Twenty years ago this month, the wraps came off a gleaming mega-behemoth of then-ultra-modern architecture, custom-made from blue glass and steel and concrete and the dreams of a North Carolina food-service magnate named Jerry Richardson.
It was Sept. 1, 1996 – the day the NFL came to Charlotte, as the Panthers hosted the Atlanta Falcons in uptown’s first regular-season game.
“Going into the stadium for the first time and seeing the 70,000 people just glassy-eyed-delirious over getting their own team – being in the biggest of the big leagues, a redemption for Mayberry, North Carolina – it moved Charlotte to an ethereal level, almost, of joy,” says Max Muhleman, a marketing expert who helped the Richardson-led group’s seven-year effort to win a franchise. (The team had played its inaugural season a third of a tank of gas away, at Clemson’s Memorial Stadium.)
But even after two exhibition games, Panther fans still were figuring out how – and when and why – to make some noise on opening day in their new home, then called Ericsson Stadium. What was correct: Fancy clothes or painted bare chests? Wine or beer? Sitting and clapping, or screaming and leaping?
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That bickering over etiquette astonished outsiders. “Unprecedented and curious,” Joe Horrigan, curator of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, told the Observer then. “How to act should come natural. Nobody ever passed out instruction cards for the wave.” The Observer itself took the new-to-the-NFL crowd to task, in a next-day story, for doing the wave when the Panthers had the ball. “It distracts the offense. Better still, don’t do it at all. It is the stuff of lemmings.”
Oh, how far the team and its fans have come.
Or wait, maybe that should be a question: How far, exactly, have the team and its fans come since that first game? To give you an idea, here are 20 flashbacks to mark the 20th anniversary of the building now known as Bank of America Stadium – the building that team owner Richardson liked to call “The Miracle on Mint Street.”
1. Well, so the biggest party happened the night before, but ... how’s this for a blast from the past? The Rock ‘N Roar celebration on Stonewall Street was headlined by KC and the Sunshine Band and The Pointer Sisters. It was definitely an older crowd: Even at the time, neither group had been in the Top 40 for more than a decade.
2. It wasn’t the elegantly distinctive Panther Blue glowing from the tops of half a dozen skyscrapers – that kind of unified show of support was nearly two decades away – but five uptown towers did individually coordinate their office lighting to spell out the letters “NFL” the night before the Day One game.
3. Churches around Charlotte reportedly saw a few more empty seats than usual that morning, more than a few parishioners were seen wearing Panthers paraphernalia to their pews, and church parking lots emptied out more quickly than usual due to the 1 p.m. kickoff time. First Presbyterian on West Trade even offered its Sunday-school students a program titled “Reflections on the Impact of Panther Football.”
4. A clever Panthers marketing team laid down a trail of blue paw prints (ostensibly left by new mascot Sir Purr) that seemed to emerge from a manhole at The Square at Trade and Tryon streets. They led anybody who followed them down to First, over to Church, along to Mint, then ended at a drainage grate in the shadow of the two much-more-frightening-looking Panthers guarding Ericsson Stadium’s east gate. Those paw prints and those bronze statues made grand photo opportunities that weekend and would have blown up Instagram – if not for the fact that Instagram was still 14 years away.
5. At the very first pregame tailgate parties outside the stadium, former Observer sportswriter Ron Green Jr. pointed to “microbrews” as the hot new tailgating trend. In 1996, the most popular microbreweries in Charlotte were Southend Brewery & Smokehouse, Dilworth Brewing Co. and Queen City Bakery & Brewery. None of them exist anymore. We’d name all the ones that have sprung up in their place in recent years, but that would take up far more space than we have available.
6. For marketer Muhleman – who had also helped bring the Hornets to town in 1988 – the opening of the stadium was big. Huge. “A birth-of-your-first-child moment,” he calls it today. Muhleman, who still lives in Charlotte but is now mostly retired, says the day marked a new height for the city. “When Jerry’s long quest came true, we pole-vaulted into the upper ranks and said, ‘Excuse me, New York, Chicago, Dallas. Move over. We’re here.’ ”
7. Darius Rucker loaned his distinctive baritone to the national anthem at the height of his Columbia rock band Hootie & the Blowfish’s popularity. The singer certainly was high on the Panthers, and proved it by purchasing a permanent seat license in the stadium, but his enthusiasm had its limits: Rucker refused to perform while the team was playing at Clemson because the Tigers are his alma mater South Carolina’s arch-rival.
8. A group of 15 professional photographers and a corps of eight amateurs representing Gardner-Webb University were assigned to shoot every angle of every moment before, during and after the historic game. The best photos ended up in a 136-page picture book titled “Carolina Panthers Sunday,” published by Pachyderm Press. Used copies are available on Amazon’s website for about $4 or $5.
9. Speaking of photo opps: Then-Charlotte Hornets coach Dave Cowens, former Hornets coach Allan Bristow and wrestler Ric Flair were among the faces in the crowd. Fans lucky enough to run into these celebs – and lucky enough to have brought a camera – took advantage. Then they took their film to the store to get it developed, crossing their fingers that the shot came out.
10. As for who was on the field, the Panthers head coach at the time was Dom Capers, and the starting quarterback against the Falcons was Kerry Collins. But lots of eyes were focused on rookie running back/first-round draft pick Tshimanga Biakabutuka, who made history in the game by becoming the first native of Zaire to play in the NFL.
11. Tight end Wesley Walls – a self-professed “ol’ redneck from Pontotoc, Mississippi” with a fake front tooth – caught a 1-yard touchdown pass from Collins late in the first half, held the ball out briefly, spiked it, then dropped to one knee and fired an imaginary gun at it several times. “We were playing the Falcons, see?” he said after the game. “So I was shooting the birds out of the air. ... I was using my pump-action shotgun and bringing them down.” Today, the celebration might be a 15-yard penalty, and together with his comment would almost certainly spark a Twitter debate about tastefulness/appropriateness/“Is this a bad example for our youth?”
12. Frank Garcia started the game at left guard for the Panthers. In an interview with the Observer, wide receiver Willie Green called Garcia “a real quiet guy.” Today, Garcia talks for a living, as host of Charlotte sports radio station The Fan’s (610 AM) “Bustin’ Loose” show, which airs noon-3 p.m. weekdays.
13. Outside linebackers Lamar Lathon and Kevin Greene combined for five sacks (Lathon three, Greene two), and also teamed up during that opening-day contest to create a nickname: Salt and Pepper, because Greene is white and Lathon is black. Though in 2016 it would be a less-kosher nickname, it worked well then, as did they as linebackers – they went on to finish first and second in the NFL in sacks (Greene with 14.5 and Lathon with 13.5), and both made the Pro Bowl. This summer, Greene made the Hall of Fame, the second former Panther (after Reggie White) to do so; this Sunday, he’ll hit the “Keep Pounding” drum before the game against the 49ers.
14. And starting at left inside linebacker was Sam Mills, who was 37 at the time and on the brink of retirement. Safety Brett Maxie said of his veteran teammate: “He’s like the Michael Jordan on our team. He comes around once in a lifetime. It’ll be 100 years before the Panthers have another guy like Sam.” Mills would go on to become a beloved assistant coach for the Panthers, but was diagnosed with intestinal cancer in 2003. His “keep pounding” plea, first uttered in an emotional speech he gave to the team before it beat Dallas in a wild-card playoff game on Jan. 3, 2004, became a rallying cry for the Panthers; he died in 2005. Today, a statue of Mills greets fans at the stadium’s north entrance.
15. More proof you were in the South: The new Ericsson Stadium scoreboard was as insistent upon giving updates about the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina as it was about other NFL games. (For the record, Jeff Gordon won the race that afternoon.)
16. If 2015 was the year of The Dab, 1996 was the year of the Macarena. Mills told the Observer after the game that he could see people dancing in the stands as the Los del Rio song played, but wasn’t so impressed with their moves. “They were out of beat and they were out of rhythm,” the linebacker said. “But they were doing it.”
17. One theory for the rather newbie-ish fan behavior on display during the first game was that upper-class folks who simply wanted to see and be seen had gobbled up scores of seats. At the time, WBT radio host Gerry Vaillancourt told the Observer: “The upper seats were into the game constantly. Other sections were incredibly distracted by a Tupperware sale or something. Maybe it was a tea party, I don’t know.”
18. It wasn’t all bad news, though, fan-behavior-wise: In the first quarter, with the Falcons on the Panthers’ 15-yard line, Atlanta quarterback Jeff George tried to audible into a screen play he was confident would gain the 6 yards needed for a first down. But a roar from the end zone caused half of George’s offense to miss the call, led to an incompletion, and ultimately a missed field goal attempt. “That’s the advantage,” George said, “of the 12th man.”
19. Collins completed 17 of 31 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns as the Panthers won the game 29-6, setting a then-franchise-high record for points scored in a regular-season game. “It’s full speed ahead,” Lamar Lathon said, “and the sky’s the limit.” (The team would go on to a surprising 12-4 finish, then beat Dallas at home to advance to the NFC Championship, before losing to Green Bay.)
20. No, the Panthers didn’t meet the deadline set by Richardson back in 1993, at a rally on the site of this stadium: a Super Bowl title within 10 seasons. But asked after that first game how good the Panthers could eventually be, Sam Mills said something fitting for any opening day – including this Sunday’s: “I guess you’ll just have to wait and see.”