Carl Jackson pulled his 1991 Dodge Ram 250 into a grassy lot near Bank of America Stadium earlier this month and fired up his eight-burner grill.
By 11 a.m., two hours before the Carolina Panthers game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, at least 100 fans crammed around his two 10-foot-by-10-foot tailgating tents.
Blowing on his plastic blue Panthers horn, Jackson led everyone in pep rally cheers. The Panthers drumline, PurrCussion, performed high-energy routines with cymbals and drums.
Its like that every home game at Jacksons Big Blue Panther Van, off Cedar Street across from the Panthers practice fields.
But after so many years of grilling burgers, hot dogs, chicken breasts, kielbasa and steaks for friends and fans of opponents alike, the longtime PSL holder is retiring from tailgating. Hes been a Panthers tailgater since the teams debut, except for a brief break.
Jackson, 55, of Greensboro wants to enjoy Panthers games beginning next season with his 6-year-old grandson, True, of Mooresville. His seats are on the Panthers side of the field on the 10-yard line in the upper level.
Many who show up at his tents were strangers before they were attracted by his boisterous chants.
Carolina, he yells.
Panthers, the crowd responds.
They repeat the cheer. It ends with everyone shouting: Ooh, ooh, oooh!
Its like a joyous family reunion, one repeated across center city before games.
An uptown tradition
Thanks to the Panthers, thousands of fans have turned tailgating into a Charlotte tradition, building community one burger, beer and ribeye at a time.
When Jackson renews his seats each year, he always slips in a note. Protect the tailgating lots, it reads.
Just look at the crowds, the excitement that tailgating has brought to the city thanks to the Panthers and the NFL, Jackson said.
We are glad to welcome so many engaged fans to uptown, said Michael Smith, president and CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners.
Jackson shows up at his usual perch five hours before games. To find his tailgate, look for the huge black stuffed Panther on the front of his truck. The Panther clenches a pennant of the opposing team in its mouth.
Jackson has been a Panthers devotee from the start, when the team played at Clemson University in 1995 before the uptown stadium opened.
Hes been so loyal that he continued tailgating throughout the Panthers 1-15 season of 2001, when many tailgaters stayed home.
Photos he took that year show an empty field normally packed with tailgaters where he sets up.
Were always undefeated out here, Jackson said before the Dec. 1 game. Weve never lost a tailgate, and our boys are ready to send us out in style, referring to the 9-4 Panthers of 2013, who play the New York Jets on Sunday.
Jackson even welcomes fans of the opposing team.
Eat anything you want, as much as you want, he told Buccaneers fans. Everybody deserves a great last meal.
Jackson allowed in one Tampa Bay fan on the condition the fan join in the Go Panthers chants.
He playfully told other Tampa Bay fans who were walking the wrong way to the stadium: Youre going in the right direction. Keep going eight blocks that way. This is just a hologram, referring to the stadium directly behind him.
Hes the jolliest, nicest man, daughter-in-law Jewel Van De Venter of Mooresville said. You wonder if he ever had a bad day.
Jackson choked up only once before the Tampa Bay game, when he talked to the Observer about how he is retiring after next Sundays game against the New Orleans Saints to take his grandson to the games.
Jacksons tailgate has been featured over the years by NFL Films and a Los Angeles-based Japanese film crew.
He doesnt charge for the meals but hangs a donation box to help defray the hundreds of dollars in costs each game. He about breaks even, he said.
But tailgating also requires hours of labor in the days before and after games, from scrubbing the grills spotless to buying food and supplies. That much he wont miss, he said.
Many Big Blue Panther Van loyalists also help by donating meats for him and pal Roger Hylton to cook, and side dishes for the spread. On his way to the games, he picks up Hylton, 61, in Concord.
Tom and Bonnie Chaffiotte ride the train from Raleigh with a load of fresh steaks.
Longtime tailgating friends Randy and Katherine Goodman bring 14 pounds of barbecue from Garys Bar-B-Q in China Grove.
Jackson and Hylton staff the grill throughout the morning, while Jackson heads out intermittently to greet fans and lead cheers. Hylton also is retiring from tailgating when his friend does.
By 10:30 before the game against the Buccaneers, Jackson was growing concerned, as few fans milled about.
Everybodys still in church, praying for a win, he concluded.
By 11:30 a.m., his tents were so crowded people could barely budge.
A brief absence
Jackson pays the private owner of the tailgating lot $325 a season for a parking pass for his van. Its first-come for spaces in the field, but only once over the years did someone park in Jacksons space, which is beside a creek. Other longtime tailgaters politely directed the person to another area.
Jackson, president of High Point-based Sunland Fire Protection, missed tailgating for several years in the 2000s when he moved to Wilmington to care for his father. He sold the tailgating pickup to Hylton for $1,500. Hylton pulled the truck into the same space off Cedar Street each game.
I wanted to keep it going, Jackson said of selling the truck to his friend to preserve their tradition.
When he returned in 2006, Jackson bought the van back from Hylton and resumed leading the fun.
Jackson told his closest tailgating friends including Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray and his wife, Pam early in the season that this would be his last.
What are we going to do without Carl here? Pam Murray worried to her husband on the way to the Dec. 1 game.
I have friends who dont even have tickets to the game who show up here just to tailgate, Pam Murray said. When you come back after spring and summer, its like you just left an hour ago.
Jacques McMillan, who used to work with Jackson, now lives in Tampa Bay and is a Buccaneers fan. He visited Jacksons tailgate Dec. 1 after visiting family in Georgia over Thanksgiving. This is Carls farewell tour, he said, and I wanted to see him one more time in his element.
Jacksons suggestion to everyone whos enjoyed his tailgating spot over the years? Come right back to the same spot next season.
At 10 a.m. Dec. 1, he shook hands at his grill with Joe Ryan, 58, a founding partner of SouthEnd Brewery & Smokehouse who tailgates beside Jackson.
With the handshake, Ryan agreed to buy Big Blue Panther Van and all its contents for $1,500 and keep it in the same spot.
We couldnt let this die, said his son, Joe Ryan III, 29. We kind of have a legacy to uphold.
Jackson looks forward to visiting. Hell just stay on the other side of the grill.
Marusak: 704-358-5067; Twitter: @jmarusak
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