When Mary Ward tells you last Sunday was one of the greatest days of her life, that’s really saying something – considering she’s lived nearly 35,000 of them.
That’s right: Born in 1920. Walked a mile each way to attend a two-room school in Lincolnton. Earned 40 cents an hour at her first job. Has lived in the same three-bedroom, one-bath house in west Lincoln County now for 95 years.
But it wasn’t simply the fact that the longtime Carolina Panthers fan finally got to attend her first game last Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
It was the fact that they rolled out the blue-and-black carpet.
“They put me in a wheelchair as soon as I got there ... and first thing, they gave me a Bo Biscuit. Now that was delicious,” Ward says. “People would come along and say, ‘Oh, I want a picture with you!’ Then they took me down on the field.”
She got to meet team owner Jerry Richardson. She got to meet team president Danny Morrison. She did not, however, get to meet team quarterback Cam Newton.
“I really wish I could have talked to him,” Ward says. To say what, exactly? “Oh, it’s hard to tell what I would’ve said. I’d have had to hug his neck. He might not have wanted me to, but I would have.”
One thing’s for sure, though: They’d have done The Dab.
In case you missed it, the reason for all this star treatment for Ward dates back to Thanksgiving Day, when her only great-grandchild – Justin Smith, 32 – had a simple idea for a cute photo opp.
He had his Maw Maw put on his Panthers jersey. He taught her how to strike the pose that represents the dance Newton does every time he brings a football into the end zone. Then, without knowing how it would all turn out, Smith posted the picture on Facebook and his fiancee, Kylie Carson, posted it on Twitter.
Somehow, ESPN got wind of it, and created a side-by-side comparison of Cam dabbin’ and Ward dabbin’ on Instagram.
Says Ward: “It went like wildfire after that.”
‘She had a lot of swag’
Though the Panthers happily provided her with a wheelchair so she could move around the stadium in comfort, generally she can walk just fine on her own, thank you.
During the warmer months, Ward – who worked blue-collar jobs in factories and for catering companies for more than six decades, retiring at age 86 – spends lots of time in her garden.
She nurtures and picks mustard greens, beans, corn, cucumbers, tomatoes and other vegetables; she cans some; she freezes a lot of others, so she can pull them out and make vegetable soup in the winter.
And though the grandmother of one (she outlived her only daughter) sometimes needs you to repeat yourself because her hearing isn’t what it used to be, she likes to boast that when she meets people and tells them her age, they say, “I don’t believe you’re 95 years old!”
“My doctor told me one time – about two years ago, I reckon – he said, ‘You gonna make it to 100, and when you do, I better be invited to the party.’ I said, ‘You will be ... and you can have the first dance.’ ”
At Ward’s most recent checkup, the same doctor told her: “I can’t find a thing wrong with you. I don’t want to see you again for six months.”
Of course, he ended up seeing his patient sooner than expected: on TV, during the second quarter of the Panthers’ blowout of the Atlanta Falcons.
Suddenly, her face was projected up on the condominium-sized HDTVs at both ends of Bank of America Stadium. She smiled. She waved. And once again, she dabbed.
“Everybody hollered and roared, clapped their hands,” she says. “I can’t begin to tell you how excited I was. ... I told somebody, it was the best day I’d had since I was a teenager. I was just like a queen sittin’ down there.”
The Panthers tweeted out a photo of her on one of the big screens, along with this quote from its star quarterback: “I don’t know whose grandma that was, but she had a lot of swag out there.”
‘I’m praying for ’em’
She’s been invited to be an honored guest at the Hood Hargett Breakfast Club’s big Panthers event on Jan. 15, the day before Carolina hosts its divisional round playoff game.
But the media attention has started to taper off a bit for the first time since Thanksgiving.
Yes, like The Dab itself, Ward’s time in the spotlight will eventually fade.
What won’t wane, though, is her devotion to the (still undefeated!) Panthers. She’ll always have that.
For several months out of the year, “That’s what I do on Sunday afternoon: I sit down on my recliner and I don’t move till the game’s over.” And every once in awhile during the games, she prays.
During the nailbiter against New Orleans on Dec. 6, for instance, she couldn’t help but look up toward the heavens.
“I said, ‘Dear God, show me a miracle!’ I said, ‘Let the Panthers start winning!’ It wasn’t long till Cam got a touchdown. It wasn’t about 10 minutes till he got another. So they ended up winning. ... Now, some people don’t believe in God, but I do.”
The amount of faith she has in her football team? Not quite as intense ... but still very strong.
“I believe they gonna make it to the Super Bowl,” Ward says. “But I’m praying for ’em anyway. You tell Cam for me: I hope and pray that they win the rest of their games.”