BRADENTON, Fla. - On the bus ride to the Panthers' first practice Wednesdayat IMG Academy, head coach Ron Rivera learned that the Democratic National Convention grand finale scheduled for Thursday at Bank of America Stadium would be changing venues.
Rivera, however, doesn't regret that the Panthers changed venues in response to the DNC's initial plan. The team left Charlotte on Tuesday to prepare for Sunday's season opener at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"It's great to be here, it really is," Rivera said following Wednesday's practice. "There have been a lot of great things that have already come out of this with our team, and, hopefully, it helps us accomplish what we want as far as coming together as a unit. This is a great opportunity."
The IMG Academy football program certainly has made the Panthers feel at home, headed by one of their own. Former Panthers quarterback Chris Weinke was named the first director of the fledgling program less than three years ago, and he's already turned it into a state-of-the-art facility known for getting former college players ready for the NFL Draft and keeping them game-ready well after the draft.
"With the DNC coming to town, they were looking for a facility that would be able to host them," Weinke said. "After they found out they were opening with Tampa Bay, the staff came down, checked it out and felt comfortable with what we had to offer.
"We're proud of it. We pay attention to detail. We put in a lot of work for an NFL team to feel like we're capable of offering this to them."
Weinke, who played quarterback for the Panthers from 2001-06, enjoyed catching up with eight former teammates Wednesday, among them receiving targets Steve Smith (entering his 12th NFL season) and Ricky Proehl (now on the coaching staff).
Weinke also is intimately familiar the Panthers' two most recent first-round draft choices. Quarterback Cam Newton, the No. 1 overall selection in the 2011 draft, trained at IMG before and after his rookie-of-the-year season. Linebacker Luke Kuechly, the No. 9 overall pick in the most recent draft, trained at IMG before the NFL Scouting Combine.
"Cam was a joy to work with," Weinke said. "Here's a guy who came out of college with every accolade and great God-given ability. My whole purpose was to put him in an environment to flourish, to really give him the map to success. He came to work every single day with the right attitude. He was a sponge for knowledge.
"Luke, I have great respect for the guy. What I saw from him was that he got better every day when he trained here. He plays with great instincts and he's an even better person off the field. He's a guy that needs to be in Carolina's organization, a guy you can build a defense around."
Newton and Kuechly basked in a bit of a homefield advantage Wednesday, though Newton basked a bit too much for his taste.
"They forgot to remind me how hot it was going to be. I think the equipment guys played a trick on me, putting a heater inside my helmet," Newton joked. "In the NFL, you have able to make adjustments. This will say a lot about our team, how well we prepare and move forward."
Rivera has likened the practice set-up to a training camp atmosphere, hoping that the team unity created will pay dividends come Sunday.
Weinke harbors similar hopes.
"We're excited to have them here," he said. "I feel like the team will walk away from here feeling like this was a great place to prepare for their season opener."