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Panthers wide receiver Stephen Hill is back after knee injury that 'felt like it exploded'

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- The scream. A bloodcurdling scream.

It echoed throughout the practice fields at Wofford College when Carolina Panthers wide receiver Stephen Hill landed awkwardly on his right knee during the second practice of the 2015 training camp.

“It felt like it exploded,’’ Hill recalled. “My leg was stuck. I was trying to move it back, but there was so much pain I didn’t know what was going on, really.’’

It was so bad that teammates knelt and prayed on the field as trainers carted the 2012 second-round pick of the New York Jets away. It was so gruesome that wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl turned his head the first time he watched the replay.

X-rays confirmed the worst. Hill tore his ACL, PCL, LCL and hamstring -- an injury that ended his season and one that has ended the career of other NFL players.

But as the Panthers prepare for the second practice of this camp, you’d never know Hill had been injured. There’s no sign of a limp or loss of speed. There’s no fear of making cuts. Hill doesn’t even wear a brace.

“I’m not nervous or anything,’’ Hill said.

That was obvious as Hill, with defenders draped over him in the end zone, caught a deep pass from third-string quarterback Joe Webb near the end of Thursday night’s opening practice.

“It felt like a relief,’’ Hill said.

But Hill never will forget the injury. He has a collage of four pictures on his cell phone, one of him going down, one of the knee coming out of surgery, one of the knee two weeks later with more than 50 staples in it and one of his teammates who helped him in the recovery.

“I look at it all the time,’’ Hill said. “It actually reminds me your career can be over with so fast. I never thought I could be hurt in this manner.’’

Hill’s career seemed over after the Jets cut him at the end of the 2014 camp. Dropped passes and a lack of confidence plagued a career that began with such high expectations.

“I loved him coming out of college,’’ Proehl said. “Here’s a guy that is 6-4, ran a 4.2, caught the ball awesome at the combine. He had all the intangibles you’re looking for at wide receiver.’’

The Panthers signed Hill to their practice squad in 2014. Instead of taking that as an insult, Hill patiently and quietly worked to understand the system.

By the start of last year’s camp, Hill was playing so well that Proehl said he was “ready to make me famous as a coach.’’

“Coming into training camp, he was going to push for a starting job,’’ Proehl said.

Hill, 25, said getting away from the pressures of playing in the New York market gave him time to refocus.

“New York was different, especially when it came to the media,’’ he said. “They take the smallest thing, and they blow it up. That’s just the business of it, and I understand that. That’s why I keep to myself and stay as low key as possible.’’

Proehl and the Panthers thought enough of Hill’s potential that they stuck with him after he was issued a citation for a drug paraphernalia charge just before last year’s camp and admitted to smoking marijuana earlier in the day.

They stuck with him after the knee injury, similar to the one that forced running back Willis McGahee to miss his rookie season with Buffalo in 2003.

The difference is McGahee suffered nerve damage as well. Hill avoided that.

“Everybody was telling me basically the only thing that was left was my MCL and the nerve, which they say was pretty good when you have the nerve sitting there,’’ Hill said. “That’s going to help you move your toes and feet.’’

Proehl calls Hill a walking miracle.

“Because I’ve seen people [with that injury],’’ he said. “Where he is now is amazing to me. . . . He’s got flexibility in that knee. When he’s running, you really don’t see it.’’

Proehl is the first to admit Hill still has an uphill battle, not only from the mental aspect of coming off the injury, but because the Panthers are deeper than ever at receiver.

“He’ll have to start in the middle of the pack and work his way up,’’ Proehl said.

That won’t be easy. Kelvin Benjamin, coming off an ACL tear that ended his 2015 season in training camp, clearly is the No. 1 receiver. Ted Ginn Jr., Devin Funchess and Philly Brown are all but locks to make the roster.

That leaves only one or two spots for a receiver on the 53-man roster up for grabs.

But after what he went through a year ago, Hill is thankful to simply have a chance to compete for a spot.

“It’s just one of those bumps in the road that you wish you could get back,’’ he said. “It basically was a freak accident, but I’m back now.’’