SPARTANBURG, S.C. - Making the Carolina Panthers' roster wouldn't be a complete shock for Mitch Running. He's been beating the odds in football for a number of years.
Running, a free agent, is trying to catch on with the Panthers as a wide receiver, a position where players who were high draft choices are his main competition.
This year, the 10 wide receivers in the Panthers' training camp include Rae Carruth, Carolina's top pick in the 1997 draft. But while Carruth and many of the other wideouts have had their share of embarrassing drops, Running consistently has made good catches during the first two weeks of camp at Wofford College.
Running's strong performance has helped him work up the depth chart, and this week, he even found himself getting some playing time with the first-team offense.
Now that he's worked his way into prominence, the question remains: Who is this guy?
"We don't know much about him," coach Dom Capers said. "What we do know about him, though, we like. He's gone through our offseason work and been a steady performer there. Then he went through our two minicamps and did well there. And now he's doing well here."
That pretty much follows the pattern of Running's football career.
He was a vital part of a state championship team at Decorah High School in Decorah, Iowa, but because he was a 5-foot-11, 170-pound option quarterback as a senior, he attracted no interest from colleges.
"I couldn't even get a Juco offer," he said.
Running went to Kansas State and walked on, hoping to make the team as a wide receiver. By the time he graduated in 1995, he had 133 receptions, third on the school's all-time list, and his 1,821 yards put him fourth on the Wildcats' career charts. In his senior season alone, Running had 51 receptions for 756 yards.
Once again, there was no interest on the next level in a wide receiver who by then had grown to 184 pounds and become known for possessing decent speed, running good routes and catching the ball in traffic.
After going undrafted, Running signed with the Houston Oilers, made their final roster and spent the 1996 season on the team's practice squad.
He could have gone back with the Oilers this year, but he also got a call from the Panthers, who lost their top two wide receivers from 1996 through free agency.
"It sounded like a better opportunity for me here," he said.
Running compares his latest quest to being a walk-on in college.
"You have to prove yourself," he said. "You don't come in with a free lunch. You're not granted a few benefits that a drafted player might have. You've just got to work a little bit harder."
That hard work has helped Running create some of his own breaks. He's also gotten a chance because of minor injuries that have limited the playing time of some of the Panthers' other wide receivers.
"Just because of injuries, I've wound up getting these extra reps," he said. "They're trying to find combinations right now, I think. And until the final cut, you can't say what's going to happen. Anything can happen in the next three weeks."