by Rob Moseley
SAN FRANCISCO — When the final gun sounded and visiting Carolina had secured a 10-9 victory over the 49ers here Sunday, Panthers running back Kenjon Barner made a beeline for the opposing sideline.
Barner was just past midfield when he zeroed in on his target, LaMichael James. Then, the two best friends, former Oregon running backs and now NFL role players shared an extended embrace.
"Hugging each other on an NFL field at the end of a game is one of those moments you're like, 'OK, we're here,'" Barner said later.
Yes, the two leading rushers in Oregon's history are both now in the professional ranks. Sunday, they not only shared a field together, but with the Ducks' fourth-leading rusher all-time, Carolina veteran Jonathan Stewart.
In all, that was 11,596 career rushing yards for Oregon. The game also included San Francisco offensive lineman Adam Snyder, one of the Ducks' all-time greats up front, and Panthers tight end Brandon Williams, who is enjoying a renaissance after his UO career was cut short by injury.
"It was good to see him," James said in the locker room. "Sucks you lose, but it makes me feel a little bit better seeing him."
Sunday's 49ers-Panthers game clearly illustrated how tough it is to succeed in the hyper-competitive professional ranks.
In James, Barner and Stewart, the top three names on Oregon's single-season rushing list were present. Snyder is the rare offensive lineman to have been so good, he was once named Pac-10 offensive player of the week, before winning the Morris Trophy as the conference's best offensive lineman for the 2004 season.
And yet, none started Sunday. Stewart, making his second appearance since returning from an ankle injury, is the backup to Carolina starter DeAngelo Williams. Barner played on the kickoff return and punt return teams. James returned the first punts of his NFL career, but took just two snaps on offense. Snyder was used primarily in a jumbo package as a sixth offensive lineman, and Williams was inactive for the game.
"We all have our moments where we have to be patient and embrace what God has in store for us," Stewart said. "Definitely Kenjon right now, he's learning that. He's on a great team; we're rolling right now, and we've got to keep doing what we're doing. He has a role in that, and he has to understand he has a role in that, and embrace it."
Sunday's victory was Carolina's fifth in a row, and Barner's fourth appearance since overcoming a foot injury. He has one rushing attempt and two receptions on the season, but is the upback on the Panthers' kickoff return team and a blocker for punt returns as well.
Exactly one year and one week earlier, Barner was rushing for a UO record 321 yards against USC, on his way to 1,767 last season, second on the UO single-season list behind James' 1,805 yards in 2011.
Carolina coach Ron Rivera told the Charlotte Observer newspaper recently he foresees Barner in a Darren Sproles-like all-purpose role. But for now, Barner sees more limited action.
Barner said Stewart has been invaluable as a mentor, primarily with off-field issues like avoid the trappings of the NFL lifestyle. The two knew each other casually from Stewart's visits to Eugene — he left the Ducks after the 2007 season, a year before Barner and James enrolled.
"Once I got here, the relationship went to a completely different level, to the point where I'm at his house every other day," Barner said. "We rarely talk football; the only thing he tells me is, good things come to those who wait, so be patient."
Stewart is the grizzled veteran of the trio, though he's just six years removed from rushing for 1,722 yards in 2007 — then first all-time in UO history, but since surpassed twice by James and by Barner last season. He ran for at least 761 yards each of his first four seasons after being drafted No. 13 overall in 2008, but injuries set Stewart back the last two years.
Still, he's bucked the odds, already having enjoyed a career about double the length of the average NFL running back's. Though he was the backup Sunday, it was Stewart on the field at the end helping Carolina run out the clock in their victory (and fumbling late, with a teammate recovering).
"I'm just glad that I was able to come back this year, and again, find a role on the team and embrace it," said Stewart, who ran 13 times for 41 yards Sunday. "The group of guys that we've got in the backfield, good group of guys, and you don't want to miss that."
Barner and James took the chance Friday night to go bowling, which Barner also won, giving him bragging rights in their daily texts and phone calls, which include plenty of trash talk. As a rookie, Barner is learning to endure some of the frustrations James felt last season, when he went from college star to NFL rookie role player.
On Sunday, James was active for just the third time in nine games this season. He made his NFL debut as a punt returner, fielding three kicks, and was in for two offensive snaps, rushing once for minus-one yard.
That's the reality of the NFL. Your window can be that small to prove yourself as a productive player.
"You can't really worry about it too much," James said. "I'm just going to try to excel in other areas. …
"I felt good (returning punts). I feel like that's something I can excel at, and just keep growing at."
If he can, maybe James can join Stewart in bucking the NFL odds, and enjoying an extended professional career at running back. For a few minutes postgame Sunday, Stewart, James and Barner could forget about the dog-eat-dog realities of the league and enjoy a brief reunion, a decade of greatness at running back for Oregon all on the same field.
Perhaps not for the last time, too.
"If we keep going on the track we're on, it's a high possibility we could see them again in the playoffs," Barner noted.
For now, though, Barner is more than happy to enjoy a few weeks of bragging rights.