In January, my wife Kristy and I attended our second Carolina Panthers game as fans (I've been to dozens as a sports reporter, but that's another story and I don't like to brag), and things started out innocently enough.
The Best Western off of Woodlawn checked us in promptly, and I didn't have to listen to a lot of small talk or look at any fake smiles from the surly girl behind the counter. I can appreciate that.
By 2:15, we had unloaded the car and were headed to the train station around the corner. I'd mention the friendly smile I got from said girl behind the counter on the way out the door, except it was really more of an irritated glance as we walked through the lobby.
It's always good to put non-people people in people-person jobs, just to keep us all on our toes.
I love Charlotte's new train system. Well, system is probably too strong of a word—it's a single line that runs to and from the south side of the city—but it's still a great addition. The platforms are clean and modern, as are the cars themselves.
And the couple of times I've ridden the Lynx, as it's called, there have been just as many normal people to chat with as there were bicycle-carrying dirty people to avoid chatting with. Talk about modern marvels!
Anyway, after the wife and I had a little debate about whether to pay $2.50 for round-trip tickets or $4.50 for all-day passes, we settled on the all-day. Sure, it was an extra $4, but we were there to have fun, dammit.
And it was also kind of stupid to be worrying about $4 when you're planning to use the money to have the opportunity to spend half your mortgage on beer and game tickets.
Kristy was convinced she'd seen a couple of breweries the last time we were in Charlotte that needed to be visited.
However, one ended up being a Jillian's sports bar halfway into town on the rail line and the other was either, 1) a Dixie Tavern with handle-less doors requiring a deep knowledge of Elvish to open or, 2) a "silver building" nestled deeply in Kristy's imagination.
In any event, we ended up where we always do, at the Rock Bottom Brewery, drinking a beer sampler and chuckling at the waitress' dire warnings that the IPA was their highest-alcohol offering at 5.5 percent.
Oh, child, have a Derlium Tremens and we'll talk again. Charlotte is many things, but a beer city is not one of them.
Anyway, it was pushing 4 by this point so, naturally, Kristy was freaking out about getting tickets in time for the 8:15 kickoff. Throw in the fact that Bank of America Stadium is several blocks from Rock Bottom, and it was clearly time to get serious.
I'd bid on some tickets on eBay, and while I wasn't successful I suspected we wouldn't have any trouble getting in. From my experience, there are "sold-out" games, and there are SOLD OUT games.
This one was merely "sold out"—meaning technically you couldn't walk to the window and buy a ticket, but there were going to be more people trying to sell them outside than were trying to get in.
On the surface that seems crazy for an NFL playoff game, but it's important to know a few things about the Carolinas and pro sports. We really dig the Panthers, but we haven't moved to the level of, say, Steelers fans.
It's not because it's a bad sports city, as an angry, pale, hairy, jobless Cleveland Browns fan would insist between shots of Jager. It's just that pretty much anyone who can afford a ticket didn't grow up rooting for the team for the simple-yet-critical reason it didn't exist yet. I know, because I'm one of those people.
And there's something about that primal bond you get with a team you were forced to like as a kid as opposed to one you've decided to like as an adult. Maybe it's because you're young and impressionable, and maybe it's because your dad would hit you if you didn't cheer. Whatever.
The point is, I grew up with Virginia basketball and football and Atlanta Braves baseball. And to this day, I get physically sick when they lose (I'm sick a lot). I get angry. But I can't control those feelings any more than I can control loving my parents. The teams are fused with my DNA.
I want to love the Panthers that much, and I try to. But the hard truth is I don't, and never will.
Almost all of the rest of us Panthers fans are the same way, which is precisely why we'll "sell out" game like the Cardinals game but we won't break the bank to watch our team play somebody we're favored to beat by double digits—at least not before the NFC championship. We're interested but also pragmatic. I know, I know, not very fan like. But we've been over this.
Throw in the fact that Bank of America Stadium is really big and Cardinals fans are a lot like Panthers fans (as in, they haven't spread throughout the rest of the country like a flu strain and they're sure as hell not going to fly across two time zones to watch their 10-point underdog team in all probability lose), and I was cautiously optimistic that we'd get tickets for not much more than face value.
So was Kristy. That's why, five blocks from the stadium, she was ready to show Pacman Jones what it really means to make it rain by throwing the contents of my wallet as well as her wedding band, earrings and credit card at some guy trying to sell his upper-deck end zone seats.
Granted, he did only want face value—75 bucks—but I figured that if the first guy we saw was only trying to get face value we were in good shape. Kristy didn't speak to me for the next two blocks, but it was all good. We were looking for lower level, baby.
With the stadium in sight we came across another seller. He appeared to be nothing more than a kindly old feller just trying to make his money back on a couple of extra seats available because his grandson had an unexpected volunteer shift at the homeless shelter, but I began to doubt this back story when we balked at paying $150 each for upper deck.
So he magically pulled out a pair of lower levels that he only wanted 175 for—negotiable. Next thing I knew, tickets were flying out of this guy's clothes like he was David Copperfield.
Thanks, but no thanks. I'm at a distinct disadvantage with a professional scalper under the best of circumstances. Throw in a bladder full of Rock Bottom's finest malted hops, and I might as well just give the guy my Visa.
We found a port-a-potty, and by the time I finished it was three hours to game time. Kristy wasn't going to make it much longer. The pressure was killing her.
As we walked up a fairly deserted street, another older gentleman was holding up a pair. Lower level. He wanted $125 each for $115 face value. This looked good. It looked real good. But don't be too eager. Never be too eager.
I pulled out my stadium map to make double-dog sure Section 206 was really lower level and in Charlotte, and as soon as I did he corrected himself with a quick "well, they're not quite LOWER level. More like club level." True, dat.
Still club level was fine with me, but not for one penny more than $120 each. He took it. We had lower level, at face value, and we skipped off in happiness.
It was clear we were in for a special night. You could just tell.
The revelry outside the stadium amongst the tailgaters was contagious, and the two hours we spent in a cool little dive called George Herman's watching the Titans fumble away their game with the Ravens were two hours spent in contented bliss knowing we had tickets in hand and the crappy Cardinals waiting.
The real question was, could we afford to go it again next week if the Eagles came to town (here's a tip: Two hours in George Herman's will have to confident you can afford just about anything).
At last, it was time to go to the game. Our first foray into the stands as Panthers fans came two falls ago, against the Dallas Cowboys, and remember my point about being a Panthers fan, but maybe not a fanatic? That was a great example.
No way were we paying what scalpers were asking to watch that team almost certainly lose, especially since it was pretty darn nipply out. We ended up getting a good deal on crappy seats just before kickoff so we did go, but it honestly wasn't much fun except for the cardio work we got hiking back and forth to our seats.
This time, though, had to be different. And it was. The seats, just above the Panthers tunnel, were great, the barbeque sandwiches were delicious and the Jonathan Stewart touchdown on the opening drive was electrifying.
Somewhere about this time I caught the girl next to me looking at my sandwich with an expression of bemusement, awe or disgust.
I couldn't tell for sure because I didn't yet know that this was her expression pretty much all of the time, and I had to assume the worst because there was almost as much food flying out of my mouth as there were disgusting eating sounds. I mean, I was really hungry.
Still, between swallows, I had to ask "What's wrong with my sandwich?"
Words seemed to snap her back to attention, and she looked at me with glazed eyes before uttering, in an endearing Columbia, S.C., accent, "That sandwich smells goooood."
It wasn't the response I expected, but we were on the lower level. Anything could happen here on the lower level. As we soon found out.
First, Jake lost a fumble inside his 10. Being a little sloppy with the ball. Just Jake being Jake. Then, he threw a bafflingly terrible interception. Jake being Jake again, only this time it wasn't so funny since we were now losing as a result.
I was peeing when INT No. 2 came, with Carolina knocking on the door of its own touchdown. Uh-oh, I texted my brother, we're about to be in big trouble. That was because apparently Larry Fitzgerald was wearing some kind of invisible suit.
Something had to explain how the best receiver in football was running all over the field by himself until Kurt Warner eased the pangs of loneliness with a football to the chest.
By the time Arizona led 27-7 at half, everybody in the stadium knew it was over. We couldn't believe it, but we knew it.
Jake went on to be Jake twice more in the second half before stopping drunkenly at five picks, and I won't lie: It reached the point that the few of us left in the stands were searching feverishly for double coverage on every play and imploring Jake to throw into it.
He didn't let us down.
We stayed until the bitter end, said slurring good-byes to the sandwich-sniffing girl beside me, her boyfriend and her tipsy sister, who hated Virginia because she didn't get in its law school but insisted on calling Jake Jake Delhomo because he deserved it.
She also let it slip that they'd only paid $50 each for their tickets, so so much for my brilliant maneuvering. The final indignity, Ron being Ron.
We walked slowly back to the train station. Our plans of a post-game wrapup beer drifted away as bed suddenly seemed like a pretty good idea, and 30 minutes later Kristy and I were falling off to sleep in our $69 room.
There will be a third Panthers game, and hopefully a fourth. I hope Jake is Jake for them, too. If your team is going to lose, you may as well have a historically awful performance to remember it by. And I'm sure Ron will be Ron and Kristy will be Kristy when it comes to scoring tickets.