by Steve Jones
Dozens of folks gather around a smoking grill and open-air bar. A sound system pulses beats in the distance. Grown men in football jerseys and painted faces pontificate on the attributes and deficiencies of a team, their team. Women lead young girls in cheers as their pom-poms furiously shake. Food and drink are aplenty.
Three hours before kickoff, the largest Carolina Panther tailgate is underway.
Here, on the west side of Charlotte's Bank of America stadium, across the railroad tracks and beneath the shade of trees, lies every fan's paradise. This is where every Sunday during NFL football season the Patherfanz bus, a modified 1979 Thomas International school bus, sits in all its glory. It serves as the gathering place on Sundays for Pantherfanz tailgating, which attracts a varied group: doctors, lawyers, bartenders, carpenters, businessmen and businesswomen, and others.
Dan Ortel and the late Mark Stanton founded Pantherfanz Tailgating in 1999. As the party became more popular, supplies and space needed to catch up. But hauling supplies in and out on Sundays had become a massive chore, so in 2003 - the season the Panthers went to the Super Bowl - Pantherfanz devotee James Hastings bought the school bus. The modified vehicle, which he transformed by himself, allows for a smoother party because it is mostly self-contained. After a post-game clean up, Hastings packs up all the equipment and parks the bus near his home until the following week, resupplying when necessary. He repeats the process ten times a year.
"It's the fraternity of the fan - the celebration in the lot," Ortel said.
Every comfort required for a successful tailgate can be found on or around the bus. Hungry? An array of smoked meats hot off the grill with side-dishes galore awaits. Thirsty? Try the liquid libation concocted at the bar called Panther Potion, guaranteed to "put a a scowl in your prowl." Threat of rain? An awning that extends from the roof of the bus provides shelter. Female fan who fears Porta-Jons? Step onto the bus and use the woman's only bathrooms.
"Everyone is happy to see you and all are together sharing food, having fun and watching the great American past time," Ortel said.
The stadium seats that line the open back deck came from old Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. Hastings drove to Philly himself to pick them up. Pantherfanz like to say that the their team took the 2003 NFC Championship game from the Philadelphia Eagles and then Pantherfanz took the Eagles' seats.
The tailgate serves as a welcome party and support group. It often welcomes opposing team fans, though not too many (verbal sparring is tolerated, but ignorance and out-of-control behavior isn't tolerated). When the Panthers stink like they did this year, Pantherfanz mourn together. When there is a need, monetary or otherwise, the group chips in to provide.
Its unofficial motto is, "We have never lost a tailgate."