CHARLOTTE, NC, December 21, 2015 – Two things unify a community more than anything else: A disaster and sports. The difference is that earthquakes, hurricanes, mud slides, terrorism and the like are negative events while the world of sport focuses on the positive.
Twenty years ago, Charlotte, North Carolina didn’t have a professional football team. As a matter of fact, the city didn’t even have a place for an NFL team to play. The Carolina Panthers played home games of their inaugural season at Clemson University in South Carolina more than 2 hours from Charlotte.
In those days the city of Charlotte was a glistening mid-sized city of the new South suffering from an overwhelming inferiority complex. Four hours down Interstate 85, big sister Atlanta not only had the NFL but the National Basketball Association and the Atlanta Braves as well.
Charlotte was living in the shadow of Atlanta. It had an identity crisis. The Queen City simply did not know what it wanted to be or who it was.
The NBA had been in Charlotte for a time and that seemed to be enough. But it really wasn’t. Charlotteans broke professional basketball attendance records because the city was starved for a national reputation. At the same time however, the Charlotte Hornets were only a taste of the big time. There was still something missing.
Charlotte had long been a major financial metropolis. Most people were surprised when they learned that, but even that wasn’t enough to create the awareness the city so deseprately craved.
Then one day, Jerry Richardson came to town with an NFL franchise in his pocket and the Carolina Panthers were born. When the local professional football team completed its first season in what was then known as Ericsson Stadium, they were playoffs bound before losing the NFC championship to Green Bay in their second year of existence.
During their first decade, many fans viewed the Panthers as their second team rather than the favorite. A large number of Charlotteans came from other big cities that already had estblished teams and being so transient, allegiances remained back home. Besides, Charlotte was a white collar town. Its fans were wine and cheese people, not beer drinking, hot dog loving, shirtless-in-20-degree weather fans.
Charlotte had arrived. It just didn’t know it.
Today the Panthers play in Bank of America Stadium. Same place, different name, but one that is far more representative of the second largest financial district in the United States.
Though the team had captured the NFC South’s championship for two straight years, they did it in 2014 with a losing record which wasn’t quite the same as being a dynasty.
Thus, as the curtain lifted on the 2015 NFL season, the NFC South was supposed to be made up of four mediocre teams that were predicted to play .500 football at best.
But Head Coach Ron Rivera and Quaterback Cam Newton had other, bigger ideas. In the rough and tumble world of professional football any team can beat any other team on any given Sunday. Through the first quarter of the season, there were still five undefeated teams, four of which got far more respect than the upstart Panthers. Some of the experts even termed them the worst undefeated team in history.
But the Panthers plugged along. They downed another set of cats from Jacksonville. They played Cowboys and Indians (we’re not allowed to say Redskins any more) from the NFC East and they rode over the Colts from Indianapolis too.
They beat the NFL aviary of Falcons, Eagles and Seahawks. They whipped up on those pirates called the Buccaneers from Tampa Bay.
Even those Goliath teams, the Giants, Titans and Texans were no match for the Carolina guys who just kept on finding the end zone.
The Panthers sent Green Bay packing and even baptized the Saints. Now they are 14-0. Two decades after they were born, Charlotte has found itself. No longer does the shadow of Atlanta loom. The Panthers are for real. The entire country knows about Charlotte and the Carolina Panthers.
The Super Bowl Championship is the ultimate goal, of course, but in a sense it’s the winning streak that perpetuates the magic. Championships come and championships go because the insatiable appetite of the media must constantly look to the future. The present is only the past waiting to happen.
But the streak is different. The streak brings another week of eager anticipation. Day after day. Week after week. When the game begins on Sunday afternoon, the streets of Charlotte are as vacant as a science fiction movie. Three and a half hours later the traffic returns, the talk continues and enthusiasm grows.
The streak is the glue. The streak is what matters. The streak has unified Charlotte as never before. Everybody wants to beat Carolina. Charlotte no longer apologizes, because its Panthers are breathing rarified air. The NFL record for consecutive regular season wins is 23. Carolina has 18 dating back to last year. They have achieved something few National Football League teams have ever accomplished. Even a loss will not alter that fact.
The little team that could is one of the smallest franchises in the National Football League, but it is playing with the big boys and beating them. Only one of the 32 NFL teams is still undefeated in 2015. It will remain that way for at least another week while the anticipation builds and Charlotte, NC grows prouder with each touchdown and field goal.
Cinderella is alive and well and living the NFL dream in Charlotte, NC.
Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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