Panthers fan Robert Avery, wearing a white Steve Smith jersey, took home a nice souvenir Saturday from the first day of the Carolina Panthers training camp: A football caught by Steve Smith himself.
The wide receiver had just scored a touchdown in a passing drill, and responded to the cheers of Panthers faithful by tossing the ball towards the crowd.
“He chucked it right to me,” said Avery, of Mount Airy. “I guess I was at the right place at the right time.”
The Carolina Panthers opened their 14th training camp at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. Saturday morning before a few thousand fans who couldn't wait for football season to begin – and who weren't deterred by $4 a gallon gas.
Some fans came for autographs, while hard-core fans showed up because they wanted to judge the skills of particular players. Another faction attended because it's a rare chance to see professional football up close.
Team officials said the turnout was about the same as in previous years. The Panthers will be there for nearly three weeks, with practices open to the public.
At training camp, you can hear assistant coaches bark out instructions and wince when shoulder pads collide at high speeds. Fans can get as close as 10 yards from the action and are free to roam the sidelines.
“My grandmother and I had season tickets for 10 years, but we could never see them this close,” said Ashley Courier, of Spartanburg. “These guys are huge. We can't believe how close you can get.”
Charlottean Marlon Dowdell came to his third Panthers camp with his son, Joshua, 6.
“I really want him to get a concept of their size, their physicality,” Dowdell said. “You just don't get that when you watch on TV.”
Dowdell watched the first part of practice by the fields, and then headed towards a pack of autograph-seekers. He said the best way to get autographs is to come during the week. Barring that, he said, it can be smart to call for a lesser-known Panther.
“It's organized chaos,” Dowdell said. “If you just want Steve Smith's autograph you may have a hard time. Delhomme can be hard too.”
For the record, Delhomme signed plenty of footballs and photos Saturday, as did several offensive linemen.
Single-game tickets also went to sale Saturday. As of 3 p.m., three of the team's eight regular-season home games were sold out: The home opener against Chicago Sept. 14; against New Orleans Oct. 19; and a Monday night game against Tampa Bay Dec. 8.
The team will practice today at 3:10 p.m. It will come to Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte Saturday for Fan Fest, which starts at 11 a.m.