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Carolina Panthers, circa 1955, from the mind of a Charlotte graphic designer

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/05/17/35/sQ3wS.Em.138.jpeg|316
    - Courtesy of Matt Stevens
    Charlotte-based graphic designer Matt Stevens produced this faux retro logo for the Carolina Panthers, as if the were founded in 1955.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/05/17/56/ij8br.Em.138.jpeg|192
    - Courtesy of Matt Stevens
    These retro Carolina Panthers items were imagined and produced by Charlotte-based graphic designer Matt Stevens.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/05/17/35/1o7Pz5.Em.138.jpeg|192
    - Courtesy of Matt Stevens
    This wall pennant and these cheer buttons were produced by Charlotte-based graphic designer Matt Stevens, who imagined how the team might have been promoted in 1955. The Panthers started play in the NFL in 1995.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/05/17/35/1sF3Uw.Em.138.jpeg|192
    - Courtesy of Matt Stevens
    What if the Carolina Panthers had been formed in 1955 instead of 1995? They’d have retro items now, like these football cards, as imagined by Charlotte-based graphic designer Matt Stevens.

Matt Stevens is a dreamer, which comes in handy in his work as a graphic designer in Charlotte. So when his friend Ryan Kalil , the Panthers’ Pro Bowl center, asked him recently to imagine what the Panthers’ history would look like if the team had been created way before its true inception in 1995, Stevens couldn’t stop thinking about it.

As a personal project, with no endorsement from or affiliation with the Panthers, Stevens decided to imagine a logo and brand history for the Panthers if they had been founded in 1955 instead of 1995.

“It just sounded like a nice round number,” Stevens said of 1955 – Kalil had not specified a year.

The results are dramatic. Stevens said he put about 30 hours of work into the project, which he then posted on his blog at hellomattstevens.com.

The level of detail is startling. Stevens imagined a history that didn’t exist. The Panthers are way too young to have retro uniforms, but not in his mind. He not only designed a fake logo, but also a fake game program from 1955, fake buttons and fake football cards. Kalil’s last name is hidden in one of them – there’s a made-up player named Bryan Lilak (turn that last name around).

Stevens, 42, grew up in Asheville, graduated from UNC Charlotte in 1994 and has lived in Charlotte ever since. After working in small to mid-sized graphic design and branding shops for most of his career, he opened his own company two years ago. He rents a small, one-person office in the Cotswold area. He has a wife and three children. He did one of the sketches for the retro program cover while waiting for a pizza on a Friday night to take home to the family.

This sort of “on spec” project thing has worked for Stevens before. He was obsessed with Nike shoes in the 1980s, and did some creative illustrations about one particular brand of Nikes not long ago. Nike saw them and eventually hired him for a project. He has also done work for Facebook and Pinterest.

“I like to do things I’m passionate about,” Stevens said. “And I’m a huge football fan and a huge Panthers fan, so this made sense.”

Stevens got to know Kalil when he designed a logo for a charitable foundation Kalil works with called Littlekings.org. During that project, Stevens quickly realized Kalil was no dumb jock.

“Ryan has all sorts of creative interests,” Stevens said. “Movies, comics, design – he’s into lots of stuff.”

After Stevens finished the project, he put the work on his website Monday. Kalil gave it an online boost by sending out the link on Twitter. The link has since been picked up by one of Sports Illustrated’s websites and several other national sites. Stevens said his personal website usually draws around 500 hits a day, but the exposure increased his hit total to about 12,500 per day this week.

Based on the feedback he has gotten, the most popular part of his design seems to be the black panther leaping from atop a silhouette of North and South Carolina. He figures he will sell at least a few of them at $30 each. He won’t outsell the suddenly ubiquitous “Ice Up, Son” T-shirts, but his are still pretty cool.

As for the win-loss record for the Panthers over those 40 “lost” seasons? Stevens didn’t imagine any actual results for the team. I guess he will leave that to you.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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