Why am I a Carolina Panthers fan? The answer is obvious, right?
I live in Carolina (North, for the record). The Carolina Panthers are in the NFL. This is America. The NFL is king in America. What else is there to think about?
Well, I'm going to let you in on a little secret: I never really liked the NFL that much. I still wouldn't say it's my favorite sport. When Charlotte landed the team, I had forgotten the city was trying to get a team.
Sorry. Was that out loud?
I got a job at a daily newspaper right of college in '94, and while the rest of the sports staff was fighting over who would get the honor of standing in the sweltering sun to cover training camp I was angling to take over preps.
But it was impossible to ignore the increasing hype as Carolina's inaugural season approached, and with Clemson, SC, being less than an hour and a half from my home I decided to go to my first NFL game in the autumn of 1995.
Clemson's massive Memorial Stadium was not sold out that day against the 49ers, and in case you don't know I wouldn't recommend its upper deck for anything outside of confronting your fear of heights.
I was intrigued, but I still wasn't on the black-and-blue bandwagon. Cue Dom Capers, Sam Mills, Kevin Greene, Steve Beuerlein, Wesley Walls, Moose Muhammad—the first time (dude, he's old)—and the rest of a gang that came out of nowhere to advance to the NFC championship game in just the franchise's second year.
It was fun. It was uniting. It was exactly what the Panthers needed to hook a fan base that could maybe include me.
A couple of years later I took over as sports editor, and covering every Carolina home game for six years allowed me to know the product like never before. I like sports because I appreciate athletic achievement, and until you've been on the sideline during an NFL game you really can't understand the astonishing talent of these particular athletes.
I know I didn't.
It's like standing in the batter's box against a 96-mph fastball (I've done that, too), your overwhelmed senses jarring you with the true limits of what the human body can achieve. The size and speed of pro football players produce collisions so violent you wonder how they can survive one, much less a whole game.
I know I wouldn't last three plays.
But when the helmet's off in the locker room you discover that as much they appear to be machines while competing they're still people. Gigantic, absurdly muscled people covered with veins, scars and ice packs, but people nonetheless.
There's joy to be envied when they win and pain to be pitied when they lose.
Strangely, I really got into the team during the dark days after '96, wincing through six straight losing seasons, lowlighted by '98's 4-12 and 2001's ghastly 1-15, not to mention Kerry Collins' drinking, Rae Carruth's horrific hit on his pregnant girlfriend and the almost-as-unbelievable murder of Fred Lane by his scumbag wife.
The next thing I knew, the Carolina Panthers, all their highs and lows, roster turnover and losing, had become part of my life.
The Super Bowl run of 2003 was a delicious reward for perseverance, made all the more sweet because nobody thought it would happen as late as Dec. 7, when the Panthers lost their third straight game to fall to 8-5.
But a can-you-believe-they-won-that-game momentum built all season for people who saw them every week, fueled by guys nobody had ever heard of. Where did Jake Delhomme and Steve Smith come from? Carolina fans didn't even know, and it was great.
Stephen Davis and Mike Rucker had the seasons of their careers, and the Panthers needed it all and more to win four overtime games on their way to the Super Bowl, where they were one bad John Kasay kickoff away from taking down the New England Patriots.
After Carolina finally succumbed, the Super Bowl party at my house went silent. I was hoarse from screaming, and I concluded I probably hadn't needed those last, say, six beers.
I also wondered if anyone else noticed Justin Timberlake pulling Janet Jackson's top off, but that's another story (which reminds me, I don't remember that naked guy up there at all).
But in the days that followed I realized that was the most fun I've had watching sports since the Atlanta Braves rose to prominence in '91, and it was no use pretending I still wasn't an NFL fan. The Panthers had officially joined that select group I call "My Teams."
Once you're in that club, there's no going back.