For the Carolina Panthers, 2003 was a magical season.
All the parts were in place to make a strong push for the Super Bowl.
Head coach John Fox was in his second year with the Panthers and quarterback Jake Delhomme made his first start as a Panther in the second half of the '03 season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Panthers had depth on offense, a man-eating defense that bolstered an extraordinary backfield, and a great special teams unit.
In 2003 the Panthers became known as the Cardiac Cats with their many come-from-behind wins. Typically, games that went into overtime, the Panthers found a way to come out on top all-the-while keeping us fans on the edge of our seat.
To get all of this talent on the same field in the same uniform, head coach John Fox set to work in the offseason of 2002, and came up aces starting with the second overall draft pick, defensive end Julius Peppers.
Peppers was a dominating defensive end at the University of North Carolina and was the perfect fit for Fox's defensive plan.
That same year, the Panthers also drafted linebacker Will Witherspoon and running back DeShaun Foster.
In addition to these pieces of the puzzle, the Panthers already had the services of defensive end Mike Rucker, defensive tackles Brentson Buckner and Kris Jenkins, to form what many football experts declared the best defensive line in the game.
Mike Minter was already in place, as he anchored the defensive secondary; Witherspoon and Mark Fields led the linebacker corps.
The 2003 season saw even more talented players join the Panthers, whether by draft or free agency.
Ricky Manning, Jr., a cornerback out of UCLA and offensive tackle Jordan Gross were two of the Panthers top selections out of the draft, while free agent signings of quarterback Jake Delhomme from the New Orleans Saints, running back Stephen Davis from the Washington Redskins, and former St. Louis Ram Ricky Proehl, a wide receiver, made up an offense that needed to complement a top-ranked defense.
2003 was not all roses and buttercups however, as off-field matters arose. Linebacker Mark Fields was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease and sat out the season.
Two weeks later, former linebacker and coach Sam Mills was diagnosed with intestinal cancer, to which he lost his battle in April of 2005.
The team took the disheartening news in great stride, using it as a motivational tool to start the season off at 5-0.
On opening day, Fields ran onto the field with the Panthers. The players wore T-shirts with Fields' and Mills' number from his playing days under their jerseys.
One of the greatest moments of the 2003 season, and in Panthers history was the 12-9 overtime victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Panthers beat the reigning NFL Champions in their city, on their turf, in front of their fans.
The Buccaneers were the biggest collection of seemingly little-known talent in all of sports: Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice, and Derrick Brooks, just to name a few.
The Panthers were nine-and-a-half point underdogs going into that meeting and in overtime, Carolina return man Steve Smith returned a punt 52 yards. Five plays later, John Kasay kicked the sudden-death field goal to give the Panthers a well deserved win.
In Week Six the Panthers hit a brick wall when they fell horribly to the Tennessee Titans, 37-17, in front of their Charlotte, NC home crowd.
The Panthers had been playing well on offense, defense, and special teams, but had many problems from all three areas in this matchup.
A week later, Carolina rebounded when they beat the division rival New Orleans Saints 23-20.
Running back Stephen Davis had a great game, rushing for a franchise record 178 yards, propelling Carolina to another close win.
One of the more memorable cliches used—abused—during a post game interview, was a quote from receiver Steve Smith. "We've just got to ride this horse," Smith said, "until the wheels come off."
In the playoffs, the Panthers easily knocked off the Dallas Cowboys, 29-10, in a home Wildcard game.
At the conclusion of their lopsided victory, defensive tackle Brentson Buckner ran into the locker room shouting, "America's team don't live in the Carolinas!"
After reaching the locker room, Buckner turned around and ran with his teammates through the tunnel and out for a second victory lap, their way of thanking the fans for their support.
Their next game proved to be a daunting one. A trip to St. Louis, to take on what was proclaimed "The Greatest Show on Turf."
This game was so close, and the competition so intense, that it didn't end until the first play of the second overtime.
Jake Delhomme hit Steve Smith off a play called X-Clown; Smith caught the 69-yard game winning, no-doubt, nobody-is-going-to-catch-him touchdown.
"I braced myself for the big hit, but it never came," Smith said. "And when I took off, I knew I was gone."
Rams safety Jason Sehorn never touched Smith once he had the ball, nor did anyone else.
Smith's pure speed and awareness of presence carried him into the endzone , both arms outstretched and his head cocked backward.
"When I did that," Smith said, "it was to say, 'Wow! Look at us!' Not look at me—look at us. What do you think about us now?"
Mike Minter, one of the most outspoken Panthers, was left speechless on Smith's game winning score.
"I could do nothing," said Minter, a Panther since 1997 who until the week prior had never played in a playoff game. "Nothing would come out. I just sat there like" Minter opened his mouth and stuck out his arms while standing frozen in front of his locker.
The Panthers had to go on the road yet again, this time to Philadelphia, for the NFC Championship game.
Against the Eagles, the Panthers played extremely well.
The game's most critical play occurred in the second quarter.
Philadelphia was trailing the Panthers, 7-0, but quarterback Donovan McNabb kept the Eagles moving the chains, with a first-and-10 at the Panthers 23 yard line.
McNabb dropped back and the Panthers' Mike Rucker, with a beautiful jump on the snap, went after McNabb in the backfield.
In a panic, Eagles running back Duce Staley put a partial block on Rucker, but not before McNabb tripped over the two colliding players and fell backward.
McNabb fell awkwardly, rolled onto his back, his leg stuck in the air, when Panthers linebacker Greg Favors hit him on that leg—the whistle hadn't blown. Officials later said that technically, McNabb still could have gotten up and ran. No flag was thrown on that play.
McNabb had suffered torn cartilage in his ribs; jeering fans and media personalities had later referred to the hit and injury as a "McRib Sandwich."
Running parallel to the goal line from a yard out, Panthers running back DeShaun Foster, ball in hand, stretched his right arm out and over the goal-line pylon, giving the Panthers a 14-3 lead late in the third quarter.
The Panthers took care of that 14-3 lead for the rest of the game.
In the game's entirety, Carolina ran the ball 40 times and passed the ball 14 times. The defense managed five sacks, four interceptions, and allowed three points.
McNabb, against his own will, was pulled from the game by Eagles head coach Andy Reid after going 10-of-22 for 100 yards and three interceptions, for a passer rating of 19.3.
The Panthers outplayed the Eagles in a lopsided 14-3 battle, earning their first trip ever to the Super Bowl where they were faced with the grueling task of taking on Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
Super Bowl XXXVIII—what I would describe as the most exciting Super Bowl I have ever seen—was a battle of immense proportions.
Four days before the Super Bowl, the lone remaining original Panther spoke what proved to be a pertinent point.
"I really think it will come down to which team will have the ball last. That will be the difference in winning or losing this game," Panthers placekicker John Kasay said.
Kasay was right. The Panthers best season ever was decided by a field goal.
The game was scoreless for 27 minutes, a Super Bowl record, as both defenses dominated for most of the first half.
In the second half both offenses were able to get to work, featuring quarterbacks Tom Brady and Jake Delhomme; each one trying to one-up the other on every possession.
In the end, it was Brady who steered the Patriots to a last-second field goal by placekicker Adam Vinatieri, breaking a 29-all tie.
The Panthers had scored three touchdowns on their last three offensive possessions, but they were not enough.
"Jake Delhomme threw the crap out of it against our defense, which doesn't happen very much," Brady said. "To win it the way we did, it was just incredible."
Said New England coach Bill Belichick: "It was a terrific football game to watch—not a terrific one to coach. I thought I was having a heart attack out there."
After the game, Panthers head coach John Fox added his thoughts saying: "It's obviously a very big disappointment, but I'm very proud of our football team... We just came up a little short."
That is my favorite team in my 26 years on the earth. There may be Panthers teams that come close to it, and there have been other teams that have exceeded what the Panthers did in 2003, but there was only one team that will ever be known as the Cardiac Cats.