Carolina Panther and former Loveland Tiger,
grateful for opportunity in first NFL season
By Chuck Gibson
LOVELAND, OH (December 22, 2021) – I caught up with Giovanni Ricci late Friday, December 17, as he was preparing for a Saturday get-away day in week 15 of his rookie season with the Carolina Panthers of the NFL.
Ricci and the Panthers would depart Charlotte, N.C. on Saturday, headed for Buffalo to take on the Bills in their 14th game of the season. With 13 games already behind him and a won-loss record of 5-8 going into the game with the Bills, his rookie season has given him both highs and lows. The former member of the Loveland Tiger State Championship football team remains filled with the joy of living out his dream to play professional football in the National Football League.
“I’m doing well, no complaints,” said Ricci. “Grinding through the season, experiencing my first season playing, it feels a lot longer than last year.”
In 2020, Ricci was a member of the Carolina Panthers practice squad and did not play in a regular season game. Before that, he played his collegiate football career at Western Michigan where the season lasted 12 games – maybe 13 if, and when, the Mustangs played in a bowl game. That makes this his longest football season as he took the field at Buffalo on Sunday, December 19, in what turned out to be the Panthers fourth loss in a row giving them a 5-9 record after 14 games.
“To be honest, I’ve held up pretty well with no serious injuries,” Ricci said. “I’m just taking it week-by-week and having great athletic trainers and support staff around to keep the body in shape.”
Ricci knows the physical toll the game takes on a body. He’s witnessed injuries to teammates like QB Sam Darnold and RB Christian McCaffrey which have limited their opportunity to play this season.
“The game itself, as you know, is not too kind to the body usually,” he explained. “I’ve been really fortunate so far this season.”
He was very candid sharing his insights into the challenges of playing a game which requires him to collide with opponents; typically at a high rate of speed. Not to mention this season, they are also faced with the possibility of COVID infections. Ricci talked about how it has impacted the Panthers season so far.
“Fortunately for us, I don’t think we have been his as hard as some teams who had to postpone games,” said Ricci. “The NFL came out yesterday (Thursday, December 16,) and reinstated policies from last year trying to get us through the season.”
He believes the league is doing the best they can the same as everyone else. Ricci understands it is not just an NFL situation and relates it more to the time of year for all of us. They played Buffalo last Sunday and remain scheduled to host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at home in Charlotte this Sunday, the day after Christmas. Headed into Christmas weekend, Giovanni remains focused on the highlights of playing his first season in the NFL.
“Obviously this whole season is a personal highlight given the opportunity to play on the highest stage possible,” Ricci said. “It’s just been such a blessing just being able to have that experience. It will stick with me the rest of my life. It’s been unbelievable.”
Ricci recalled the last time we spoke was before the season-opening game.
“From there, it’s crazy,” he said. “Part of it is like, it’s been a long season and part of it is like we just spoke the other day. It’s flying. We’re sitting here with four games left. (three games remain now) It’s been an unreal experience, a ton of fun.”
He continues to learn a lot as they go along. Being around “some awesome guys” and having the opportunity to play the game has been an incredible experience for Ricci. It goes all the way back to the early organized team activities (OTA’s) when he was able to spend time with players like quarterback Sam Darnold. Soaking up those kind of learning experiences have meant a lot to him this season.
“I got to know him since OTA’s back in May, he’s an awesome human being and a great guy,” said Ricci. “He’s a great competitor. He did some great things for us before his injury. Just on a personal level, he is an awesome guy to be around.”
Then Cam Newton came in and showed he’s been around, understands the game, how to lead an offense and has done some great things for the team as well.
“You don’t realize it when you’re outside the game and just watch it on TV,” explained Ricci. “It’s just a bunch of guys that all come together to play this game we’ve all loved for so many years. We just want to win more than anything. It’s just been a great experience.”
Winning came early for the Panthers as the season got underway, but with a 5-9 record after 14 games, Ricci acknowledges things have not always gone as they would have liked. The team starting the season off with three straight wins was a lot of fun for him. He counts that as a highlight for his rookie season. He also cites big games against New Orleans and Atlanta earlier in the year as a “ton of fun” to play in.
“Specifically, that first Atlanta game, I think we ran the ball 40-some times for 200 and some yards,” he said. “Our position group, fullback, tight end; it was just a ton of fun to be a part of.”
Ricci pointed to the total team effort in that Atlanta game. He credited the big guys up front on the offensive line, the running backs themselves, the wide receivers, but enjoyed the role played by his position at fullback and the tight ends.
“It was a huge, grind-it-out kind of win,” said Ricci. “As for the rest of the season, we’re working every day to send it out on a good note. The way the league is right now, no one is necessarily out of it. We take every week with the mindset we still have everything to play for. It’s a lot of fun.”
Ricci says it is different than the college experience where there tends to be a same expectation season after season. In the NFL, every year is different. Players and teams rise and fall from year to year. His first season is a great example of how teams and players rise and fall from week to week with just about every team still in the playoff picture entering the final weeks of the season.
“This year has been a great opportunity to get to know all these guys a lot better,” Ricci said. “It makes going out there on the field a lot easier knowing the guy next to you has your back. It’s a lot of fun to win. Everyone can say they’re having fun when they’re winning, but knowing when you go out on the field, you’re not just playing for yourself or a stat, you’re playing for one another; you get that when you build these relationships.”
Still, there is a personal individual side to it. Each player and coach has to prepare himself for the game. As fans of the game, we often hear of pre-game rituals players have. Giovanni Ricci is no different when it comes to preparing on game day! He shared his game day routine:
“To sum it up, day before a game, we’re in a hotel; obviously if we’re traveling, we’re in a hotel. We go to a hotel here in Charlotte. We all wake up around 8-o-clock. I take a shower, kind of wake myself up and then go down and have my pregame meal. Most of our games are at 1 p.m. so I have my pregame meal around 9 a.m. After that, I’ll drive myself over to the stadium, get in the hot tub, get moving around a little bit, stretch; do all that stuff.” – Giovanni Ricci
Then, he says, they have one 20-minute meeting – two hour before kick-off meeting with our coaches.
“That’s a real quick couple minutes. After that, I’ll head out on the field, do my own little kind of warm up, come back in, you know tape up, get the equipment on; shoulder pads, helmet on head on out on the field for our team warm up. After that, we come back in, say a prayer, come together as a team and then head on out to get ready for kick-off.” – Giovanni Ricci on his pregame routine.
Ricci says that’s the gist of it. I asked him what’s in the earbuds.
“I definitely listen to music before the game,” said Ricci. “I have a pretty consistent playlist; a little bit of rock to kind of get me amped up and going, kind of wake the body up. Other than that, I just kind of put it on while I’m running around stretching. Then the team has music blasting in the locker room before the game. There’s always something.”
Since it is Christmastime, Ricci recalled his memory of Christmas in Loveland.
“I love that,” Ricci said. “Merry Christmas, I hope everyone gets to enjoy that time with their families and friends. I appreciate you reaching out and giving me the chance to share this experience. Thank you and Merry Christmas.”