Sports are amazing. Nothing unites or divides a group of people like it. For example, in 2014 the entire country came together to support "Our Boys" in the World Cup. The same exact thing happens during the Olympics. As humans, we desire the pride of winning a competition. It's a natural drive that we have. Professional sports is how most people deal with that. In 1994, the Carolina's had an easier time doing so when a business man from Spring Hope, North Carolina brought an NFL team to the state that he loved an grew up in. Since then, many (MANY) things have changed for the team that we love and the state that we love more. The Panthers have brought along heroes to save Charlotte that wore shoulder pads and helmets instead of a cape and a mask. I hope that this takes you back to fine times as a Carolinian.
1995: The Beginning - Part One
1995 was actually a pretty phenomenal year for the Cats. It was their first season, they had future Hall of Famers in Bill Polian and Dom Capers running the show and they had two states of support. The season was ultimately unsuccessful as they went a pedestrian 7-9 but success went far deeper than a record for the inaugural season in Charlotte as they were able to find some guys who would end up being integral parts of the future of the Panthers.
With the first pick in the NFL Draft, Polian's team selected the linchpin of Joe Paterno's Nittany Lions explosive offense - quarterback Kerry Collins. He wasn't Polian's only hit that year, as he added all time great Panthers in wide receiver Mark Carrier, offensive tackle Blake Brockermeyer and guard Frank Garcia.
1995: The Beginning - Part Two
After the 1994 season, the New Orleans Saints lost their 5'9" Pro Bowl and All-Pro linebacker to Richardson, Polian and the ability to be the face of the new team's first defense. This probably wasn't a huge blow for the Saints due to a falloff in production but it remains the best personnel move ever made under Richardson's watch.
The thirty-five year old Sam Mills stepped in as an immediate veteran presence in a locker room full of young guys and misfits. In '95 and '96, he rewarded the Panthers for their trust by turning in two All-Pro seasons and earned one Pro Bowl trip. Now, we fast forward.
2003: The Greatest Year
The scene has significantly changed for the Cats at this point. Polian and Capers have been replaced by former journalist and Chargers assistant GM Marty Hurney and the Giants defensive coordinator John Fox. Now they have a new quarterback (Jake Delhomme), new running backs (Stephen Davis, DeShaun Foster and fullback Brad Hoover) and new legendary pass catchers (Steve Smith, Muhsin Muhammad, Ricky Proehl and Kris Mangum) to go along with an elite offensive line led by rookie Jordan Gross and a tenacious defense with Julius Peppers and Mike Minter among others. Sounds pretty great, right?
Panther Nation effectively formed that season when their former beacon of hope passed along two words that led the way for a new generation of Panthers - "Keep Pounding." At age 45, Mills passed away after losing his battle with cancer. You could say that he ignited the 2003 Panthers(they went on to go 11-5 and to all the way to the Super Bowl, but that's far too big of an understatement. His death, courage and final speech gave an identy to Carolina's finest.
2014: The Ending of the Second Chapter
In the eleven years between 2003 and this past offseason, a lot has happened. Exit Jake Dellhome and Julius Peppers, enter Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly. Jordan Gross and Steve Smith found themselves during that time and in 2011 and 2012, the Panthers parted ways with Fox and Hurney. They were replaced by Chicago's tough defensive coordinator Ron Rivera and New York Giants scouting guru Dave Gettleman. In Gettleman's first season, 2013, the Panthers made the playoffs.
The 2014 offseason was my toughest time as a fan. I watched my favorite player retire and the heart of the team be released. As I'm writing this, the new regime is fighting in the playoffs, preparing to head to Seattle this weekend. It's impossible for me to know when you're reading this, so I don't know if the Panthers will be eliminated yet. What I do know is that this generation will most certainly fight the Panther Way and Keep Pounding.
Open Letter to Mr Richardson
I'm only posting this because I may need your help. I wrote this and sent it to him at the stadium but odds are that he won't see it. I need Panther Nation to help me share it. Here goes.
"Dear Mr Richardson,
As a seventeen year old, I wasn't alive when you brought the team to Charlotte. Unfortunately I missed most of the great foundation that I love about the Panthers. I never got to see Sam Mills play, was too young to care about the Super Bowl and only vaguely remember Muhsin Muhammad. Your organization was a huge part of my life early on, however. The day I was born, the Panthers were playing on the television in the hospital room. Some things were just meant to be.
An unathletic, nerdy elementary schooler, Jake Delhomme provided an out. As a middle schooler, I was the only one who knew who Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton were. In those early years, I could be found with #17 or #89 on my chest most Fridays when my friends would flaunt their jerseys. The Panthers always meant more. Now those numbers are retired and replaced by #1. My hope is that you will read this and know how much a financial decision in 1994 has severely impacted an uninvolved life. 2014 was the toughest year I've ever faced. I had to remind myself to Keep Pounding. Since I will never get to thank Sam Mills for that reminder, I would like to thank you for that as well.
You can follow Jonathan @BYSSports