Growing Up With The Carolina Panthers

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Growing Up With The Carolina Panthers

Living in a city such as Charlotte, you meet a lot of people from a lot of different places. As one of the fastest growing cities in the southeast, it's no wonder that there is a cornucopia of sports fans currently calling the Queen City their home.

The growth potential of the banking city and the early success of the Charlotte Hornets caught Jerry Richardson's eye, and he decided to put down his roots in the one place he felt needed a professional football team the most.

When the city of Charlotte was awarded an NFL franchise on October 26, 1993, I was merely five years old. I knew little about football other than "Go Redskins," and "Cowboys stink." My dad grew up a Redskins fan and instilled these two proverbs into my head at a young age. 

I can vaguely remember the excitement that surrounded the announcement of the franchise's destination. Everybody everywhere was talking about the NFL coming to town. 

I still have a shirt in my closet emblazoned with the NFL logo that reads "Make The Dream Come True in 1992." The city of Charlotte was rapidly stepping on to the professional sports stage and the residents were loving it.

I can remember the Carolina Panthers first game. I was at the beach with my dad and one of his friends, who also had a little kid whom I was romping around with. My dad called me into the living room and told me to watch the start of the game, because it was the start of the team that would be my hometown team for years to come. Right then, it was apparent that the Panthers would be MY team.

The first season was a little strange, with the Panthers playing their home games in Clemson, South Carolina at Death Valley. During this season, I attended my first NFL game, in Clemson, with my mom after a neighbor of ours had passed his tickets to us. 

We made the trek down there and watched the game among the other thousands who had made the same journey. The atmosphere was electric and the game was close throughout. 

When it got late in the game and looked as though the Panthers were going to be defeated by Jim Harbaugh and the Colts, my mom and I headed for the exit.

I'll never forget listening to the Panthers come back on the radio and hearing Bill Rosinski's call of John Kasay's game-winning field goal as we drove away from the stadium. That moment defined my current personal fan law of never leaving a game before its completion—no matter the score.

The 1995 season was much more successful than anyone believed it would be, with the Panthers going 7-9 and compiling an expansion record four-game win streak in the middle of the season.

The bar was set rather high as far as expectations are concerned, and the Panthers' move to Charlotte was hyped up to be the beginning of a dream.

The following season did nothing to bring those expectations down to earth, as the team got off to a quick start by winning their first three games. I can remember people being so excited about the team, they predicted Super Bowl glory for years to come. The city was so high on the team that it set itself up for disaster.

I only watched Panthers' games back then, and wasn’t much aware of anything else going on in the league except for Brett Favre, John Elway, Troy Aikman, and the other prime time stars.

The Panthers finished the regular season with an amazing seven-game winning streak that transformed all of Charlotte into one enormous water cooler where the only discussion was of the Panthers success. 

January 5th, 1997 was a day that will burn forever in my heart. After earning a bye in the wild card round of the playoffs, the Panthers were set to face the hated Dallas Cowboys in Ericsson Stadium for a spot in the NFC Championship game at historic Lambeau Field in Green Bay.

My dad explained to me how much this game meant for the Panthers and for the city of Charlotte, and for the first time in my life, I tasted the pains of anticipation in the world of sports. 

The only time I have seen that type of anxiety and excitement leading up to a game in Charlotte is in early 2004, as the Panthers were getting ready to meet New England in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

The only way to describe that weekend leading up to the game was intense. Everybody was nervous, wondering if their beloved young Panthers could pull off the unthinkable and knock off America’s Team in their first ever playoff game. 

The Cowboys were coming off of a huge win against Minnesota in the previous week, posting 40 points on the scoreboard and coasting through the Vikings. The stage was set. Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin were set to battle Kerry Collins, Anthony Johnson, and Willie Green to stay alive in the playoffs.

Nothing was ever so seemingly David and Goliath, and nobody outside of the Carolinas gave the Panthers a fighting chance. 

The game was an instant classic, as the Panthers jumped out to an early lead before the seasoned Cowboys paced their way back into the game. The Cowboys lost Irvin and “Neon” Deion Sanders to injuries, but kept on trudging toward the expected victory that would never come.

Three times the Panthers thwarted the Cowboys’ drives with goal line stands, forcing field goals instead of touchdowns. The Cowboys had a chance with just under four minutes to play and a six point deficit, but Panthers safety Pat Terrell intercepted an Aikman pass, leading to a John Kasay field goal that presumably would end the game.

Aikman and the Cowboys were not to be taken lightly, however, and the raucous crowd seemed to not be completely sold on a Panthers victory until perhaps one of the most iconic moments in franchise history.

The Cowboys were desperate and hoping for one last chance to come up with a miracle. Aikman dropped back and threw a pass that was picked off by Panthers linebacker Sam Mills, a man who would come to mean so much more to the organization in the years to come.

Mills trudged 24 yards down to the Cowboys one-yard line, effectively ending the game. (And earning the right to be the single photo I chose to accompany this article.) That set the entire city ablaze with celebration. 

I was living with my mom in a south Charlotte condo at the time. We were so excited that we ran onto the porch with pots and wooden spoons from the kitchen and made as much noise as possible.

Fireworks could be heard in the distance from all over, and many neighbors joined us on their porches, screaming, clapping and cheering for the world to hear. 

The Panthers had done the unthinkable and were heading for the NFC Championship game. If that doesn’t send a chill down your spine, now is the time to check your pulse.

From then on, I was hooked as a true Panthers fan. The following week they were handled rather easily by the eventual Super Bowl Champion Packers, but that changed nothing. The fact was that we had a bonafide contender in Charlotte, and that the early success would be exponentially greater in the years to come.

If we were in the NFC title game after two years, imagine where we would be after five!  The dreams of Super Bowls and Hall of Famers ran wild in Carolina. When those dreams were finished, and the city and team began to wake up, a whole different reality quickly set in.

Over the next six seasons, the Panthers were a combined 34-62 and did not smell the playoffs. Dom Capers was fired and former San Francisco Head Coach George Seifert stepped in before the 1999 season. The Seifert hiring was a glimmer of hope that blew up into one of the biggest disappointments in NFL history.

The proven Seifert, a two time Super Bowl winner, was expected to right the ship in Carolina and take them back to the promised land. That was hardly the case, as his best record with the Panthers was 8-8, and his claim to fame during his time here was leading the Panthers to a 1-15 record in 2001 before exiting stage right into oblivion. 

From the end of the 1998 season to the start of the 2002 season, many Panthers fans grew tired of watching mediocre performances marred by off-the-field problems.

Rae Carruth was locked up for conspiring to murder his girlfriend, Collins was accused of making racist remarks about Muhsin Muhammad before succumbing to alcoholism that paved his way out of Carolina, while Fred Lane was shot dead by his estranged wife shortly after signing a deal that made him an Indianapolis Colt.

All of these problems combined with the Panthers failure to live up to the city's expectations of a winning team led to a massive “jump ship” era, where many local fans turned their attention back to their pre-Panthers teams, abandoning the squad they so dearly loved just a few years prior.

I somehow avoided this trend. I was too young to have been an avid Redskins fan, so switching back to the red and gold would have done me no good. I stuck with the hometown team, and suffered through jeering, taunting, negative media coverage, and an overall pitiful team.

I can remember watching in earnest through each game of the 2001 season, as the Panthers blew late lead after late lead and finished 1-15. The worst part of that was  the team had beaten the Vikings in week one after a Chris Weinke comeback, providing some optimism for the rest of the season.

After the 1-15 debacle, the remaining fans hid behind paper bags and kept their Panthers gear secured in a closet, collecting dust and shame. 

John Fox provided hope. In 2002, I was just beginning to become a big football fan, and was excited for the Panthers to have a new coach to try to get past the suffering Seifert had put us through.

Fox began winning my trust right away, drafting Julius Peppers with the second overall pick in his first draft. That created a “Pep-Jenx-Buck-Ruck” defensive line that was arguably the best in the NFL. 

The Panthers improved to 7-9 in 2002 and it was evident that Fox had more of a connection with his players than his predecessor. The 2003 season changed the face of the organization forever, and thrust the Panthers back into the league’s limelight.

The Charlotte Hornets had recently bolted for New Orleans, and the Panthers poor play in the last few years had called for some overreaction suggesting the Panthers leave as well. Fox had turned the tide some with the team’s 2002 performance, but nothing short of a playoff appearance was going to satisfy the fans in Carolina. 

Fox delivered that and much more in 2003, taking the Panthers all the way to the Super Bowl behind Jake Delhomme. At halftime of the team’s opening day game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Fox pulled Rodney Peete after a tough first half in favor of the recently signed Jake Delhomme. Though Delhomme was relatively unknown in Charlotte, at that point it was “anybody but Peete.”

The rest is history, as Delhomme lead the team to a second half comeback, complete with a game winning touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl. Delhomme was an instant celebrity in Charlotte and the exciting start had fans rejuvenated.

The playoff run was even more storybook. The team’s first playoff game was at home against the Cowboys—the same opponent they faced the last time they won a playoff game. The Panthers took this meeting too, and with that victory, earned a whole new group of followers and fair-weather fans.

Those who had jumped ship during the dark years were suddenly seen in the ole’ black and blue, completing their act with “told-ya-so’s” and the whole nine yards.

The following week, Steve Smith dazzled us all with his “X-Clown” in the second overtime against the feared St. Louis Rams. That set up a return trip to the NFC Championship game, this time in Philadelphia. The Panthers delivered this time, winning in front of a hostile crowd and booking the Panthers first-ever Super Bowl trip. The city was again ablaze with Panthers support, and the intensity of this love was greater than ever before. 

The Panthers played the Patriots in one of the most exciting Super Bowls ever.  Complete with a Janet Jackson nip slip, the game was filled with history. Delhomme completed the longest touchdown pass in Super Bowl history, 85 yards to Muhammad, that gave the Panthers the lead in the fourth quarter. The Patriots scored and forced the Panthers into "Cardiac Cat" mode; a nickname given to the 2003 team for its knack for coming back late in games.

Delhomme delivered a touchdown pass to Proehl with just over a minute left, tying the game and seemingly forcing overtime. Kasay’s kickoff went out of bounds, however, leading to Adam Vinatieri’s game winning 41-yard field goal with four seconds left. 

Though the Panthers were defeated, the city’s expectations and love affair with the Panthers were heightened again. The Panthers became many of the media’s “dark horse” for the Super Bowl before the 2004 season, but disappointed all with a 7-9 record, largely due to a debilitating injury bug that bit the Panthers. Steve Smith, Kris Jenkins, Stephen Davis, DeShaun Foster, and several others were all knocked out early with season-ending injuries. 

The team still wound up just one 60-yard field goal short of the playoffs, but the damage was done. Many felt as though the Panthers were a Cinderella story that would never get over the hump of being a lucky team. 

The 2005 season would again alter the course of the Panthers history. After starting 1-2, the Panthers began clicking and started winning. After three close wins, they won their next three by an average margin of 24 points.

Despite a 10-5 record heading into the season’s final week, the Panthers needed a victory to secure a playoff spot. They delivered a first class whipping to the Falcons in the Georgia Dome and headed into the playoffs full of confidence. 

That confidence showed as they shut out the Giants 23-0 in the Meadowlands on wild card weekend. That set up a rematch with the Bears, who had beat the Panthers earlier in the season, 13-3. The Bears defense was at the height of its fame and nobody expected anything other than a repeat at Soldier Field. 

Delhomme hooked up with Smith on the second play of the game for a famous touchdown, after which Smith requested the Soldier Field fans quiet down by putting his finger to his mouth. Smith made sure the Bears fans remained quiet for the duration of the game, stamping his seal on the game with over 200 yards receiving. 

The Panthers were headed to Seattle for their second NFC title game in three years.  Only this time, they were decimated by injuries. DeShaun Foster had broken his ankle in the Bears game, and Julius Peppers had re-injured a bum shoulder. The Seahawks took advantage of these and a few other key injuries, as well as a literally insane crowd at Qwest Field—dubbed the 12th Man—to handle the Panthers 34-14 and advance to the Super Bowl.

Again, optimism ran high in the Carolinas until the team failed to reach the playoffs once again in 2006. This was, again, in large part due to injuries, but the fans grew tired of that excuse quickly. Some began calling for Fox’s job, stating his inconsistency as grounds for an ousting. 

Others questioned Delhomme’s ability to truly lead a top notch team. Criticism was hurled in every direction, and the 2007 season brought no relief, as the Panthers failed to make the playoffs after Delhomme went out with an elbow injury in week three.

The decent performance put on by the young, undrafted Matt Moore towards the end of the 2007 season began to heighten the calls for Delhomme’s exit. Delhomme came back in 2008 and led the team to a 12-4 record and a NFC South title, some fans remain convinced he is not the man for the job in Carolina.

And that brings us to today. Following Delhomme’s tumultuous performance in the Panthers playoff loss to the Cardinals, the calls for Delhomme’s head have reached new heights, fueled by his offseason contract extension.

These calls pretty much sum up my tenure as a Carolina Panthers fan.  With the Panthers, I have grown from a young green horn of the game, wrapped up in only the achievements of my hometown team, to a full-blown football fanatic. 

I have experienced nearly the highest of highs, and nearly the lowest of lows. The Panthers have come within one win of Super Bowl immortality and within one loss of the “defeated season.”  I have seen players locked up for murder, murdered, injured, reborn, diagnosed with cancer, beat cancer, succumb to cancer, and leave to continue their careers elsewhere.

I have seen fans born, fall in love with, and divorce the team. I have heard the media call us the worst in the game, the best in the game, and everything in between. I have exalted with, laughed with (and at, if you count Jake’s hole in the rear of his pants some years ago), lost my temper with, cursed, and shaken my head at this team.

It’s like that life-long best friend with whom you’ve had your fiercest arguments and your most memorable moments with. You know that no matter what, they will be there for you at the end of the day with a place for you to reflect, a shoulder to cry on, or a six dollar beer to share.

Some may think this article is long-winded, but trust me, it’s paraphrased. If I were to sit and truly write about how this team has affected my life since in its existence, I would need much more than an article’s worth of space. 

I grew up with the Carolina Panthers, and much like my childhood friends, I’ll never leave them behind.

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