- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2004

They were dancing in the streets of Charlotte, N.C., after the Carolina Panthers beat the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday to win the NFC Championship and make it to Super Bowl XXXVIII. They were dancing everywhere else, too.

“On the bar, on every stool and table,” said Michelle Mrosek, general manager of Stool Pigeons, a popular sports bar located a few blocks from the Panthers’ newly renamed Bank of America Stadium. “We have six bartenders and 10 servers, and nobody could do anything because everyone was screaming and cheering.”

It wasn’t just that the Panthers are going to their first Super Bowl, or that they proved wrong the so-called experts who picked them to finish last in the NFC South or doubted them throughout the playoffs. The celebration was, in a sense, a giant sigh of relief, the shedding of a huge weight, a raw shout of exhilaration after so many years of so many bad things happening to the region’s professional sports teams.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” said Jim Szoke, sports director of Panthers flagship radio station WRFX.

Bill McMillan, the Charlotte Sports Commission marketing and business development director, put it this way: “Hopefully, we have exorcised some demons.”

Demons or not, something was going on.

A few years ago, then-Panthers defensive back Eric Davis said, “You start wondering: ‘Hey, we’ve got a black cat for a mascot, huh?’ I’m starting to wonder about it.”

Davis was referring to a bizarre string of injuries during training camp, but he could have been talking about the array of tragedies and other misfortune that struck the Panthers, and other teams, over the years.

GQ magazine did just that, publishing a four-page article, “Charlotte’s Web” that posited the region’s sports teams were cursed.

And this was before the Panthers went 1-15 in 2001.

In life-and-death terms, that was the least of it.

Carolina receiver Rae Carruth in 1999 was the first active NFL player to be charged with murder. He was acquitted on the murder charge but found guilty of conspiring to kill his pregnant girlfriend and is serving an 18-year, 11-month prison sentence.

Running back Fred Lane was shot and killed by his girlfriend in 2000, four months after being traded by the Panthers to Indianapolis, seven days after the birth of their daughter.

Bobby Phills, a member of the Charlotte Hornets NBA team, was killed in a 2000 car crash while drag racing with teammate David Wesley after leaving practice, three miles from Charlotte Coliseum.

That’s enough drama for any sports market, especially one of the smallest in professional sports.

Yet, there was more.

The Hornets were a riches-to-rags story, a good idea gone awry. Born in 1988 as an expansion team, the club became a playoff contender in its fourth season and led the NBA in attendance. But owner George Shinn managed to alienate an entire community to an extent rarely seen in professional sports. With Shinn’s approval, the Hornets traded crowd favorites Alonzo Mourning, Larry Johnson and Muggsy Bogues.

Also, Shinn found himself accused by several women of sexual harassment. Although none of the charges stuck, his reputation was damaged even further. Finally, when Shinn and the city engaged in an acrimonious battle over a new arena that resulted in the Hornets moving to New Orleans in 2002, the populace was relieved to see Shinn leave. Another expansion club, the Charlotte Bobcats, starts play next season.

Quarterback Kerry Collins, drafted fifth overall by the Panthers in 1995, confessed he had a drinking problem and a “polluted, chemically altered mind” that led to erratic play and behavior that included his asking to be released and calling a teammate a racial epithet. A clean and sober Collins detailed his alcohol addiction during a news conference before Super Bowl XXXV, in which he played for the New York Giants.

Three months before Phills was killed, Hornets guard Eldridge Recasner suffered a broken shoulder and collapsed lung in another traffic accident. Teammate Derrick Coleman was charged with drunken driving in the crash.

Now, finally, the Panthers, who made it to the NFC Championship game in their second season (1996) only to quickly regress, have provided some pure, unadulterated good news.

“There have been a lot of things that haven’t been positive,” McMillan said. “It’s been a tumultuous time. I think that any sports city has to grow through pain, and we certainly had that in a very short time. But this is a real homecoming for us. This kind of brings everything to where we think it should have been a long time ago. It’s a concentrated lesson in how to be a sports fan.”

Said Mrosek: “I think people kind of gave up. There was a lot of negativity. And then when the Hornets left, it was kind of another slap in the face.”

How things have changed.

“Last year our bar was always empty on Sunday,” Mrosek recalled.

Molly Hedrick, a spokeswoman for Visit Charlotte, the visitors and convention bureau, said she had not dwelled on the past misfortunes. Then again, that’s not her job.

“I guess it’s the kinds of things where you keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep on going,” she said. “And when great things happen, you celebrate. And that’s what we’ve done.”

Terry Knight, a Panthers’ season-ticket holder from the beginning, bought two Super Bowl tickets online for himself and his 16-year-old son, Kyle. They are end zone seats, $1,900 a pop. But it doesn’t matter.

“I might not have another chance in my lifetime,” said Knight, a parole agent who lives in Spartanburg, S.C. (the hometown of Panthers running back Stephen Davis) and drives 90 minutes to attend games. “We might be sleeping in the parking lot, but we’ll be in the stadium.”

Some Panthers rooters have been accused in the past of being casual, laid-back, fair-weather fans, literally, who wouldn’t show up if it was raining. Not Knight. He bought personal seat licenses when the team was formed, and has attended almost every game going back to when the Panthers played at Clemson Stadium. To Knight, the 1-15 season was worse than anything else that happened, even the off-field tragedies. It still bugs him that the Panthers drafted Tshimanga Biakabutuka instead of Eddie George in 1996, Jason Peter instead of Randy Moss in 1998 and Kerry Collins, period.

But Knight is happy now. He loves this team, and not just because it’s in the Super Bowl. He loves coach John Fox, who replaced George Seifert after the 1-15 debacle. Seifert, “for gosh sakes, wouldn’t even wear a headset,” Knight said. “How could he know what was going on? I was tuned in to the radio broadcast at the games, and I knew more than the coach.”

How happy is Knight about this sudden turn of events? On the drive to Houston, he and Kyle plan to stop in Breaux Bridge, La., the hometown of Jake Delhomme, and pay homage to the Panthers quarterback.

Knight said he isn’t sure exactly where Breaux Bridge is located, except that “it’s in Louisiana” and “it’s got to be near I-10 somewhere.”

The Panthers are a true regional entity, in name and marketing strategy. They own the southern part of the state, where Charlotte is located, and portions of South Carolina. It has a been a slightly harder sell elsewhere, like Raleigh, the state capital, about a 21/2-hour drive away. But that’s changing.

“They are definitely marketed and positioned as a regional team, but in reality it’s a Charlotte team,” said Scott Dupree, director of sports marketing for the Greater Raleigh Visitors and Convention Bureau.

“I think it’s accurate to say that prior to the playoffs, in this part of the state, a lot of Panthers fans were casual fans. Before the Panthers came here, this was strong, strong Redskins country. And there are still a ton of Redskins fans. But through time, I think a lot of people have switched allegiances. I think the bandwagon has gotten more crowded. … Right now, it’s the No. 1 topic.”

Which is saying a lot, because Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill form what is known as the Research Triangle. But it is better known as the heart of ACC basketball country, where mere miles separate Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State and where passion for the sport might be more concentrated than anywhere else.

And yet, here it is late January and fans are talking about something other than Duke again sitting on top of the polls or Roy Williams restoring the glory and tradition of North Carolina hoops.

“The feeling’s the same as one of our teams going to the Final Four,” said Joel Freeman, manager of the Carolina Ale House, a Raleigh hangout.

Said Dupree: “Right now, the Panthers are deadlocked with ACC basketball, which is a high compliment.”

On Saturday, the day before the Panthers’ victory, North Carolina played at home and beat then No. 1-ranked Connecticut in a nationally televised basketball game. Big story, right?

“On the sports talk shows and in general conversation, the Panthers have taken the top of the ladder ahead of Carolina-UConn,” Dupree said. “Which, on a normal day, would have been the No. 1 story.”

The Panthers “are a big deal here,” he said. “There’s no doubt.”

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