To most Vikings players, the Carolina Panthers don't provide a wealth of happy memories. The year the Panthers went 1-15, their only win of the season came at the Metrodome. In 2005, the fate of the Vikings franchise took a dramatic turn when Mike Tice called a quarterback draw on the final play of the first quarter and it worked to perfection – until defensive back Chris Gamble got a 20-yard run at Culpepper and, due to Pepp's size, went low to make a tackle. The result was a torn anterior, medial and posterior cruciate ligaments in Culpepper's knee and proved to be the final play of his Vikings career. In that same game, Steve Smith gained more than 200 yards receiving and marked the beginning of the end for Fred Smoot as a member of the Vikings.
But not all of the Vikings have bad feelings about the Panthers. There's one who considers many of them among his closest friends. Linebacker and special teams ace Vinny Ciurciu spent his first four years with the Panthers before the Vikings made him a strong free-agent offer to come to Minnesota. He is in his second year with the Vikings, but still has strong ties to the Panthers organization – from his teammates to the strength and conditioning personnel to the employees of the organization.
"I have quite a few friends with the Panthers," Ciurciu said. "It's going to be cool to see them and get a chance to talk to them. You try to keep in touch, but it isn't always easy."
Ciurciu's four years with the Panthers got off to a great start in his rookie year. Released at midseason by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Ciurciu was quickly scooped up by Carolina to be a special teams player and his season culminated with a trip to the Super Bowl, where his Panthers lost to the New England Patriots. While the Panthers haven't enjoyed a lot of success since the NFC Championship in 2003, Ciurciu said it hasn't been that the team has been on an up-and-down roller coaster. He says they still have most of the same positive attributes that made them a conference champion, but that, like a handful of NFL organizations, seem to be annually snake-bit by injuries.
In 2007, the Panthers were off to a 2-1 start that included a pair of road victories and things were looking up. Late in the third game, QB Jake Delhomme suffered a severe right elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. In three games, he had eight touchdown passes and the Panthers were being discussed among the elite teams of the NFC. As had happened in the previous couple of seasons, the bottom fell out, as injuries to players like Delhomme and DE Julius Peppers robbed the Panthers of some of their top stars.
"When I was there – and for the last couple of years too – it was injuries that held the team back," Ciurciu said. "Whenever we were healthy when I was there, we were a good team. I think we proved that. But when you get key injuries, it can really hurt you and you can tell by their record over the past few years when they've been healthy and when they've had injuries."
Even though he is gone from the Panthers, he will always have a strong emotional tie to the area. He met his wife Jaclyn, who grew up in Charlotte, while playing for the Panthers and the two were married earlier this year. With much of her family located in that area, they return to North Carolina a few times a year. Although it doesn't always give him a chance to catch up with his old teammates, he does remain in pretty consistent contact with a lot of them.
"It's more text messaging than anything else," Ciurciu said. "I go back to Charlotte occasionally, so I see some of the guys. But there are a lot of them that I haven't seen since I left, so it will be cool to catch up with them. But once the game starts, they won't be my friends for a few hours."
As the Panthers prepare to invade the Metrodome again Sunday with designs on improving to 3-0 and plunging a dagger into the playoff hearts of the Vikings, Ciurciu said the start of the 2008 season isn't going to get any easier. Most people thought there was a decent chance that the Vikings could lose at Green Bay, the defending division champ with a 13-3 record, and Indianapolis, which was 13-3 as well in 2007. But the Panthers? Ciurciu said that nobody on the Vikings is underestimating Carolina because they're healthy and, when they are, they are extremely dangerous.
"They've looked very good," Ciurciu said. "They've had to come from behind in both of their games and that is what good teams do. They're running the ball really well and their defense is playing great. We expect them to come in here and play the same way. They're going to be tough on both sides of the ball. We're going to have to play at a top level to beat them, because they don't give away much."
Ciurciu: Former team strong when healthy
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