch in Munnerlyn’s giddy-up on Sunday to make his presence felt in a stadium that was home for five years, there is no bad blood when it comes to the Panthers.
They didn’t step up with a worthy contract offer and the Vikings swooped in and determined that he could excel in Mike Zimmer’s defense. Munnerlyn didn’t want to leave the familiar – as he rides the team bus from the airport to the hotel, there will be dozens of familiar sites he sees out the window that all have their own memories.
He isn’t bitter that the Panthers didn’t pony up with a second contract to keep him in Carolina, but he does have a little extra motivation to make the play that changes the game Sunday.
“I have no animosity toward those guys at all,” Munnerlyn said. “I spent five years there, but, at the same time, I have no animosity. I understand it’s a business and I had to make the best decision for my family and myself. Going against those guys, I’m going to treat it like a normal game, but, at the same time, I do want to win this one.”null