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Ben Boulware gearing to fight sting of going undrafted: 'I make plays'

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There's a statue outside Bank of America Stadium of a 5-foot-9 linebacker who spent most of his young life being told he was too small and too slow to play football, who in 1981 wasn't selected in what was then a 12-round NFL draft.

After a brief stint in the USFL, this undersized linebacker went on to become a five-time Pro Bowl selection during a 12-year NFL career that a few years ago earned him a nomination for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

No one is suggesting Ben Boulware (6-1, 238) will be the next Sam Mills, who died of cancer in 2005. But the undrafted rookie linebacker out of Clemson has many of the same characteristics that earned Mills a permanent spot on the stadium grounds.

That's why the Carolina Panthers didn't hesitate to sign Boulware on Saturday after the heart and soul of Clemson's national championship team was bypassed during last week's seven-round draft.

"He's instinctive. He's tough. He will tag your fanny," Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman said. "He's smart. He's all the stuff we're looking for."

Boulware, the 2016 recipient of the Jack Lambert Award given to the best linebacker in college football, just wasn't one of the seven players Carolina drafted. He is the first to tell you he wasn't happy about that. He particularly wasn't thrilled that the Panthers selected a kicker -- Georgia Tech's Harrison Butker -- over him in the seventh round.

"It hurt a little bit," Boulware told ESPN. "I'm sure he's a great player and a great kicker. I'm sure that was a need on their team.

"But I would have loved to have been that pick."

Boulware, who grew up a Panthers fan less than two hours from Bank of America Stadium in Anderson, South Carolina, would have loved to have been picked by any team. He watched every selection of every round from Thursday to Saturday.

"It sucked," Boulware said. "It was a long three days. I was by my phone the whole time waiting for a call and didn't get one."

Not until after the draft, when Carolina coach Ron Rivera called.

"That eased the pain a little bit," Boulware said. "But honestly, I wish he'd called me a little earlier."

Boulware had an inkling he might go undrafted based on what the pundits were saying. He shared this message on social media before the draft:

"I'm in the business of proving people wrong," Boulware said. "They said I would never play for Clemson or never start or never make an impact. I was a consensus All-American the past two years, so I'm not really sweating what the critics say.

"I'm really not trying to prove anybody wrong. I'm trying to prove myself right, that I'm capable of playing at this level, because I know I am."

That message shouldn't come as a surprise. Taking a dig at ESPN analyst Desmond Howard, who in November called the Clemson linebackers the Achilles' heel of the defense, he had a picture of the national championship trophy tattooed on his own Achilles.

That's not his only tattoo, by the way. He has another, just below his shoulders stretching from one side of his back to the other, depicting the biblical story of Daniel in the lion's den.

"Daniel, has your God been able to rescue you from the lions?" Daniel answered, "May the King live forever!"

A post shared by Ben Boulware (@benboulware7) on

Boulware always has played with a chip on his shoulder because of the doubters. He'll do the same in the NFL.

"I feel a lot of guys get drafted off combines, their 40 times, and how big they are and the measurables," Boulware said. "Teams try to draft track stars and basketball players that jump high.

"Guys like me get lost in the shuffle. But this isn't basketball or track."

Boulware ran the 40-yard dash in 4.89 and 4.85 during Clemson's pro day. Temple's Haason Reddick, the first linebacker selected in this draft (No. 13, Arizona), posted a 4.52 40 at the combine.

"So it is what it is," Boulware said. "I know I'll have a lot longer career than some of those other guys that get drafted high off their 40 times."

Fortunately for Boulware, Gettleman doesn't pay attention to how fast players run 40 yards "in their underwear." He looks for production.

In that department, Boulware stood out. He had a team-high 116 tackles, 11.5 for loss, and four sacks last season. He had 82 tackles, two interceptions and seven pass breakups as a junior.

The stat that stood out the most to Rivera? "He's a winner," he said. "I want to watch him compete."

Boulware isn't naive enough to think he can compete for a starting job. Those are set with Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson.

Boulware is at Carolina to provide depth and play special teams, where he made his name at Clemson during his first two seasons. He's also here because he's a leader and a solid locker-room presence, much like Kuechly, the player he models himself after.

Asked what he can bring to the Panthers, Boulware gave a Kuechly-like answer.

"I make plays," he said. "It's as simple as that. I don't mean that in an arrogant way or cocky. I make plays. That's all I've done over the past three years, so I'm not going to change that."

The only thing Boulware wishes he could change is not being drafted.

"I felt like I was deserving to get drafted," he said. "I thought my tape proved that, who we played and how I played in those games.

"It was a long weekend, but I'm good. I'm ready to play ball."