They left Houston the morning after the Super Bowl and flew back to Charlotte and met one last time as a team before calling it a season. Jake Delhomme had lost 10 pounds since training camp opened last July, and the skin on his arms was red with turf burns, and a head cold complicated by exhaustion had him blowing every few minutes into a pile of tissue. At the Carolina Panthers’ training facility Delhomme and his teammates had to undergo exit physicals with team doctors, but all that really meant was answering a single question: Are you hurt?
“I’m sore,”Delhomme replied when his turn came, “and my heart is hurt. But other than that, I’ll see you in April.”
Delhomme’s wife, Keri, and their 13-month-old daughter, Lauren, were already back in Breaux Bridge, La., and now the quarterback loaded up his black Lexus for the 12-hour drive home. He’d had only two hours of sleep, and though his body had little juice left, his mind was working overtime. Carolina’s 32-29 last-second loss to the New England Patriots kept visiting him in flashes so clear he might’ve been watching game tape.
Although Delhomme had played brilliantly in the last three quarters—he had passed for 211 yards in the final period alone, finishing 16 of 33 for 323 yards and three touchdowns—he kept returning to his desultory performance to start the game. Delhomme had completed only one of his first nine passes, a play that had netted one yard. The incompletions bothered him so much that, somewhere on the roa...