Hixon's is a story of perseverance, class

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A large, red, remote control boat took up most of the available space in Domenik Hixon's locker earlier this week. It was a Christmas present from fellow Carolina Panthers wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr.

"He knows I'm a big fishing guy, a big boat guy, so he thought that was right on, which it is," Hixon said with a smile.

It was hard not to notice the boat, sleek and flashy as one might expect a racing boat to be. In many ways, it represents everything that Hixon is not.

He's not one to draw attention to himself.

He's definitely not flashy.

And for the first 14 games of this season, he was hardly noticed.

Then on Sunday, Hixon made a play that made him stand out bigger than a cruise ship in the end zone at Bank of America Stadium.

With leading receiver Steve Smith sidelined by a knee sprain, Hixon caught a diving 14-yard touchdown pass with 23 seconds remaining to give the Panthers an improbable 17-13 victory over the New Orleans Saints.

That puts Carolina in position to win the NFC South and receive a first-round bye, if it beats Atlanta this weekend at the Georgia Dome.

"He's just a true pro," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said of Hixon. "He's a team player. I'm sure he wants to play more, but has never said a word."

Hixon, 29, signed as a free agent from the New York Giants to battle for the third receiver spot behind Smith and Brandon LaFell, but a preseason injury and the emergence of Ginn made Hixon a forgotten man in the Carolina rotation.

He had only three catches for 21 yards in the first 14 games, and none in the past five. But when Smith went out with an injury that will sideline him for Sunday's regular-season finale, Hixon was prepared to make plays, just as Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman -- a former member of the Giants' organization -- promised he would when he signed him.

"One of the things Dave always says is, if this guy can stay healthy, he's as good as anybody he's been around in terms of doing all the little things," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. "He just knows what it takes to win."

Much has been made about outside linebacker Thomas Davis coming back from three consecutive season-ending ACL surgeries on his right knee to have the best season of his career. But Hixon's story also is amazing in that he had the same surgery on his right knee in 2010 and 2011.

Were it not for the injuries, who knows -- Hixon may have been in position for the five-year, $43 million deal former teammate Victor Cruz got in New York earlier this year.

And he may never have been available for Gettleman to sign to a one-year deal.

Hixon doesn't dwell on that.

"I say God has a plan," he said. "I'm happy for Cruz. Great guy, and he hasn't changed. I may have gotten that money and been nothing on the field."

What Hixon brings to the Panthers (11-4) goes beyond what he can do on the field. He brings a level of professionalism and leadership to the locker room that you can't put a price on.

He also brings a winning attitude. Although injuries kept him from being in the spotlight, he earned two Super Bowl rings during his time with the Giants. In the 2007 NFC Championship Game, he had a 33-yard kickoff return to jump-start one touchdown drive and recovered a fumble in the fourth quarter to help secure a 23-20 win against Green Bay.

Again, he does the little things that often go overlooked but are keys to success. Again, he does these things without the ego that drives many wide receivers. Not once this season has he gone to Gettleman or his coaches and asked for more playing time.

"I'm really not the guy to go, 'Hey, why am I not playing?' " Hixon said. "I ask Coach how am I doing and what can I do better. Let everything work out."

Hixon is thankful he still has the opportunity to play.

"I remember after I tore my knee the second time, [I thought], 'Who's going to take a chance on me? Will you or won't you get it?' " Hixon said. "It was just about having the opportunity."

Hixon is getting that now. He'll alternate with Ginn in Smith's role against Atlanta. He'll have a chance to be in the spotlight.

But when Smith returns, Hixon understands that likely means going back to the shadows.

And that's OK with him.

"From a personal standpoint, everybody wants to play," Hixon said. "Who doesn't want to be a No. 1 receiver, getting 12 balls a game? But I like winning. Winning has been fun."