Mike & Mike
By Joshua Cooley
Carolina Panthers Mike Minter and Mike Rucker are more than teammates. They're brothers.
Mike Minter and Mike Rucker, two longstanding pillars in the Carolina Panthers’ defense, are the best of friends. But there’s one thing Minter, a safety, just can’t understand about his chum, a hulking defensive end.
|Mike Rucker (L) and teammate Mike Minter.|
Photo by Chuck Burton/AP Courtesy of the Carolina Panthers
“The guy’s 6-foot-5, 280 pounds,” marveled Minter, who checks in at 5-10, 195. “He’s a big guy and the scariest dude you could ever meet. But if he’s at home and hears a noise at night, he makes his wife go see who it is.”
Minter can’t get through the story without cracking up.
“He’s like a little baby,” Minter said, laughing. “He’s like a little, spoiled baby.”
Rucker, of course, denies such preposterous claims.
“No, that’s not true,” Rucker said, chuckling. “He blows things out of proportion. It’s not that bad.”
The two Mikes boast a camaraderie that is rare in professional sports. While there are plenty of tight-knit teammates who rib each other and enjoy playing together, the roots of this friendship go much deeper. Minter and Rucker are bonded by 11 seasons together as teammates in college and the NFL and, more importantly, their mutual faith in Jesus Christ.
“Proverbs 27:17 talks about iron sharpening iron,” said Chris Bubak, the FCA leader at the University of Nebraska, where the two players went to college. “I see that with those guys.”
Go ahead. Tell opposing quarterbacks that Rucker is a “little, spoiled baby.” They’ll laugh in your face.
Rucker has been terrorizing NFL offenses for eight years now, and Minter for 10. They rank at or near the top of numerous all-time categories in the Panthers’ 12-year history.
Football, it seems, has almost always come easily for the pair, and for a time, each put the game and all its grandeur on the highest pedestal in their lives. But, ironically, it was during the darkest hours of their careers that both felt the need for something more than the gridiron’s ephemeral glory.
|Mike Minter #30|
Hometown: Lawton, Okla.
NFL Experience: 10 yrs
Panthers Experience: 10 years
For Minter, a confluence of events led to his spiritual conversion. A native of Lawton, Okla., Minter was a burgeoning star at Nebraska when a knee injury wiped out most of his sophomore year in 1994, the first of the Cornhuskers’ back-to-back national championship seasons. The following summer, his wife, Kim, gave birth to Michael Jr., the first of their four children. Those experiences, coupled with the life witness of then-head coach Tom Osborne and Bubak’s on-campus ministry, all weighed heavily on Minter’s mind.
“I think it was more or less knowing that life had to be more than football,” Minter said. “All these things made me think, ‘What is life about?’”
That summer, Minter knelt beside his bed and accepted Christ. Soon, he was faithfully attending Bubak’s growing FCA Bible study on campus and being driven by Bubak to a variety of speaking engagements to share his faith. As the miles piled up on Bubak’s car, so did the valuable heart-to-heart discussions between spiritual mentor and pupil.
“He was such a great leader,” said Minter, who still talks to Bubak about once a month. “He got us focused on things that we needed to get focused on – not just football and winning championships.”
Rucker was raised in a strong Christian home in St. Joseph, Mo., but didn’t initially make his parents’ faith his own. Coming to Nebraska two years behind Minter, he also experienced great success in college – enjoying all three of the Cornhuskers’ national titles in the 1990s (including the ’97 co-championship with Michigan) – but was rattled by an injury. During the first game of his senior season in 1998, he suffered a severe groin pull. He still managed to earn second-team All-Big 12 honors that season, but the injury forced him to re-evaluate his priorities. That fall, he accepted Christ.
“Everything crumbled” after the injury, Rucker said, “because my identity was football. The Lord saw that my focus was not on Him. There was something between us. A couple weeks into the season, a light just clicked on – ‘OK, Lord, I understand it’s not about me; it’s about You. I’m giving it to You.’”
|Mike Rucker # 93|
Position: Defensive End
Hometown: St. Joseph, Mo.
NFL Experience: 8 years
Panthers Experience: 8 years
Bubak and FCA played a big role in Rucker’s remaining time at Nebraska, despite all of Rucker’s prior attempts to the contrary.
“All through college, I always ducked and dodged him,” Rucker admitted. “When life came crashing down, I tried to search him out. It was good. Once I knew the Lord had a purpose, it was a relief. I started going to Bible studies and other things.”
Since starting as an expansion franchise in 1995, the Panthers have experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. In their first 11 seasons, they reached the playoffs three times, including their lone Super Bowl appearance during the 2003 season, a 32-29 loss to New England. Just two years earlier, the team had gone 1-15.
The two Mikes have experienced much of the roller-coaster ride. Minter, 32, has been with the team since 1997, and Rucker, 31, since 1999. Because of their faith, both have a different outlook than many players on the fleeting fame of NFL life.
“The good thing is, God doesn’t change,” Minter said.
Statistically, the two players have carved their names indelibly into the young franchise’s record books.
Entering this season, Minter ranked as Carolina’s all-time leader in tackles (861), forced fumbles (16), fumble recoveries (9), interception returns for touchdowns (4), interception return yards (418), games started (125) and consecutive starts (78). He also ranked second with 16 interceptions and 61 special-teams tackles.
Rucker came into 2006 ranked first in career sacks (47.5) and second in career tackles (452). In 2002-03, he combined for 22 sacks, becoming one of only three players in team history to record at least 10 sacks in consecutive seasons. He also made the Pro Bowl in 2003.
The personal accolades, though, aren’t the focal point for either player.
Photo courtesy of the Carolina Panthers
“Anytime you do something, you want to be the best at it, so that’s what that is,” Minter said. “That’s what I want to do – I want to maximize the abilities God has given me.”
Said Rucker, “They’re good, but I think it goes back to what He’s got me here for. Touching people is the biggest thing.”
Both players are extremely active in the community. In June 2005, Minter, who was named the team’s 2005 Walter Payton Man of the Year for his charity work, and Rucker partnered with a few other teammates to start the Ruckus House Learning Center, a large child development facility in Harrisburg, N.C. Their ultimate goal is to have a franchise in every NFL city.
“It’s child care/day care stepped up to another level,” Minter said. “We want to teach your kid, develop your kid and let them know their purpose on earth. I think that’s the biggest thing missing in children.”
Rucker is a spokesperson for the United Way and works with the ALS Foundation to raise awareness and support for Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“The Lord has blessed us with a lot, and it’s only right for us to bless others and pay it forward,” Rucker said. “A lot of people look up to us and the way we carry ourselves. We have a big platform to touch a lot of people, and I believe that’s our purpose here.”
Minter aspires to become a high school coach and a pastor when he quits playing. Both seem to fit his charismatic personality perfectly.
“He’s well-spoken,” Bubak said. “A lot of guys are well-spoken, but not well-thought. Mike’s one that, when he shares something with you, he’s thought a lot about it and has gone to the Word. Mike’s a guy who knows the Word well.”
On the possibilities of future pastoral ministry, Minter said, “I’ve felt that calling from day one when I got saved. It’s something I’ll have to grow into and in faith. When God calls me, I’ll be ready.”
In the meantime, there’s a lot of football left to be played. The Panthers, a trendy preseason pick to challenge for the NFC title, started the season 0-2. But the team didn’t panic, especially not longtime veterans like Minter and Rucker who know the game’s ebbs and flows well.
Photo courtesy of the Carolina Panthers
In difficult times, the two Mikes have a solid support system within the team to lean on. They are blessed with a spiritual presence unique among many NFL teams. Besides their close friendship, they also have bedrock ties with kicker John Kasay, a strong believer and the only player left from the franchise’s inaugural 1995 team, and chaplain Mike Bunkley, among others.
“There has been a nucleus of guys that have been there awhile, and their locker room has taken on something different that you don’t see in most NFL locker rooms,” Bubak said.
The two Mikes, who didn’t become really close friends until several years ago, are now “peas in a pod,” as Bubak calls them. Their bond stretches well beyond their teammate status. Both their wives are both from Nebraska and their children are roughly the same age. The families live next door to each other in Charlotte and vacation together. At the center of it all is their Christian brotherhood.
“There’s nothing like it because I can talk to him about anything,” said Minter, who lost his mother in August. “Anytime you can open up and know you’re not going to get hurt, it’s phenomenal.”
Said Rucker, “I know a lot about him, and he knows a lot about me. That’s the key. When you can be honest with people and search for answers, that’s huge. We’re on the same page.”
The two have enjoyed national titles at Nebraska and a Super Bowl appearance together. Now, they’d like nothing more than to share the experience of winning a Super Bowl.
“I don’t just want to get there, I want to win it,” Minter said. “It’s a deal where I’m working hard and the rest of the guys are working hard to get there. I want to get there and make it happen, but at the end of the day, it’s not the most important thing.”