Antonio Gates, others help Devin Funchess leave his past behind

Devin Funchess had eight touchdown catches for the Panthers in 2017. AP Photo/John Bazemore

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Devin Funchess put himself on a monthly allowance of $8,000 in 2015 when the Carolina Panthers signed him to a four-year, $5.5 million contract as a second-round pick out of Michigan.

If you're doing the math, that's $96,000 a year and $384,000 over the course of the deal, meaning the 24-year-old wide receiver has put a large sum of money aside for the future.

If you're wondering why he would save so much in a world where football players sometimes spend more than $96,000 on a new car and in general spend like they're going to play forever, let Funchess explain.

"Have you ever been poor? Have you ever been through rough times? Financially unstable, had to move here and there?" Funchess said almost defiantly as he prepared for Tuesday's start to the Panthers' three-day mandatory minicamp. "You don't want to go back to none of that bull crap, right?

"This is why I do that. Once you're in a bad situation, you don't want to get in a bad situation [again]. That's why I put myself on an allowance. It's common sense."

Funchess found himself in many bad situations growing up in what he calls the "hood" in Detroit. He was evicted three times and remembers when he was fortunate to have a meal of Spam and Vienna sausages. His mother had a gambling problem that created financial difficulty, and he's had more than his fair share of people around him die, something he won't elaborate on.

Funchess also was fortunate to have good influences, starting with a grandfather who practically raised him and continuing with his cousin Antonio Gates.

Yes, the player Funchess calls the greatest tight end to play in the NFL has offered plenty of advice.

"Every time ... Keep working, Cuz. Don't get in trouble," Funchess recalled.

The positive influences have helped Funchess position himself to become financially stable beyond his wildest dreams.

If he can follow last season's breakout year with another solid season in 2018, Funchess will be in line for a huge contract from the Panthers or another organization.

In preparation for that future deal, Funchess has spent most of the offseason in Miami rehabbing a shoulder injury that slowed him during the second half of the 2017 season, instead of splitting time between Detroit and Miami as he normally does.

He also talked to Gates, an eight-time Pro Bowl selection, who at 37 is considering a 16th season.

"I look at him," Funchess said of Gates. "I pay attention to everything he does. I'm a quiet guy, and I made sure every time I watched him I see what he does. He's the greatest tight end to ever play this game, and that's what I strive for at the wide receiver position."

Work hard, stay out of trouble

It could have been a career-changing play for Funchess, one that would have put him on the path of potential greatness.

The Panthers, trailing 31-26, faced third-and-23 play from the New Orleans 34 with 19 seconds remaining in last season's first-round playoff game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The ball hung in the air seemingly forever as Funchess, left in single coverage, battled a defender in the end zone.

Funchess mistimed his jump. The ball fell to the ground, and on the next play quarterback Cam Newton was sacked for a 17-yard loss.

Season over.

Funchess later told reporters he lost the ball in the Superdome lights.

The lack of such plays on his résumé is one of the reasons coach Ron Rivera said after the season that the team had to decide whether Funchess was a No. 1 or 2 receiver. The addition of Torrey Smith, acquired in a trade with Philadelphia, and first-round draft pick D.J. Moore could raise the question of whether the 6-foot-4 Funchess is a 2 or a 3.

Funchess is totally focused on being a No. 1. He caught a career-high 63 passes for a career-high 840 yards and eight touchdowns in 2017 after inheriting the No. 1 spot following the midseason trade of Kelvin Benjamin to Buffalo.

But he never made the spectacular plays that elevated him to elite status like Odell Beckham Jr., set to become the top free-agent receiver after this season if he doesn't get a new deal before then.

So the Panthers spent the offseason rebuilding the receiving corps around Funchess and 2017 second-round pick Curtis Samuel in much the same way Philadelphia did en route to the Super Bowl a year ago.

"Come camp, we'll see how it all unfolds, because everybody will have everything down pat," Funchess said.

Though Funchess remains one of the youngest receivers in terms of age, he's showing veteran leadership with his work ethic.

"If you don't work hard on top of your talent, you won't be a thing in life," Funchess said. "You see me, every time in practice I work hard. You don't see me lounging around. I don't do that. I work hard. I finish and do everything I'm supposed to do, because I'm trying to be great."

Rivera likes what he's seen thus far, saying Funchess is grasping what new offensive Norv Turner wants and demands.

"That's a big part of his development," Rivera said. "He's getting an opportunity to be The Guy in the room, and he'll take it. And I think it's been really good. He's embracing it, and I think that's a big thing. For him, he can only get better. So I'm excited about that."

Grandfather's influence

As a rookie, Funchess -- following in the footsteps of Newton -- began giving the football to a kid in the stands after a touchdown catch. But he kept the one he had in the 2015 NFC Championship Game against Arizona for his grandfather, James Hester, whom Funchess calls "the role model of my life."

Hester was the person who made sure Funchess got to and from football practice, the one who took him to his "buddy's house and put me around all the older people."

"That's why I'm kind of like an old soul," Funchess said. "He influenced me to be the great person that I am, to respect everybody and to live by all my morals. Your word is your bond in this world. That's what my granddaddy gave me."

Funchess hopes to pass those virtues along to his first child, who is due in the fall. He doesn't know whether it's a boy or a girl, but he's hoping it's a boy -- and not because he wants a football player.

"Make him play basketball," Funchess said.

Asked if it's because there's more money in basketball, Funchess said, "Yeah!"

Funchess loves basketball. He thought so much of his skills on the court that before the 2015 NFL draft, he posted a video on social media showing him jumping so high that his head was level with the rim on a dunk.

Last season, when talking about his versatility in football, he compared himself to LeBron James "because I can do everything."

But Funchess focused on football because he realized it was his best avenue out of the life he wanted to forget. Finding practically everything he possessed lying outside the apartment he'd been living in after the third eviction was a motivating factor.

"I wasn't going to go to [college] unless it was on scholarship, so I took it upon myself I wasn't going to be in the same situation I grew up in," Funchess said. "After that, you know my story now. I'm in the league."

There's depth and seriousness to Funchess' tone. It sometimes leaves those who don't know him well thinking he's arrogant and private to the point, in his words, he comes off sounding "mean."

But in many ways Funchess is like his quarterback, just a big kid having fun on a playground. That's why Newton refers to his receiver as "Fun-Fun."

Early in Funchess' career, the fun side sometimes left the impression he wasn't completely focused.

"We sometimes didn't think he was as serious as he should be," said Funchess' high school coach, John Herrington. "Sometimes we'd get upset. He would not quite be as serious as he should be.

"But when it came time to play the game, he was plenty serious."

Funchess is serious about becoming the greatest receiver in NFL history. He's done his homework on how Turner has helped receivers in his past achieve greatness.

One of those was Gates, who spent six seasons under Turner with the Chargers.

"In this offense, everybody scores," Funchess said. "Go check his stats, all the way back to San Diego, all the way back to the Cowboys. We're just going to go have fun. That's what I like to do.

"He pushes us to perfection. ... When a guy pushes you and pushes you and pushes you, you push yourself more."

Funchess is pushing himself harder now and is arguably in the best shape of his career.

And he’s having fun, just as Gates told him to.

"Every time you see a picture of my cousin, is he smiling?" Funchess asked. "Every time you see a picture of me and I'm smiling? OK. We're having fun with life. We made it out of the hood, and we're playing in the NFL."