Her stunned expression lit up millions of television screens and widened the smiles of thousands of Carolina Panthers fans.
Pink-hatted and wide-eyed, 8-year-old Isabella Bottomley jumped up and down, cradling the football as if it were a newborn baby.
Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart had just handed her the ball he used to score Sunday’s first touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks.
For Isabella and her family, the following 24 hours were a blur. High fives with Panthers players and cheerleaders. Scores of text messages and phone calls. Interviews with reporter after reporter.
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“My son asked me this morning: ‘Were we dreaming? Did that really happen?’ ” Isabella’s mother, Renea, said Monday.
On the 110-mile drive back to their home in Alleghany County, Isabella and her 10-year-old brother, Kellen, agreed there would be no games of catch with this football. They agreed they would keep it free of dirt and scuff marks.
But the ordinarily shy Isabella had to lay down the law when her brother asked to sleep with the ball Sunday night.
“She said: ‘It’s going to be our family football. So we’ll keep it in the living room,’ ” Renea said.
My son asked me this morning: ‘Were we dreaming? Did that really happen?’
Renea Bottomley, mother of Isabella, 8, who received a touchdown football from Panthers RB Jonathan Stewart
Isabella’s father, Kelly, grows pumpkins, Christmas trees, cabbages and sweet corn on a 3,500-acre farm that hugs the Virginia border.
A longtime Panthers fan and season ticket holder, he’s relishing a 16-1 season that he says he will never forget.
Before Sunday’s game, he had decided to trade in his usual four tickets in section 521 for better seats. The new tickets cost $660 apiece. It was a bargain, Kelly said.
“For the experience we had, it would have been worth double the price,” he said.
When Kelly and his family got home Sunday night, he wasted little time making another online purchase: a walnut and glass case for the ball they know they will never sell.
He said he has attended more than 100 Panthers games, but “there wasn’t ever anything close to this one.”
Isabella is one in a growing club of lucky children. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton started a tradition in October 2011, when he began handing footballs to kids after the team’s touchdowns. Since then, there have been dozens of football giveaways.
Isabella sums up her experience with a single word: “Awesome!”
The second-grader says she likes math, enjoys her twice-weekly dancing lessons and loves the Panthers – particularly linebacker Luke Kuechly. She can’t remember a time when she wasn’t a Panthers fan.
So is the football that Jonathan Stewart gave her the best gift she expects to receive all year?
Nope. The second best.
Her mother is expecting a baby this summer.
Alexander: 704-358-5060; @amesalex
Panthers Pride Rally
Cat fever will be on display Friday afternoon at an uptown Charlotte rally to cheer on the Carolina Panthers.
The rally will kick off at noon with music at Romare Bearden Park, 300 S. Church St. Starting at 1 p.m., fans can see Panthers players, Sir Purr, the TopCats, PurrCussion and the Black & Blue Crew.
The Panthers Pride Rally is sponsored by Bank of America and produced by the Carolina Panthers and Charlotte Center City Partners.