I've often felt that all three of the professional sports franchises in the Carolinas do a terrible job reaching out to fans across the states. It seems like all of them want to feign embracing both states when it's convenient for marketing purposes, but rarely do anything to show these die-hard fans that they're appreciated too. That's why the Panthers rally in Greensboro was significant, it was different and displayed a meaningful way to show another part of the state that they mattered.
The stifling heat bounced off the pavement and directly into my face, it was clear I needed to get in from the heat fast. A sign with a drunken gnome represented my bastion and upon entering "Stumble Stiltskin's" in downtown Greensboro it was apparent things were different. It didn't matter that Stumbles is predominantly a New England Patriots bar, on this Friday afternoon things were decidedly Panthers, from fans enjoying pre-rally drinks to discount on North Carolina beers. The whole ting felt right.
I sidled up next to the man known in these parts as Tater596 and the indomitable Terrible Metaphor Guy before enjoying a few pre-event brews and navigating the social pitfalls of sitting next to a woman who was either A) From out of town, B) Just very friendly, or C) a Cougar.
Around 5 p.m. we questioned if we needed to make the short walk to Center City Park for the rally. There were a lot of fans on the streets, but we scoffed at the idea that two city blocks needed to be closed off. Being three Triad residents we know this area well, nobody comes out for this kind of thing -- so we ordered another beer with the aim of getting the right as the event was scheduled to begin at 5:30.
We were wrong.
Normally a haven for the Downtown homeless, Center City Park had transformed into a makeshift training camp scene. Play 60 events were teeming with children, merchandise stands were crushed and the line for autographs was unimaginable. A conservate estimate is that between two and three thousand people were there, a third of which were waiting in line for the player tend to the point where it snaked through the park, out the entrance and halfway down a nearby street. It's safe to say people REALLY like Luke Kuechly (no knock on Mike Tolbert or Jonathan Stewart, who were also in attendance.)
The scene was a madhouse mixed with a fever dream, but in the most endearing way possible. Your favorite tunes from the 90's blared out of speakers at a stage while interns were doing their best to throw T-Shirts to a zombie-like horde while Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It" echoed off the nearby buildings.
Children cooled off in the fountain, people were having a genuinely good time and the number of Cam Newton jerseys trumped everything -- even the stalwarts still wearing faded, peeling Jake Delhomme jerseys of a bygone era.
Before long I got word from @M_R_Fish who was in attendance also, waiting in the merch line for a new hat. We met up, said our pleasantries and our happy crew grew. It was here that I spied my new favorite Panthes T-Shirt.
I totally get that the implication is "Panthers football" but it just reads like a shirt that says "Football" and that makes me giggle.
Everything was going swimmingly, then we spied a group of trolling 49ers fans.
That isn't an American flag, at least not in the traditional sense. It had a giant 49ers logo emblazoned over the stars and this loud minority was shouting pro-San Francisco chants and screaming a bevy of Panthers insults. Some wore throwback jerseys, but their whole display was really sad. I avoided the crippling reflected depression of realizing these folks had NOTHING better to do on a Friday afternoon to notice the stunning crispness of their attire -- every piece of merch look like it arrived from NFL.com that day -- appropriate really.
A man in a DeShaun Foster jersey looked like he wanted to kill them, we instead took a selfie -- or more aptly a photo of us was taken.
Give me a break for the shirt, okay? I'd just come from work.
It was at this stage that we decided to try and meander over to the signing tent in hopes of of getting TMG's butt signed. No, not his ass -- but the derriere of his Panthers gnome which he claims was acquired as a gift from his mother. I remain skeptical.
The signing tent was a total mess. Representatives of the Panthers were telling fans one thing, local police were telling them another. What resulted was an unclear cutoff for signatures that finished two people ahead of us. The dream of Mike Tolbert's name on a gnome's butt-flap will need to wait until training camp.
We closed out the evening by seeing the Panthers players leave and meeting up with another CSR user, bengoodfella.
There was one more moment I haven't discussed. After a solid hour of seeing the 49ers fans Tater had enough. He channeled his inner Geoff Schwartz and let fly with a series of brutal burns that left the bandwagon San Franciscans speechless. It was the perfect close to a great evening.
Thanks to everyone who came out. Didn't meet up with us? Tell us your stories of the event. We'll see you in Spartanburg.