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In My Opinion

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Carolina Panthers, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Anna Kournikova – Scott Fowler remembers

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.

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  • 5 local sports figures who are great fun to interview

    Jake Delhomme. His rambling Cajun interviews were a delight.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. One of the most introspective, down-to-earth celebrities you will find.

    Ron Rivera. Unfailingly honest and unafraid to admit his occasional mistakes.

    Stephen Curry. Genuinely one of the nicest human beings on the planet.

    David Marsh. One of the best swim coaches in America explains his sport with verve and enthusiasm.

     

    4 local sports figures who were no fun to interview

    John Fox. A superb coach, but he disdained the day-to-day interviews an NFL head coach must submit to in his later years at Carolina and made them as difficult as possible.

    Alonzo Mourning. Mellowed later but was a handful in Charlotte.

    Mike Dunlap. The Bobcats’ coach for a single season had an “I’m-smarter-than-you” air he didn’t bother to hide.

    Julius Peppers. So shy he avoided interviews at all costs.


Twenty years ago, I began work at The Charlotte Observer in a world without smartphones, Twitter and HDTVs. Cam Newton was four years old.

Since then, I have written about three million words for this newspaper in close to 7,000 days of work.

This is not a retirement column. Hopefully, you and I will carry on this sports conversation for another decade or two.

But it is a look back at 20 of my most memorable days in this job.

Most of them were great. A few were terrible. In chronological order, here’s my personal “20 for 20”:

March 29, 1994. Although I was originally hired to write mostly about the Carolina Panthers, my first assignment at The Observer was to assist a cast of dozens at the newspaper in covering the only men’s Final Four Charlotte has hosted.

For my first story, I wrote about a brand new floor put down specifically for the games at the now-extinct Charlotte Coliseum.

Trying too hard to make a good first impression, I wrote the first two paragraphs of the story in rhyme (“No score. No lore. No days of yore.”) Fortunately for me, my bosses didn’t fire me after that one. Ever since, I have ditched the rhyming approach.

May 28, 1995. I knew very little about NASCAR when I came to Charlotte but have come to enjoy the people who populate the sport. My introduction to one of racing’s most enduring and likable characters came when I wrote a lengthy piece on Jeff Gordon, who was then 23 and known as “Wonder Boy.”

Oct. 15, 1995. The Carolina Panthers lost their first five games of their inaugural season. They won this one, 26-15, against the New York Jets at a “home” game in Clemson. Linebacker Sam Mills returned an ill-fated Bubby Brister shovel pass 36 yards for a touchdown. No Panthers fan in Death Valley that day will ever forget it.

Nov. 25, 1996. I met my future wife at The Observer on the escalator, between the second and third floors. Three months later, I took her back there under some pretext late one night and proposed on the same escalator. We have four kids.

Jan. 5, 1997. The Panthers’ first playoff game, at home against Dallas, was a monstrous success for Charlotte. Against a Dallas team featuring four future hall of famers – Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith and Deion Sanders – Carolina won 26-17. The stadium has never, ever been louder.

Dec. 20, 1997. After I wrote something about quarterback Kerry Collins that he perceived as too negative, he took to a local radio station to defend himself and rip me. That resulted in some fans making two signs displayed at the next Panthers game. One asked The Observer to fire me. The other said I had “no creditabilty.”

May 31, 1998. Many of my favorite stories for the newspaper turn out to be about ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances. In 1998, I wrote a five-part series called “The Pitch.” It was the story of Kenn and Chrissy Wright and the pitch Kenn threw in high school batting practice that changed their lives forever when it was drilled back into his forehead.

The Wrights were and are terrific people, and I will always be indebted to them for allowing me to tell this story, which in turn gave me the opportunity to write a number of other multipart stories for the newspaper (some of them are on my website under “favorite stories” at www.ScottFowlerSports.com).

June 20, 1999. Payne Stewart won the U.S. Open in Pinehurst, N.C., on Father’s Day, edging Phil Mickelson by a stroke, on No. 18 with a 15-foot putt. Stewart would die in a plane crash only months later. This remains the best golf tournament I have ever seen in person.

Jan. 19, 2001. I will use this date as a stand-in for the worst sports year I have ever seen in Charlotte, because it was the day former No. 1 Panthers draft choice Rae Carruth was found guilty of conspiring to commit murder.

But 2001 also saw the death of Dale Earnhardt, the Charlotte Hornets inching closer to their departure to New Orleans and the Panthers bottoming out at 1-15. It was awful.

Jan. 10, 2004. The most entertaining game the Panthers have ever played was their 29-23, double-overtime playoff win at St. Louis, which ended with Steve Smith scoring on a 69-yard pass from Jake Delhomme. He flung his arms wide apart as he sprinted into the end zone, and the whole Carolina region hugged back.

Feb. 1, 2004. Three weeks later, the Panthers played in their only Super Bowl – losing a 32-29 thriller to New England and Tom Brady. Tough ending. Fantastic game.

March 2004. I am unsure of the exact day on this one, but sometime that month I sat down for a three-hour lunch with Panthers great Sam Mills. He was fighting the cancer that would ultimately kill him in 2005, but that day was a good day. We talked about his “Keep Pounding” speech and his career and his kids. I never wanted that lunch to end.

May 28, 2005. As a longtime tennis player and fan, this odd day was a keeper for me. On a temporary tennis court set up near Charlotte Motor Speedway, I got to play a 10-minute tennis exhibition against Anna Kournikova. Of all the participatory journalism I have done – catching punts from the Panthers’ Todd Sauerbrun, a full-speed ride-along at the speedway – this was the most fun.

Dec. 29, 2006. Kobe Bryant scored 58 points in a remarkable triple-overtime game against the Bobcats, but the Bobcats won. Given that the Bobcats have yet to win a playoff game in their 10-year history – and that may well change this year – this game remains their high-water mark and one of those games where everyone who attended felt lucky.

March 23, 2008. Davidson upset Georgetown in Raleigh in one of the best NCAA tournament basketball games ever played in North Carolina. Stephen Curry had 25 points – in the second half! – as Davidson rallied from 17 down. It was phenomenal.

Dec. 25, 2010. On this Christmas Day, we published a story called “The Magic Touch,” about a local high school runner named Jenna Huff who helped another runner she didn’t know across the finish line at a girls’ cross country meet. I love to write stories about good sportsmanship, and this was one of my all-time favorites.

Aug. 9, 2012. My bosses have been kind enough to send me to five Olympic Games for the newspaper, and each has had its splendors. But seeing Usain Bolt run faster than any human ever has and then act like the Muhammad Ali of track? That was hard to top. On this day, after winning the 100- and 200-meter races, Bolt declared: “I’m now a legend. I’m also the greatest athlete to live.”

Nov. 18, 2013. The Panthers’ Monday night home game against New England this past season had it all: a controversial and incredible ending in which Luke Kuechly wasn’t flagged in the end zone for pass interference (the “Immaculate Perception” or “Robbed Gronkowski,” take your pick) and a victory over Brady.

Dec. 22, 2013. Barely a month later, the Panthers edged New Orleans in another home thriller that was partly played in a driving rainstorm that makes the whole game even more surreal. Domenik Hixon played only one year with the Panthers and made only one catch anyone will ever remember, but what a catch it was.

Dec. 28, 2013. Shortly after that New Orleans game, a project we had been working on for a couple of months came to fruition. The newspaper was able to gather 15 of the kids that quarterback Cam Newton had handed “touchdown footballs” to during his career for a picture.

Then Newton surprised them all by showing up. No one charms kids more completely than Newton does, and the looks on those children’s faces that day is something I will still remember in 20 more years.

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