CHARLOTTE — THE PICK SIX is the ultimate play for a defensive back. Read the quarterback and receiver, intercept the pass and don’t stop running until you’re in the end zone.
“It’s a feeling I can’t really describe,” says Carolina rookie cornerback Josh Norman. “It’s like you’re untouchable.”
Norman intercepted a pass from Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler on Oct. 28 and took off as if propelled.
“It was like oooommmm,” says Norman, who imitates an engine that might belong to a Ferrari.
He charged the length of the field, from one end zone to the other, avoiding Cutler because if you let a quarterback get you your teammates will never allow you to forget. He dove into the Chicago end zone.
“There’s nothing sweeter,” he says.
There’s one thing sweeter.
It could have counted.
The Bears were attempting a two-point conversion. You don’t get points for running one back.
But you have to try. A pick six is so rare that in Carolina’s 18-year history there have been 23.
Mike Minter, who played safety from 1997-06, is the team’s career leader with four pick sixes. One other Panther has more than two — cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.
Munnerlyn, a former South Carolina standout, has three, two of them this season and has the footballs (he kept each) to prove it.
His first was in 2010, when he returned a pass by Cleveland quarterback Jake Delhomme 37 yards for a touchdown. He took one 33 yards this season against Seattle’s Russell Wilson and last week he intercepted Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman and returned it 77 yards.
As Munnerlyn sprinted downfield, he twice looked at the scoreboard.
Admiring your work?
“No, no, no,’ says Munnerlyn, 24. “I wanted to see if somebody was coming and how many guys I had behind me and who had the angle. I knew nobody was going to catch me. You got Josh Freeman back there and he’s a quarterback. I’d have been very ashamed if he caught me.”
What if the quarterback were a runner such as Carolina’s Cam Newton? Could he catch you?
“Oh, no,” says Munnerlyn, who ran a 4.35 40-yard dash at South Carolina and figures he can still run a 4.4. “A quarterback won’t catch me. I don’t care if you’re RGIII or Michael Vick.”
A pick six can alter a game. Until the late first-quarter interception last week, Carolina had been comatose. The Buccaneers were up 10-0 and driving. Munnerlyn’s touchdown meant the Panthers were in the end zone, on the scoreboard and in the game.
They would score 21 consecutive points before losing in overtime.
“I pride myself on being a game-changer,” says Munnerlyn. “Unfortunately, we didn’t get the win.”
The Panthers have three pick sixes this season, which ties their all-time high. Charles Godfrey had the third. They’re 1-2 in games with a pick six.
Minter, the special teams coach at Liberty, says returning an interception for a touchdown is “surreal.” He adds: “I still remember my first one like it was yesterday.”
The first one was 12 seasons ago against San Francisco. Attempting to tackle Minter was Jerry Rice, in his final stint with the 49ers.
“I have that picture,” says Minter, 38. “I show it to my players. I say, ‘You see that guy. He’s the greatest player to ever play in the NFL.’ ”
Minter means Rice.
Until I call, Minter doesn’t realize he has the all-time Panther record. But he likes it. He doesn’t mind, however, if Munnerlyn ties or breaks his record.
Minter was a star high school running back in Oklahoma. Munnerlyn is third all-time in Carolina punt return yardage. Minter says to score, running back or return skills are required.
And when you score?
“It’s exhilarating,” Minter says. “You don’t hear the crowd when you’re running. When you reach the end zone there’s this amazing noise.”
Some of it is created by excited defensive teammates smacking into the scorer.
“They jump all over you, hit you across the head,” says Munnerlyn. “I have to tell some of those big guys to watch out with those big hands. They’ll knock me out.”
Which big guy poses the biggest threat?
“You got to watch out for Charles Johnson (6-2, 285),” says Munnerlyn. “Thomas Davis (6-1, 235) is one of those aggressive guys that don’t mind hitting you across the head and think it’s OK. Me being a small guy (5-8, 190) I get a little dizzy out there.”
As Munnerlyn talks, he stumbles like a boxer who has taken too many punches.
While Munnerlyn awaits his record-tying pick six, Norman awaits his first. He hasn’t had one since he played for Greenwood High.
“You better watch out because when I get it I’m not going to just sit there in the end zone,” Norman says.
What will you do?
“You’ll see,” says Norman. “I’ll probably get on my Seabiscuit. It’s going to be fun.”