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Monday, August 15, 2011

Panthers' Pilares grabs the spotlight

SPARTANBURG, S.C. — When you think of football players from Hawaii, you probably envision 330-pound linemen, the big and burly types with plenty of extra skin to shake at a luau.
Guys like Olin Kreutz, Toniu Fonoti and Maake and Chris Kemoeatu, big body men who take up space in the middle of the field and two seats on an airplane but can’t put the pineapple in the end zone.
You don’t often think of speedy wide receivers.
But Carolina rookie Kealoha Pilares is out to change all of that.
Pilares, a native of Honolulu who played at the University of Hawaii, turned some heads during his NFL debut Saturday night, catching his first pass as a professional from Derek Anderson and using some blazing speed to turn that into a 35-yard touchdown reception to seal Carolina’s 20-10 preseason win over the New York Giants.
“I knew I was going to get in there, so I had to keep my nerves in check,” Pilares said. “I really focused on what I had to do. But after the first couple of plays playing special teams, it all came down to it being just another football game.”
You can’t really blame Pilares for being a little nervous.
He’d never been to an NFL game in his life prior to Saturday night.
He’s not used to playing in front of 70,000 people.
Out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the closest thing they have to the NFL is the University of Hawaii, but the crowds at Aloha Stadium pale in comparison to those at Bank of America Stadium, even at a preseason game.
Although Hawaii is a state — and I point that out because there are more than a few geographically-impaired folks out there who’ll argue it isn’t — it’s so far removed from mainland that Hawaiians often view themselves as their own entity. They’re a community. They depend on each other. That’s probably natural considering they’re five hours behind everything that happens on the East Coast and so far removed from the news that affects most of the United States.
When it’s 9 a.m. here, most Hawaiians with jobs are still sleeping. And when Pilares puts on a jersey for Sunday games, it will only be 8 a.m. back home.
But there’s also a unique sense of pride when one of their homegrown stars makes it big in on the mainland. It’s a little like actor Bill Pullman, who exploded into a star in Hollywood but remains beloved in his tiny hometown of Hornell, N.Y.
So with each catch he makes, Pilares feels the support of the folks back home. After his touchdown reception, Pilares’ cell phone was bombarded with messages from the island.
They were still coming in on Monday. Hey, remember the time difference.
“People are just so proud of me,” Pilares said. “And that’s what I’m here for — to make them proud. I represent family and my state, so I try to do my best.”
Pilares feels indebted to Davone Bess, a fine receiver who preceded him at Hawaii and made an impact with the Miami Dolphins. Bess’ success in the league may or may not have influenced Carolina’s decision to take Pilares in the fifth round of this year’s NFL draft, but he can’t help but think it did.
Regardless, the Panthers are growing happier they took a chance on Pilares with each passing day.
He’s one inch taller and 15 pounds heavier than Steve Smith, but plays a lot like him. He doesn’t look big at first glance but has strong, thick and muscular legs and a solid upper body to match. He’s viewed primarily as a slot receiver, one of those crazies that isn’t afraid to run a slant route across the middle and take an unexpected hit.
That’s how he made a living at Hawaii.
After two seasons at running back, Pilares moved out to receiver and turned in some big numbers with 88 receptions for 1,306 yards and 15 touchdowns last season.
“I believe that’s one of the strengths of my game is being able to catch the ball and doing that after,” Pilares said. “That’s what I pride myself on.”
That, and playing like a madman on special teams, letting little distract him while running down to cover punts and kickoffs. It’s because he plays each play hard. Pilares grew up loving football, but his parents wouldn’t let him play until he was in the fifth grade.
Once he put on the cleats, he loved it.
He swore off the waves, saying football injuries can be tough to deal with but “surfing ones can be life threatening.” He aspires to be the fastest man on two feet in Hawaii rather than the best on a board surfing the Banzai Pipeline on Oahu’s north shore.
Coach Ron Rivera raved about Pilares after Saturday night’s game, saying, “The young man shows his run after catch, and that was probably the thing that intrigued us the most. Kealoha did an excellent job catching the ball, turning up field and getting what he could and then breaking it. I was really excited about that. I watched him on special teams and thought his energy was outstanding.”
Where Pilares fits in the Panthers depth chart remains anyone’s guess. The truth is it’s still too early to know. He’s somewhere around No. 5, although it’s hard to imagine the team not keeping him on the 53-man roster.
Pilares is out to prove he can make the team and more. He’s out to make the folks from Hawaii proud.
And so far he’s off to a nice start.

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