The Early Years
As a child growing up in rural North Carolina, I often found myself wondering what it would be like to have a father. This thought would frequently run through my mind as I shot hoops outside of my home, rain or shine. You see, basketball became my refuge, my release. Sure, I played and enjoyed many sports, but nothing could compare to the pure joy that basketball gave me. I suppose my love affair with this sport was due in large part to the fact that I was alone. There were no neighborhood children to throw a baseball with, nor were there brothers or sisters to throw a football to. As enamored as I was with basketball at that time, football wasn't far behind, thanks to Joe.
My Friend Joe
I have such fond memories of my friend Joe, who my mother cleaned house for. Even though he was old enough to be my grandfather, he was more like a dad to me. The two things I remember most about him were his selflessness and his love of the Miami Dolphins. I can honestly say that my passion for football was initially cultivated in his living room on Sundays as we watched NFL games with unbridled exuberance. Of course, I had already pledged my allegiance to the Chicago Bears and we would often debate who was the better team. His Dolphins or my Bears. He undoubtedly had a valid argument with the likes of Dan Marino at quarterback, along with the dynamic receiving duo of Mark Clayton and Mark Duper on offense. Admittedly, I was quite fond of Jim McMahon, the Bears brash quarterback who always seemed to be wearing shades. This motley crew of players were as different as they come. You had guys with world-class speed like Willie Gault right along side of Matt Suey, a fullback who personified the term blue collar. I certainly couldn't forget the larger-than-life defensive tackle, William "the refrigerator" Perry, who always seemed to be flashing that gap-toothed smile. However, my inspiration was "Sweetness", an unusual, but appropriate moniker that is still used to today for the late, great Walter Payton, who I believe was and still is the best running back to ever wear an NFL uniform. For all the pomp and circumstance that seemed to follow this wacky cast of characters wherever they went, they are primarily remembered today for their ferocious 4-6 defense, which I still say is the best team defense I've ever witnessed. As I saw it, the Dolphins would soon get what was coming to them that year on Monday night football and this friendly disagreement would soon be settled once and for all.
The Night I Cried
For me, December 2, 1985 was unlike any other day because my Bears were carrying their 12-0 record into the Orange Bowl in Miami for Monday Night Football. I was still a child who had to get up very early for school and my mom had one rule concerning football this late at night. If I took a two hour nap, then I could watch the game. I still remember laying in bed, unable to sleep, imagining anxiously what would unfold later that night. But, this was no ordinary football game. This was the Bears and the Dolphins. This was Monday Night football. It was Christmas night for me. If you don't already know the end of the story, the Dolphins handed the Bears their only loss of the season that fateful night, and it was one of the most satisfying upsets in Dolphins' history because it preserved the fact that they were the only team to finish a season undefeated('72), which still stands today. As it turned out, the Bears still went on to win the Super Bowl in dominating fashion by defeating the New England Patriots, 46-10. I hate to admit that I cried like a baby the night they lost to the Dolphins, but I learned an invaluable lesson that season: One loss does not a season make.
A Professional Team To Call My Own
Over the next five years, I was busy playing soccer, basketball, and little league baseball, just like many other kids my age. I still followed the Bears, but by the early nineties, most of the players I had previously been smitten with had already retired or moved on to another team. In many ways, the Charlotte Hornets had taken the place of the Bears the day they played their first game in 1988. The Hornets were not only local, but they became a source of connection between my uncle, Lawrence, and I. I can still recall listening to Hornets' games on the radio and phoning him at halftime to discuss the current status of our beloved team. The Hornets had become a source of pride for both of us and we were just elated to have a professional NBA team that we could call our own. If only we had an NFL team to call our own.
A More Permanent Professional Team To Call My Own
1992 was like any other year for a sports-addicted teenager like myself. My love of sports had only increased over the years and I was following the NFL's decision to expand with anxious excitement. They would soon announce the final five cities where they would expand in the very near future, and I was on the edge of my seat. The final five cities included the likes of Memphis, St. Louis, Baltimore, Jacksonville, and of course, Carolina. A year later, Carolina was awarded the NFL's 29th franchise on October 26, 1993 and went on to play there first season in 1995 at Death Valley, while their new stadium was being finalized in Charlotte. While they finished their first expansion season with a respectable 7-9 record, the Panthers remarkably reached the NFC championship game in only their second season. Over the next seven years the Panthers seemed to almost exclusively experience adversity. From the infamy of Rae Carruth's murder plot to the embarrassment of Kerry Collins racial slur incident with Mushin Muhammad, along with his release from the team in 1998 after requesting a trade. For what seemed like eternity, this team was ostensibly cursed, until 2003.
A New Beginning
At that time, the Panthers were in the second year of the John Fox era. He had brought in a no-nonsense defensive approach that this team quickly responded to in his first season(2002) by going 7-9. However, the 2003 season got off to a dubious start in the very first game when they found themselves in a 0-17 hole at halftime against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Little did we know that the aging Rodney Peete would be replaced with a newly signed guy by the name of Jake Delhomme, who would immediately prove that he wasn't deserving of the back-up role he had previously been relegated to in New Orleans. There was something special about this guy, and he proved his worth that day when he led the Panthers to victory by hitting Ricky Proehl in the end zone with only 16 seconds remaining. He went on to lead the Panthers to Super Bowl XXXVIII that season, only to lose on a last second field goal to the Patriots. I know it's painful to revisit that fact, but I would do it all over again if given the chance. Delhomme never repeated that same success as the leader of this team over the next seven years, but he endeared himself to many Panthers' fans with his forthright honesty and down-to-earth personality. He always accepted total blame even when it wasn't all his fault. I appreciated his transparency and so did many of you. He was truly one of us. Imperfect, but real. The same could be said of the Carolina Panthers, and this is part of the reason why they are so easy to love.
Change Is Good
We've now entered a new era in Panthers' history. Our logo has recently been updated, along with our coaching staff. We have a new quarterback at the helm. Have you heard of him? Cam Newton has brought a hatred of losing to this team that I don't think this organization, as a whole, has previously had. This new attitude has put us in a place where we are on the precipice of something big. Something special. When I look back on my life, especially those impressionable, early childhood years, I realize that I wouldn't change a thing. Sure, the painful memories can be as fresh as my next thought, but the good times are just as easy to dwell on. These experiences are what made me who I am today and I choose to embrace them. In the same way, we as Panthers' fans, shouldn't forget the past, however sordid it may have been at times. Nor should we forget those rare times when we were among the best teams in the league. Do you remember the invaluable lesson that I learned as a Bears' fan when they won the Super Bowl: One loss does not a season make. That same lesson can be said of our beloved Panthers: One or more losing seasons do not a history make. Likewise, that lesson can be said of you and me: One or more mistakes do not a lifetime make. Sometimes changes have to be made to experience something greater and I think the appropriate modifications have been made for our beloved Panthers to be successful for a very long time. I believe the best is yet to come. How about you?