It was a swarm of blue and black and white. Of Newton and Norman and Davis and Kuechly jerseys, or shirts with (of course) the word “Dab” on them somewhere.
Before long, the chant began: “Let’s go, check-in person!” Clap. Clap. Clap-clap-clap.
These 80 die-hard Carolina Panthers admirers – on a day-after-Christmas field trip hosted by a fan group called the Roaring Riot – had just stumbled off two coach buses and were now crammed into the lobby of the DoubleTree in Atlanta’s tony Buckhead district, waiting for their room keys.
The trip down Interstate 85 from Charlotte Saturday took longer than expected, thanks to engine trouble on Bus No. 2 that required a visit to a repair shop and then an accident that diverted the convoy onto a couple of long and winding back roads.
But spirits, optimism and (in some cases) blood-alcohol content levels were high.
There’d been plenty of free beer and wine on the bus. More complimentary alcohol awaited, at a cluster of bars on the other side of Buckhead. Plus, kegs would be flowing freely Sunday at a Roaring Riot tailgate party, which was expecting as many as 1,000 guests.
This was all a prelude to the weekend’s main event: a takeover of the Atlanta Falcons’ Georgia Dome, where if all went well, Charlotte’s NFL team would improve its unbeaten record to 15-0 while Roaring Riot members would Keeeeeeeep … Drink-ing.
Zack Luttrell is quick to point out, however, that the Roaring Riot – which he started in 2008 with, yes, a bunch of Panthers-loving drinking buddies – is about much more than just booze.
“We felt like people were looking for more ways and different ways to connect to the Panthers, to connect with other fans,” said Luttrell, 38, a former events manager and social media entrepreneur. “Our basic philosophy is simple: Be loud and support the team.”
For games at Bank of America Stadium, that’s not a tall order.
Panthers road games are where the challenge lies. So Luttrell coordinates the purchase of large blocks of tickets for certain opposing cities, fills them with club members and encourages those fans to make a whole lot of noise.
And if one had any doubt whether they’ve been making an impact, try this: Star quarterback Cam Newton shouted out Roaring Riot during a press conference earlier this year, and he praised the club for its volume during a surprise visit to its holiday party a couple of weeks ago.
In a pep talk to members, Newton said: “We feel you guys. We hear you guys. We are you guys.”
‘Where the Panthers fans at?’
It was a little presumptuous, but at 10:15 p.m. Saturday, Panthers fans who clogged the patio at The Pool Hall in Buckhead sang along at the top of their lungs to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” – the song that gets piped through the loudspeakers at Bank of America Stadium after every win.
The crowd took a break briefly, mid-tune, to (mostly) good-naturedly boo three men wearing Falcons colors as they exited the bar onto Irby Avenue.
And for the next hour, The Pool Hall was converted into a Panthers bar. When the DJ asked, “Where the Panthers fans at?” pandemonium erupted. When he followed that up with, “Where my Atlanta Falcons fans at?” Not a dab of cheering.
Atlanta being the closest NFL city – and one the Panthers visit every season – it’s the easiest road trip; Luttrell has organized groups for the Falcons game every year for the past eight. Miami was added as a second trip in 2013. Tampa was the bonus trip in 2014.
This year, Roaring Riot offered travel packages for three games: Jacksonville, Nashville and Atlanta. In each city, Luttrell arranged for some ground transportation, a meal or two, bar parties, tailgate parties and blocks of 100 or more tickets to the game. (Pricing for the Atlanta trip, for instance, ranged from $330-$355 per person with hotel and tickets included.)
The Jacksonville trip helped put the club on the map, after Luttrell was able to rent the majority of EverBank Field’s poolside cabanas, which led to photos of swimsuit-clad members going viral.
In fact, earlier in the evening, a first-time Riot road-tripper told me: “I saw them take over the pools in Jacksonville, and I was, like, I want to be a part of that.’ ”
Of course, it’s the 14-game winning streak that has helped Roaring Riot go boom.
Luttrell’s goal for 2015 was to get to 1,000 members. Today, there are more than 1,750 across eight chapters in North Carolina, two in South Carolina and six in other cities: Atlanta, Denver, New Orleans, New York and Washington, D.C.
And how’s this for dedication? Steve Diaper and his 15-year-old son, Keanen, came all the way from Camberley in Surrey, England, to get the full Roaring Riot experience (minus the bus trip; they flew into Atlanta via Germany).
Steve’s a native of the U.K. with no connection to Charlotte, the Carolinas or even the U.S. He just loved American-style football as a teenager and picked the Panthers when they joined the NFL in 1995. His allegiance hasn’t wavered since.
“This was a Christmas present to us,” said Diaper, 46, as he waited in line at Sunday’s tailgate for a burger and chips – or, fries, as we Yanks call them. “We thought, ‘Well, we could sit there and have a few things under the tree, or we could go to Atlanta and watch the Panthers play.’ ”
The lines for both the food and the drink – which came from taps attached to the Roaring Riot’s refrigerated trailer – swelled as noon neared. The crowd, by this point, numbered well over 500 thanks to club members who got to Atlanta another way, local-chapter members and other Panthers fans who had latched onto the massive party.
After corralling a good number of the tailgaters for a group photo, Roaring Riot’s Atlanta chapter served up free Fireball shots then sent everyone over to The Dome.
‘A wake-up call’?
Most of the Riot club’s seats were in Section 303, high up in the corner of the stadium on the visiting side – not at all close to the action but designed, Luttrell said, to maximize the volume.
“When we’re 100 people spread out all over the place, there’s no impact. … People ask me all the time, ‘Hey, can you get better tickets?’ I’m like, ‘You can sit in the lower level any game you want to. How many opportunities do you have to go to an away game and sit with 100-plus Panther fans?’
“When we start doing chants and cheering and ‘Keep Pounding,’ people hear us.”
Unfortunately, Newton struggled Sunday, and, as a result, the Roaring Riot struggled to find reasons to cheer. But they tried.
More than once, Luttrell used his booming voice to start “Let’s go Panthers!” chants, and his group followed his lead – and that group is loud, so it spread to the many Carolina fans ringing the inside of the stadium. Several “Let’s go”s into it, if you looked two or three sections over, you could see hands clapping to the same beat. Yup – Luttrell started that.
But in a season that has given Panthers fans countless opportunities to trade high-fives, there were only three Sunday: Newton’s touchdown, Falcons kicker Shayne Graham’s missed field-goal attempt and Josh Norman’s fumble recovery.
It was that kind of game: Could have been an instant hangover cure, a huge pick-me-up; instead, a 13-20 loss just made Roaring Riot members’ heads hurt.
“Of all the teams to lose to,” said Luttrell’s mom, Trish Ellington, who assists with the planning and execution of every Riot trip. “Atlanta. We hate Atlanta!”
“I didn’t care about the bus breaking down. I could have dealt with almost any other bad thing happening,” said Clinton Baker of Concord, traveling with his wife, Kellie. “This was just the one thing I didn’t want to see.”
There was plenty of positive spin, though. “We’re still 14-1,” said Charles Elliott, 28, who was making his second Roaring Riot trip to Atlanta with his older sister Sarah. “I mean, it does suck that we lost, but going forward hopefully we can use this as kind of a wake-up call.”
After all, there’s a Super Bowl to worry about. They hope.
Just be aware that even if you’re a club member, Luttrell can’t help with travel packages on that one.
“We don’t have that kind of reach, unfortunately. The hotels are impossible out there; tickets are obviously impossible. So my response when people ask is: Unless you have money to burn, we’ll throw a good party in Charlotte.”
Join the club
Members pay an annual fee of $25 that gets them a T-shirt, sticker, access to members-only events and free beers at tailgates before home games. Details: www.roaringriot.com.