|Stephen Dunn / Getty Images|
|Time has healed Ken Lucas' facial breaks and bruises; forgiveness has healed his relationship with Steve Smith.|
Ken Lucas deserved selection on every 2009 Pro Bowl ballot. This Carolina cornerback is the Christmas Day story of this NFL season. He bestowed upon the Panthers more than four months ago an invaluable Christmas present.
The gift of forgiveness.
It was on Aug. 1 during a training camp practice when Lucas was attacked by teammate and receiver Steve Smith. The Panthers receivers and defensive backs had fiercely battled throughout camp. Smith had griped about being illegally held and bumped during routes. Special teams were on the field when Lucas was on the sideline kneeling as Smith stood over him. Then Smith sucker-punched Lucas at least twice, resulting in a Lucas bruised eye and broken nose.
The Panthers were in crisis.
Sure, Smith would be benched for two games, he would apologize and the Panthers would support Lucas. But, really, the crux of this situation was how Ken Lucas was going to handle it.
|Steve Smith had to be held back after brutally attacking Ken Lucas in training camp.|
» Smith video: 'I made a mistake'
Would he seek instant retaliation? Plot a later retaliation? Conquer and divide the team by demanding teammates choose sides between himself and Smith? Press charges? Press retribution, vengeance, a sordid payback?
Lucas did none of this.
He accepted Smith's apology. He accepted Smith's offer of renewed friendship.
And that set the tone for the Panthers' 11-4 season and chance at New Orleans on Sunday to claim the NFC's No. 2 playoff seed.
How many would choose the path Lucas did?
"It was a much bigger picture for me," Lucas said. "The team was bigger. God's will is bigger. I thought to myself, well, there are a lot of different ways to retaliate. And forgiveness is easy to talk, not easy to do. But I knew it wasn't about what I wanted to accomplish, but what the team wanted to accomplish. I knew if I didn't think any other way, we might not have the chance to be where we are now."
Think about it. Football players are taught aggression and live it on every down. Yet, Lucas was able to separate his most volatile football mentality from his spirituality, his humanity. And produce a solid season at cornerback for the Panthers, to boot.
Former NFL cornerback Troy Vincent says Lucas is a rare man.
"We don't know what escalated things to that point -- there are always three sides to a story," Vincent said. "We do know that Ken Lucas was physically attacked by a teammate and that people saw that on TV highlights not just in America, but around the world. Those pictures will last for his lifetime and beyond. You know how we are. You know how people are, how they judge. Every time that man walked into that facility afterward, every time he has been in public, people remember him being on the ground. People think: 'That's the guy that let someone take advantage of him. That got beat up. That's the guy who got his tail whipped. That got dropped.' That, alone, is a challenge to overcome.
"Someone just basically challenged your manhood in front of your football family? Who wouldn't respond in a confrontational way? It truly shows what he is. He is class, dignity and respect. Yet, that part of it is not a glamorous story. I haven't seen this as anybody's cover story. I don't see that story among the football highlights. This could have been a ticking bomb that exploded among the Panthers for the entire season. But Ken Lucas did a great thing. He forgave. And gets a reward, and so does his team with the kind of season they are having."
Lucas said he has never worried about being the brunt of jokes.
"God takes the negative away," Lucas said. "Any non-believer might not understand that and I realize that. But forgiveness is not just for us. It is for God's glory. I did the right thing."
Lucas turns 30 next month. This is his eighth NFL season and fourth with the Panthers. Seattle selected him in the 2001 draft from Mississippi. He was born in Cleveland, Miss., has 24 career picks and over the last eight years has been a solid NFL cornerback. He has been responsible, professional in his work habits. His post-career goals are to help needy children around the world by building homes and schools and opportunities for them to attend college.
The man stands out more than the player to Pastor Tim Johnson, an NFL defensive tackle from 1987 through 1996 and who helped lead Washington over Buffalo in Super Bowl XXVI.
Johnson is now pastor of the Orlando World Outreach Center.
"That kind of incident can be tragic for any team," Johnson said. "I see many of these young men in the NFL nowadays who are childish and self-absorbed, not a 'we' mindset but a 'me' mindset. There is a clear lack of integrity, professionalism, maturity, not across the board, but too many shenanigans and too much thug mentality and too much Hollywood style.
"And then you get a guy like Ken Lucas. We need to talk more about them. This is a guy who represents me."
Panthers coach John Fox, who suspended Smith for the first two games of the season for punching Lucas, has a gift for building unity on his teams, of making sure they understand that their strength is in their numbers. The group makes the individual strong, Fox preaches, and his players respond. This is the culture of the team he and his coaches and management have built in Carolina.
Ken Lucas took it to a higher level.
He is the NFL's Christmas Day story.
"Me and Steve have a friendship off the field that wasn't there before and I am thankful for that," Lucas said. "Family and friends have brought their problems more to me since this happened, seeking advice. I can give them the example of myself. What is good for mankind? That is a question we should always answer before acting. The glory is not for us."
"The Giants game reinforced to us that we can go as far as we want to go," Lucas said. "We have to dust ourselves off -- and get ready for the next thing."
Something Lucas has already done.