CHARLOTTE, N.C. - There are many ways to prepare yourself to be part of a conference championship team, but Deon Grant's method might be the most unique.
While some NFL players get their edge through film study, tireless weight training or repetitive workout drills, the Carolina Panthers free safety traces his success to the basketball court.
Grant, who played football and basketball at Augusta's Josey High School, spent each of the past two off-seasons playing summer-league basketball with NBA-caliber players, including fellow Augusta area products Ricky Moore, William Avery and Vonteego Cummings.
Grant believes the hardwood helped restore his strength after suffering a nearly crippling broken hip four years ago.
"That's what got me to be the player I am this season," Grant said of his unconventional off-season workout program. "I got a lot stronger, got my ups back and probably got faster than what I was. Running up and down that court I'd have to say strengthened my hip."
Safe to say most NFL players don't keep in shape by playing summer basketball with players such as former North Carolina stars Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison and Jeff McInnis. Dallas Cowboys quarterback Quincy Carter played with Grant two years ago in Oklahoma and San Francisco 49ers receiver Terrell Owens and Green Bay Packers linebacker Darren Sharper were occasional opponents this past summer.
"I'm the only guy that plays football who's on the team," he said of his summer squad. "I don't play too hard because I don't have a contract."
Considering Grant fractured his hip during training camp practice as a rookie, playing competitive basketball might not seem like the most sane rehab prescription. It's doubtful that it was recommended by the surgeon who warned Grant that he might never walk normally again, much less start 50 consecutive NFL games.
"The coaches don't even know about it," Grant said of his potentially risky hobby. "If I re-sign with them it will be something they probably bring up."
As a member of Carolina's often overlooked secondary, Grant doesn't get the kind of attention heaped on the Panthers' more marquee players. But his two-sport talents have teammates arguing that Grant might be the best overall athlete on the team - which is saying something considering 2002 No. 1 draft pick Julius Peppers played in a Final Four as a freshman at North Carolina.
"It's a toss-up," Grant said. "There are some things I can do that Julius can't do and some things that Pep can do that I can't do."
Secondary mate Mike Minter agrees: "It would be a toss-up between Deon and Pep. I would have to go with Peppers because he's 290 and doing the things he's doing."
It's Peppers and his line mates that garner most of the praise for Carolina's defensive strength that helped lead the Panthers to Sunday's NFC Championship Game at Philadelphia. But with talented athletes such as Grant, Minter and rookie cornerback Ricky Manning, the Panthers have consistently contained opposing pass offenses.
They even beat the Indianapolis Colts and Rams this season, the No. 1 and 3 passing teams in the NFL respectively.
"People are overlooking us but that's a motivation factor for me," Grant said of the secondary's lack of respect. "You got to look at all the games and all these top-notch passing offenses that we've played. We always held them under their average. But they're still saying it's not the secondary, it's the front seven. Regardless of what front four or front seven you put out there, you put a weak secondary behind them (opponents are) still going to meet their average."
Like a true basketball player at heart, Grant relishes all the trash talk about the Panthers.
"Say it a little louder," he said. "Because that makes us motivated to go out there and take Philly's head off."
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.