Former Panthers DE Mike Rucker dancing outside of his comfort zone

Former Panther Mike Rucker puts on his dancing shoes (1:44)

Former Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker is going outside his comfort zone to participate in Dancing with the Stars Charlotte. It's not nearly as easy as chasing quarterbacks as he's quickly learned. (1:44)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Mike Rucker put a hand over his chest and gasped after a series of spins and lifts mixed in with what appeared to be a ball-change step.

"Three or four rounds of this might be tougher than training camp," the former Carolina Panthers defensive end said as he caught his breath.

Rucker, 40, wasn't training for a comeback, although the Panthers are looking for help at defensive end in free agency and the draft.

The 2003 Pro Bowl selection was training with Sarah Hayes Harkins for "Dancing with the Stars of Charlotte."

It not quite ABC's "Dancing with the Stars," in which professional dancers attempt to turn celebrities into Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers.

But the concept is similar in that local celebrities such as Rucker go outside their comfort zone with local dancers, all members of the Charlotte Ballet, such as Harkins.

They do it to raise money for the ballet and a charity of their choice instead of the giant mirror ball trophy.

"I knew how to get to the quarterback, but as far as being graceful and dancing it's definitely a different world," said Rucker, whose charity is the USO of North Carolina. "I don't know if I could get on TV and do what we just did, but it's definitely fun."

Rucker chased quarterbacks for the Panthers from 1999 to 2007. He had 55.5 career sacks, third in team history behind Julius Peppers (81) and Charles Johnson (63.5).

He helped the 2003 team reach the Super Bowl. He's now a commentator on preseason games for the Panthers Television Network.

But dancing might be his biggest challenge.

"I tell people I've competed in front of thousands and on TV, but you're in your comfort zone playing football," Rucker said. "You know what you're doing. You're prepared.

"I'm prepared in this, but I'm outside my comfort zone. It's a team sport in that I have a partner, but I have some individual things where the light is going to be on me."

The spotlight will be on Rucker and five other contestants on March 5 when they deliver a three- to four-minute routine at Knight Theater. One trophy will be given to the couple that raises the most money.

Another will be given to the contestant judged the best in competition.

Rucker wants the second one.

"I'm always a competitor," he said with a laugh.

Back to the weight room

Rucker grabbed Harkins' hand and launched her onto the right shoulder of his 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame.

It seemed effortless.

It wasn't like that the first time he tried six weeks earlier.

"I did it, but my arms started shaking," Rucker said. "Remember, I've been done [with football] for eight years. I really left the weight room.

"That's when I decided I needed to get back."

Harkins admitted she should have "eased him into that."

"I shouldn't assume that just because he's strong that the concept of lifting a human body would be as easy as lifting weights," she said.

Strength moves no longer are an issue for Rucker, who is 35 pounds lighter than his playing weight. Time in the weight room helped.

Spinning with Harkins in his grasp is another thing.

"Your center of gravity gets off," he said. "That's the most difficult part of this, finding my spot so I'm spinning without falling down.''

Dabbing ballerina

Harkins, a Panthers fan, would like nothing more than for quarterback Cam Newton to enter the competition.

"He has the spirit and the personality for it, for sure," she said.

Newton danced the Panthers all the way to the Super Bowl this past season. The league MVP made the Atlanta-based dance called "the dab" a household term when he did it for the first time following a touchdown on Nov. 15.

Harkins and a few members of the Charlotte Ballet did a tribute to Newton's dab and shared it on Twitter later that month.

There will be a dab in her routine with Rucker.

"There is like an ode to a dab," Harkins said with a laugh. "It's just very quick. I am hoping people will catch it."

Football players make good dancers

Rucker isn't the first Carolina player Harkins has worked with in this competition. Former wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad was her partner four years ago.

As with ABC's "Dancing with the Stars," in which former NFL players Emmitt Smith (Cowboys), Donald Driver (Green Bay) and Hines Ward (Pittsburgh) won the competition, Harkins understands why some football players successfully transition into dance.

"Because they're coordinated, number one," she said. "Also, physicality. If you have that natural sports ability, coordination, it's just as easy to pick up little things that we do in dancing."

Harkins sometimes uses football terms with Rucker to help him relate. Rucker said dance could have helped him as a player, particularly in terms of flexibility with his lower back.

"Particularly ballet," he said. "They're using a lot of their small twitch muscles."

Rucker didn't dance as a player, even after a sack.

"I just threw my Nebraska crossbones up," said Rucker, a second-round pick out of Nebraska in '99. "I stayed in my lane. I knew I wasn't a big dancer.

"But this is fun. It's opened up my eyes to another part of life."