JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - After waiting more than a year to get into an NFL game, Deon Grant wasn't going to let a little sleep deprivation spoil his professional debut.
As the starting free safety for the Carolina Panthers, Grant played every play of every defensive series in the first half Friday night, even sticking around for select special teams service.
A year after a fractured hip ended his rookie season before it began, Grant was thrilled to be a part of the action - even if it did end up an 18-16 preseason-opening loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars at Alltel Stadium.
"It's something I looked forward to all my life to make it here, and I finally made it here," said Grant, who played for Josey High in Augusta. "I was very anxious. I couldn't sleep last night just thinking about it. I was so excited that the Lord just put me in a place where I could come back after the injury I suffered."
Grant didn't have time to let any opening-night jitters bother him. The Panthers opened the game on defense, and it took only 16 seconds before Grant registered his first tackle by shoving Jags receiver R. Jay Soward out of bounds after a 12-yard gain.
The questions about whether Grant could level a hit got answered on the second series when he stepped up and delivered a blow that brought down workhorse rusher Stacey Mack after another 12-yard play. Grant knocked down Mack again in the second quarter after another burst into the secondary that ate up 14 yards.
The only disappointment Grant had Friday was that the Jaguars never tested him in pass coverage.
"They didn't throw anything deep, so I really didn't get a challenge," he said. "So, I really can't say how it is to be in an NFL game. I love competing and love talking junk. But I wasn't talking any tonight because I wasn't doing anything."
After playing the entire half, Grant wasn't ready to leave the game to let reserves audition for roster spots. He wanted to taste a little more action.
"I wanted to play the whole game," he said. "When they pulled me off the field I said, 'Coach, I can go another half.' I didn't do anything in the first half, is how I feel. So I wanted to keep going."
Friday's debut was a dress rehearsal for next week's game in Charlotte, N.C., against the New England Patriots when Grant's family and friends will flock en masse to see him.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219.