Frenchman hopes to buck odds and make Panthers roster

SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) -His French accent sticks out among the players, as does his extensive bobsled experience.

Philippe Gardent, the first European-born player to win MVP honors in NFL Europa, insists he's no novelty act. Now, the 28-year-old hopes to take the next step and make a regular-season roster for an NFL team - even if some teammates give him quizzical looks.

"We're all trained to ask, 'Who's that guy? Is he tough? Is he smart? Can he play?"' Gardent said. "All those questions are answered on the field."

At 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, Gardent is big enough to play the position in the NFL. The Panthers decided to bring him into camp and can use a roster exemption dedicated for NFL Europa players.

"I'm the only non-American on the team. I'm the only player without college football experience in the whole league," Gardent said. "You have to be flexible."

The son of a ski instructor, Gardent grew up on the slopes and became France's No. 4 ranked junior skier in the downhill. But the sport was financially draining for his family, and Gardent felt he had gone as far as he could. At age 17, he started playing American football with friends in his hometown of Grenoble.

Gardent played in some French football leagues, and after college he was signed to play in NFL's European minor league.

He spent five seasons with various teams, moonlighting with the France's national bobsled team during the offseason. He had a shot to make the Olympic team but passed to keep playing football.

In 2006, Gardent led NFL Europa with 70 tackles for the Cologne Centurions and shared defensive MVP honors. After a stint on the Washington Redskins' practice squad last season, Gardent returned to Europe this spring where he had 77 tackles and was named to the All-NFL Europa defensive team.

But Gardent sometimes feels he's toiling in obscurity.

"I think some people understand what it is, but I think a lot of people don't even know what football means, what the rules are and how hard it is to be invited to training camp," Gardent said.

He was far down the linebacker depth chart during Tuesday's practice, even with first-round pick Jon Beason holding out and Na'il Diggs slowed by a hamstring injury.

Gardent blamed that on missing the team's earlier minicamps and voluntary workouts because he was playing in Europe.

"I think he's done a good job," coach John Fox said. "It's an extra guy in camp, and so far we've been pleased with what we've seen from him."

Gardent's dream is to make an NFL roster and help grow the sport in France, much like fellow countryman Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs did for basketball.

Already, a French television crew followed Gardent around training camp earlier in the week, and Gardent believes it would be a big deal in France if he made the Panther's 53-man roster.

Gardent didn't want to speculate what he would do if he doesn't make it in the NFL. He doesn't have the option of returning to NFL Europa, which is folding.

"I'm just trying to keep the dream going," Gardent said. "I'm just tying to stay alive in this world."

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