Original Panther enjoying healthy year at last

HOUSTON -- A knee ligament ripped first, then a kneecap cracked in half. A sports hernia followed.

All told, John Kasay was healthy at the end of only one season from 1999 to 2002.

So, last summer, the 33-year-old kicker whose left leg is held together by screws, pins and wire understood that the Carolina Panthers might not want to rely on him anymore.

"I didn't have a real good track record," he said.

Coaches waited until the final round of cuts during training camp, then opted to stick with Kasay. It has worked out quite well.

The Panthers are in the Super Bowl for the first time in their nine-year history, and Kasay, the last player left from the original squad, is a key reason why.

He kicked four game-winners during an 11-5 season, matching his total for all his other years in Carolina. Then he opened the playoffs with five field goals against Dallas, tying a postseason record.

He made three more in regulation the next week against St. Louis, helping the Panthers force overtime. On the opening drive, he made a 40-yarder that would've won it if Carolina hadn't been called for delay of game. Pushed back to 45 yards, he missed. The Panthers won with a touchdown in double overtime.

Kasay was only needed for extra points in the NFC championship against Philadelphia. It was just the second time this season he didn't attempt a field goal.

"I think he's been as good a representative as you can possibly have as far as his work in the community, in the locker room for me and, obviously, his abilities on the field," coach John Fox said. "He's a guy I am proud to be associated with."

Kasay broke in with Seattle, then he and defensive end Mike Fox became Carolina's first free-agent signees in February 1995. When the Panthers made the NFC championship the next season, Kasay set an NFL record with 37 field goals.

He was the league's most accurate kicker in 1999 until blowing out his left knee with three games left. The kneecap splintered in the first practice of the following training camp, knocking him out for the entire 2000 season. He went down again two games into the 2002 season.

Shayne Graham filled in pretty well and was given the chance to beat out Kasay in training camp last summer. Fox's choice of Kasay has worked out as well as switching quarterbacks from Rodney Peete to Jake Delhomme midway through the opener.

"I'm very appreciative and very thankful for the patience and persistence they've had in dealing with me and not throwing me under the bus," Kasay said. "They could've done that very easily."

Kasay's comeback -- no, comebacks -- have helped endear him to teammates, coaches and fans.

The son of a former strength coach at Georgia, Kasay accepted the hard work and punishment required to recover, time after time. He kept his wits by relying on his strong Christian faith.

"There were times when I didn't know if I could do it," Kasay said. "It was like, `Lord, if you want me to hang this up, let me know.' Fortunately, that hasn't happened yet."

Only three kickers have been with one team as long as Kasay has been with the Panthers. He's the only one who can say he has been with his franchise from the start.

The roots Kasay has grown in Carolina were best summed up Sunday, when thousands of fans stood in freezing rain to bid the team farewell and he recognized many faces.

"When the franchise started, there was a lot of hope," he said. "The expectations became very high very quickly after the 1996 season. I think for years after that, there was like, 'This might be the year like 1996' because nobody saw 1996 coming. ... That's kind of the way this year was."

The way it has gone, it would be fitting if the Super Bowl was decided late, maybe even by a field goal. It happened two years ago, the last time the New England Patriots were in it. Adam Vinatieri made the kick, a play Kasay calls his favorite Super Bowl memory.

This time, Kasay would gladly take on the starring role.

"The way this season has been," he said, "it wouldn't surprise me."