Charlotte found out just before lunch Thursday that its heart had been broken, officially.
The Carolina Panthers tweeted at 11:25 a.m. they’d released wide receiver Steve Smith. Fans immediately took to Twitter and Facebook, even a hardy few to a noontime rally at the stadium, to register what was, by a strong majority, displeasure.
Among the printable tweets:
“I think I just died a little inside.”
“Any way we can release Gettleman?”
The team’s Facebook page got nearly 17,000 Likes in one hour for a team note quoting Smith (“I will always be a Carolina Panther”) and comments criticizing the team for releasing him garnered hundreds of approving Likes (sample: “Maybe you should have shown him some respect Panthers Front Office, the way you handled this situation was a joke.”)
And at the stadium, a tiny but diverse crowd of perhaps 15 held up homemade signs in an impromptu rally: “Not everyone forgot the meaning of loyalty” and “Smith, you will always be the heart & soul of the Panthers.”
That group – men and women, black and white, young and old, some in 89 jerseys – clearly hoped Smith himself would stop by but didn’t really expect him to.
Charlene Clark and husband, Bryan, said they moved from tiny Summerton, S.C., to Charlotte specifically for the Panthers.
But Smith – he means even more to them.
“I love how he motivates people, and I love how he gets in people’s heads,” she said. Others chimed in, nodding and talking over each other and, at one point, encouraging each other to share their favorite Smith moments, which ranged from his first touchdown to his taking time to talk to their children.
“Think how many times he could have left us,” said Carson Mackey, who said he’s been a fan since 2001. “He brought a lot of attention to a team nobody believed in,” said another.
When a TV reporter asked the group if it had a cheer, Mackey opted for “Bring Gettleman out here!” though “Ice up, son!” prevailed. A dump-truck driver laid on his horn as he passed the group, which yelled and whistled at him and other cars that beeped in solidarity.
Smith is “a family man,” said Tammy Goldwire, who told how Smith talked to her 11-year-old son and even walked over to her 3-year-old granddaughter and “told her she was beautiful.”
Moreover, “playing football is a dangerous sport,” said Kaden Alexander. “He put his life on the line. It’s disrespectful to treat him this way.” Asked if they’d be out there if Smith had simply retired, the fans nodded: “We’d be out here crying instead of being p------ off.”