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Stewart's bizarre NFL debut with Panthers

SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) -While the start of training camp is tough on just about every rookie, few spend the night before the first practice at a Motel 6 after being banished from the team complex.

Few are then awakened at 6 a.m. with a text message saying to show up an hour later to sign their contract.

A more familiar plight is getting drilled to the turf by a veteran linebacker minutes into the first workout.

It all happened to Carolina Panthers first-round pick Jonathan Stewart.

Welcome to the NFL, kid.

The running back's bizarre first 24 hours as a professional started in Charlotte, N.C., where Stewart was holed up until his agent, Ben Dogra, could come to terms on a contract with Panthers general manager Marty Hurney. As negotiations dragged on, Stewart missed the opening team meeting. But by late Friday afternoon, Dogra told Stewart they were close to a deal and he should drive to Wofford College.

"So I made my way here and they told me it wasn't done yet and you're not supposed to be here," Stewart said Saturday. "I had to find somewhere to stay."

Stewart would soon receive a five-year deal worth about $20 million, including $10.8 million in guaranteed money. But when Stewart drove off campus, he needed budget accommodations.

"Because I had no money," Stewart said.

Stewart spotted the Motel 6 near campus and checked in. The 13th overall pick from Oregon then set his alarm for 7 a.m. Saturday, but he was awakened an hour earlier with a message that he needed to sign his new contract. He checked out of the Motel 6 - perhaps the last one he'll ever stay at - and drove to Wofford to become a millionaire.

"I think everyone else around me feels good about me being here," Stewart said. "It also makes me feel good."

While the Panthers hope Stewart brings the bruising, ball-control style of offense missing since their Super Bowl season of 2003, he opened his first practice as the backup to DeAngelo Williams.

It also didn't take long for the 5-foot-10, 235-pound Stewart to find out he's not playing in the Pac-10 anymore.

Early in the practice, Stewart took a handoff and went straight ahead - into linebacker Thomas Davis. While contact is supposed to be limited, Thomas hit him square and Stewart landed on his back.

"We were just out there playing hard and competing," Davis said. "I got the opportunity, so I wanted to welcome him to the league."

Stewart learned quickly. On his next carry he quickly bounced to the right and found a whole for a big gain.

"He said he really didn't hit me that hard. I don't know," Stewart said of Davis. "He came in free and it was a hit. I got up from it, so that's the end of that."

Overall, he was pleased with how his surgically repaired toe held up. Injured late last season at Oregon, Stewart hadn't practiced since November. The injury kept him out of all offseason workouts.

"I can feel it, but it's one of those things where it's bearable and it's going to get better as the year continues," Stewart said.

Stewart later dropped a pass in the flat, drawing jeers from his veteran teammates. It's clear Stewart needs to catch up to claim the starting job vacated when DeShaun Foster was released in the offseason.

"Certainly for Jonathan, this is very new to him," quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "This is minicamp to him. He did not get to have the 16 practices that we've had already. But you can tell that he's pretty powerful, he's pretty explosive."

With the toe still a concern, the Panthers are expected to limit Stewart to one practice a day early in camp.

"We'll be cautious with him moving forward just because he is getting in football shape as well as getting used to carrying pads," coach John Fox said. "But he looked good for a first day."

An eventful, unique and unforgettable first day.

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