When I arrived at Charlotte Douglas Airport around 11:30 Sunday morning, there were already several hundred fans waiting in line to get their plane tickets, including one gent named Bill Morris who was decked out in a Panthers uniform complete with shoulder pads and helmet (more on him later).
Around 1:30pm we finally boarded the plane -- and not just any plane, but a Hooters plane, no less, although some of us were a little disappointed to discover the stewardesses weren't wearing those little orange shorts and white tops. Nonetheless, spirits were high as we took off, everyone pumped and ready for a showdown with the Eagles in the, ahem, City of Brotherly Love. In keeping with the alcohol-soaked tradition of this column, when the drink cart came my way I ordered a beer or three. Somehow I don't remember much more about the flight.
As we made our descent into Philadelphia, one of the Panthers' staff announced to the rowdy and now buzzed passengers to expect to be harassed and taunted, and recommended everyone use the buddy system and that they keep their Panthers gear as incognito as possible. This elicited a chorus of groans and boos, and when I looked over at Bill "Mr. Panthers uniform" Morris, he had a strangely serene smile on his face. I had to admire the man's gumption and team spirit, although his sanity remained in doubt.
It was snowing lightly in Philly, adding to the inch or so already on the ground. Perfect football weather. We exited the plane and piled into several charter buses, and our caravan made its way to Lincoln Financial Field. As we drew closer to the stadium, we passed the Philadelphia Shipyard, along with several other arenas and facilities all emblazoned with the Wachovia logo. Hey, I thought, we already own these guys.
The taunting started as soon as our buses got within snowball range of the Eagles tailgaters. A wave of jeering arose and a glut of flipped birds popped in the air as our caravan pulled up across the street from the stadium's main gate. Welcome to town! A tall wrought iron fence separated most of the tailgaters from our group, and as we filed off the bus several testosterone-fueled shouting matches immediately erupted. Some of it was good-natured, and some of it was a collection of drunken, obscenity-laced tirades. In addition to the occasional snowball, a full can of beer, a beer bottle, and even a cell phone were hurled at us.
Keeping with the buddy system, I struck out with four guys I met on the plane, including Scott Magnuson, an affable chap decked out in full Panthers regalia, including a Panthers hardhat. "I came here to go to work," he explained. This would make him a prime target for the rest of the day.
We had about an hour to kill before the doors would be opened, so we hung around in front of the stadium's main gate, where the excitement and fervor were building -- as were the taunting and trash talking, which was mostly limited to "Panthers Suck" and "asshole." Occasionally, one of the more creative Eagles fans would punctuate it with "faggot!" A witty, urbane bunch, these Eagles fans, unafraid to boldly go where most grown-ups won't -- in other words, they let loose with a string of obscenities in front of young kids.
We also encountered several friendly, good-natured Eagles fans who seemed pretty dismayed and embarrassed by the obnoxious behavior. Several local media types were out front interviewing the more outlandishly dressed Panthers fans, including, of course, my man Bill Morris who, it turns out, actually lives in Augusta. (Huh? I didn't get it either.) I also chatted with the Observer's Tommy Tomlinson, who was hanging around out front. He of course would be kicking back in the press box during the game, while I'd be battling out in the trenches.
They finally opened the doors at 4:30, and we shuffled inside the stadium, a big, open-air facility that seats 68,500 -- about 4,000 less than Ericsson (or Bank of America or whatever, who cares) Stadium. Big, flat screen TVs hung every 100 feet or so in the concessions area, where folks gathered to watch the New England-Indianapolis game and eat Philly Cheese Steak sandwiches and drink $6 beers.
We were definitely strangers in a strange land as we walked among a sea of Eagle green humanity, suspicious eyes scanning us up and down. By then the taunts of "Panthers suck" and "asshole" had become all too familiar. They were usually shouted directly in Scott's ear, but he seemed to take it all in stride, even when some bozo walked by and smacked the Panthers hard hat off his head. As we were walking around, we spotted Mayor Pat with his own nifty police escort. He gave a quick fist pump and a "Go Panthers" before being whisked away by his entourage. (He was reportedly pelted with beer after the game.)
We settled into our seats a little after six, by which time the temperature had dropped into the scrotum-tightening 20s, but I kept warm with a steady supply of beer. Most of the Panthers fans were sitting in three sections just to the side of the goalpost. Directly in front of my section was a particularly rowdy group of Eagles fans, who were apparently the designated cheerleaders for the entire section. As the game progressed, they would seem increasingly deflated.
After a mercifully short rendition of the national anthem by American Idol Ruben Studdard, the game was on. Things progressed smoothly for the Panthers despite the frigid temperatures and hostile turf. In the second quarter Jake Delhomme tossed a wobbly lob pass to Muhsin Muhammad in the end zone to put the Panthers on the board.
In the "what a small world" category, near the end of the second half I noticed a vaguely familiar looking guy with several cameras slung around his neck taking pictures of Panthers fans. It turned out to be former Charlotte County Commissioner Lloyd Scher, who has apparently switched from politics to journalism.
During halftime -- with the Panthers leading 7-0 -- the Eagles cheerleaders braved the bitter cold and high winds and danced and cavorted about dressed in skimpy outfits. Their efforts were much appreciated by all those around me.
During the third quarter, the Panthers again scored when DeShaun Foster powered his way through a pack of tacklers and into the end zone. 14-3 Panthers. When the Panthers made yet another key interception in the fourth quarter, the rowdy cluster of Eagles fans in front of us cleared out, most of them congratulating us and wishing us luck. Others cussed, threatened and spit at us as they were leaving. Ah, sportsmanship.
As the final minutes of the game ticked down, the reality set in that the Panthers were going to the Super Bowl, and for just a few hundred strong, all the Panthers fans in attendance made some monster noise.
As we made our way back to the buses, all the piss and vinegar seemed to have left the Eagles fans, and only the most drunken or stupid continued to sling insults and threats. Another bonehead again slapped Scott's Panthers hardhat off his head. After being stuck in traffic for about half an hour, we finally pulled away from Lincoln Field, which now looked like some kind of apocalyptic wasteland strewn with garbage and refuse. At the airport I saw Morris, still wearing his Panthers uniform and looking a little shell-shocked. Apparently he had a pretty rough time, including a near fight in the men's bathroom, and being tackled from behind after the game. Fortunately, the guy was so drunk Morris said he basically just kicked him off.
As we pulled into Charlotte around 1:30am, everyone cheered when they saw that Ericsson Stadium was lit up -- home to the Panthers and, quite possibly, the 2004 Super Bowl Champions.