Like a lot of other kids in my area, for years I had been a Washington Redskin fan… a diehard one at that. I basked in the glory of three Super Bowl Championships, watching Riggo bust through the line and down the field in a blaze of dust, aerial shows care of "The Posse", and touchdown celebrations presented by "The Fun Bunch". And no team made my burgundy and gold blood boil more than the hated Dallas Cowboys. But for some reason I still felt like an outsider looking in; I wanted a hometown team… one to call my own.
The Hornets (which are now a bad memory) had shown through attendance and performance that Charlotte could be a big time sports city.
Pro basketball was an easy sell… North Carolina is basketball country, it's in our blood. Many memorable moments had taken place on the red clay of "Tobacco Road". You ride down a street in any neighborhood and could almost assure your self of seeing as many basketball goals as houses. The Richardson's, the NFL, and all of Charlotte knew it. That is why the Carolina… not the Charlotte Panthers were born. From the very beginning, it was going to have to be a group effort.
On winning the coveted NFL franchise, Mr. Richardson not only said "Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!!" to every PSL owner, but he also said the Panthers' would be in the Super Bowl before the first ten years of existence were up… and what a ten years it turned out to be. It was the football version of "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride".
Not since my first legal beer had I awaited something with such great anticipation as the first game of my new favorite team. The day after the announcement was made that Carolina was getting "our" team, I went out and purchased my first of what would be many pieces of Cat merchandise… a grey sweatshirt with a huge Panthers' logo on the front… stylin'. After the first draft in team history, I purchased my very first Carolina jersey; a black #12 Kerry Collins. The choice was between Kerry and a #51 Sam Mills. Although the Mills jersey was tempting, Kerry was the franchise quarterback and sure to be a Panther for life… plus Sam was old.
The first year of actual on the field play of my long awaited, hometown hero, new favorite team; I was stuck in "Yankee-land"; Groton, CT. Tormented was I to sitting and watching the hapless New England Patriots and mighty New York Giants, all the while waiting to hear the little CBS Sports jingle that signaled the showing of other games scores and snippets at the bottom of the screen. I would break my neck if need be to get back in the living room if I heard that jingle from anywhere else in the house.
My parents were kind enough that year to tape every game and local TV special aired and send them north of the Mason-Dixon line so that I wouldn't miss a single moment of Panther football; even if it was a week or month late.
That first year, the Panthers set the mark for wins by an expansion franchise (nearing the .500 mark) and achieved even more the next by being the only second year team to win a division championship. That historic season ended on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field to a buzz saw and destined Green Bay Packer squad. Although my Super Bowl was a week earlier in Charlotte when the Cats knocked out the hated Dallas Cowboys, I still say that had we won the NFC Championship game, we would be 1-1 against the Pats in Super Bowl play.
After that loss in Green Bay, the Panthers would not play in a playoff game again until January, 2004… against those despised Dallas Cowboys. Hard to believe that after that fantastic start back in '94, with a playoff appearance in '95-'96, it would be so long before we tasted the sweetness of NFL playoff football again.
We all know what happened between those years, some good times… and a lot of not so good times. We went through two coaching changes, numerous losing seasons, players quitting, players arrested, some horrible drafts, a player choking a coach, a 1-15 season, and more "Why did they do that?!?!?!?" than one person can stand.
All of that, years and years of it, to get to… last second wins, the best front seven in football, dropping the hammer and keep pounding it while your at it, Jake "I Just Wanna Go" Delhomme, remember the blocked PAT but don't remember the Titans, Kasay hitting game winners and Kasay missing everything against Philly, Rice's guarantee and the "Fan of the Game" calling him out, Fox and Hurney, "The Vault", the "Cardiac Cats", He Hate Me, X-Clown and the "Silence of the Rams", Ricky Manning Jr. and the three interceptions, the longest touchdown reception in Super Bowl history, and watching the celebration so that you remember what it feels like.
This year has already added its own pages to the book, and who knows how this chapter will end. But one thing can be certain, the Cats will always make us cheer and make us cry, and we will always bleed black and blue no matter how things turn out.
This is why we are fans… why we love this team… and why we care.
And I still hate the Cowboys.
Why you and I love the Panthers
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