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Never a better time to be a sports fan in Charlotte

By Tom Sorensen
tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com
Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for 20 years and has been at the paper for 25, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.

Walk through the weight room, take a left at the CHAMPIONSHIPS START HERE banner and there’s Independence High football coach Joe Evans pulling a new gold helmet from a cardboard box.

The helmet looks like an ornament you’d see on a tree but with a dark green facemask.

“You hand one to a kid and it’s Christmas in August,” says Evans. “This is just the best time of year, man. I don’t even look at New Year’s Day as a fresh start. I look at the beginning of football as a fresh start.”

Spend 10 minutes with Evans and you want to ask for a helmet and a roster spot.

If you can’t get excited about your teams in August, you’re either too cynical to have teams or one of them is the Jacksonville Jaguars.

I’ve lived in Charlotte since 1981, and I contend there has never been a better time to be a sports fan in this town.

True, when the Charlotte Hornets were new in 1988 and again when the Carolina Panthers were new in 1995 every game was like a first date. You ignored the flaws or didn’t care. Support was unconditional. Message boards had yet to be invented.

We supported pro teams the way college towns support college teams. Now we have a college team.

The Charlotte 49ers play their first football game of this and any other season Aug. 31 on campus against Campbell.

That Richardson Stadium is sold out attests to how long the 49ers have waited and how deeply they care. They don’t have to leave town to tailgate. The spring game was less a practice than a celebration of the sport.

The 49ers did it. They did it whether you thought they would or not. They have a great stadium and a staff that recruits Charlotte as if they have a deed. Every practice is a testament to the high school talent in and around Charlotte.

“They’re really getting after it,” says Evans, whose elusive receiver, Austin Duke, is a 49er. “I went to their 7-on-7. There’s something in the air out there.”

There will be something in the air at BB&T Ballpark in the spring – noise. Fans no longer have to leave the state to watch a Charlotte team play Class AAA baseball.

A series of frivolous lawsuits delayed construction so long the stadium felt like a myth. The check is in the mail. Adam Morrison was a good draft pick. The Charlotte Knights will build a ballpark.

The ballpark is here and it is stunning, and the Knights open it April 11, 2014 at 7:05 p.m. against the Norfolk Tides. The idea of seeing the lights and hearing the fans, and an occasional line drive, and sitting outside in the middle of uptown Charlotte feels like a gift.

Bank of America Stadium is a mammoth home run away from the ballpark. As bad as the Panthers looked in their second exhibition against Philadelphia, they will honor their commitments and go ahead with the rest of the season.

They come with Steve Smith and Cam Newton and, in rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei their best inside presence, says one coach, since Kris Jenkins.

The NFL rules Charlotte and almost every other mid-sized to major market with a team. When Russell Wilson and Seattle come to town to open the season Sept. 8 you ought to be uptown even if you don’t have a ticket.

If the Panthers fail to make the playoffs, they’ll start over. This is the season to which they’ve been building, which is the reason everything they did in the off-season is a testament to the status quo. They believe; be interesting to see if they’re entitled.

The Charlotte Bobcats aren’t new but the possibilities they offer are. A season removed from being one of the worst teams in NBA history, they could win half their games.

They drafted Cody Zeller, the 7-footer out of Indiana. He’s a forward, not a center, a big man adept at running the court, jumping to the roof and shooting from the outside.

The Bobcats also added the most expensive free agent in team history, center Al Jefferson. Jefferson is an ice flow of a big man with an interesting array of old school inside moves. Fans could go to home games not to wear the jersey of a visiting star but to watch the home team.

Meanwhile, out at Charlotte Motor Speedway, owner Bruton Smith did not deliver on this threat to move one of his major races to Las Vegas. So Charlotte still has three. In other news, it will continue to.

Before the races, before uptown baseball, before the Panthers and the Seahawks and the 49ers and the Camels, there will be high school football.

The Patriots open the season Thursday at Memorial Stadium against South Mecklenburg.

Walk down an Independence hallway last week at 2:55 p.m. and I dare you not to stop.

The school band practices in a classroom and you know what it sounds like?

Friday night.

“Everybody’s 0 and 0 right now,” says Evans. “Boot it up and let’s go.”

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