News & Views » Cover

A Rugged Road

Carolina sports fans have earned this


The New England Patriots are familiar with this scenario: a team of mostly unknown players, led by a nearly anonymous quarterback, headed into the biggest game of their lives as underdogs without any chance to win. This time, however, the Patriots are the heavy favorites, and the upstart Carolina Panthers are the Little Team That Could, and those same Panthers have already done wonders for the home state fans.

The last several years haven't been kind to sports fans in the Carolinas. Bobby Phills was lost when he and his Hornets teammate David Wesley decided to drag race their Porsches. Former Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth was convicted of murdering his wife and unborn child in a drive-by shooting. Panther Fred Lane was shot to death by his wife. Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Steve Chiasson was killed in a one-car accident. And the effect of the untimely death of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt is still felt throughout the region. Adding insult to injury, the once-revered George Shinn turned sleazebag and packed the Hornets up and left town barely a decade after their inaugural season. Getting the idea? For a state that's hosted professional sports teams for only about a decade and a half, that's a lot of off-the-field sadness to endure.

About a year ago, I was listening to a local sports talk station and they announced the signing of a guy named Jake Delhomme, who was to serve as backup quarterback. I knew Delhomme's name as a player in New Orleans, but knew nothing about him, his playing style, his career, or why an up-and-coming team like Carolina would have any interest in him. They interviewed him on the air, although I don't remember much of the details. I probably didn't pay attention because I didn't think he would make any difference in Carolina, and questioned the signing. All he did was lead them back from 17 points down in their Week One victory over Jacksonville.

The Panthers also landed Stephen Davis after Steve Spurrier found no use for him in Washington's ill-fated Fun-N-Gun offense. All he did was rush for over 1400 yards en route to an MVP-type season. Add to that the drafting of home state favorite Julius Peppers two years ago to anchor their stifling defensive unit, and it's easy to see why the Panthers are one game away from being sized at the jeweler for a championship ring.

It would be foolish to say that Carolinians have suffered long and hard in the sports world as compared to say, Chicago Cubs fans. Friends, they know suffering. In the time that North Carolina has been home to pro sports, they've actually had a moderate amount of success. The Hornets made the playoffs a few times and broke NBA regular season attendance records in the process. Relocating from Hartford in 1997, the Hurricanes skated for the Stanley Cup two years ago. The Panthers played for the NFC Title in only their second year of existence, losing to the eventual world champion Green Bay Packers.

Long before professional sports came to the Piedmont area, the NCAA's Tarheels, Wolfpack, Blue Devils and Demon Deacons provided more excitement, success, and memories for their fiercely loyal fans than many states have ever known, professionally or collegiate. Lacking in achievement isn't something that sports fans in this area are familiar with. However, personal tragedy and loss is something they've quickly come to associate with their pro sports franchises.

The Panthers may not win on February 1st. They may not even be competitive (although I doubt that will be the case). However, come Super Bowl Sunday, win or lose, they've already done their part to exorcise the demons of the Carolinas' recent sports past. More power to "em.

Add a comment