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Once a novelty in other NFL cities, the Panthers’ growl is growing louder

Mile High Cats at Shelby’s in Denver, Colo.
Mile High Cats at Shelby’s in Denver, Colo. courtesy of Joey Nitz

For 17 weeks, in distant NFL cities like New York, Denver and San Francisco, they’ve cheered on the Carolina Panthers behind enemy lines.

Amid whispers, open snickers and often the objects of bewildering curiosity, they audaciously wear anything Panthers blue, black, silver and white: T-shirts, jerseys, sweatshirts and lately toboggans – even when they’re relegated to the smallest TV in the back of the bar.

Yet as the team’s wins mounted during this spectacular season, the crowds of far-flung Panthers fans have grown. At Amity Hall in New York City, or at Shelby’s, a Mom-and-Pop bar in downtown Denver, the lines last Sunday reached out the front door – many turned away after kick-off.

Chapters of the Charlotte-based Roaring Riot, a Panthers fan club, are springing up across the country with their own Riot names. Most distant fans have some connection to Charlotte, or the Carolinas. Some don’t, but just like the character of the team or jumped on this raucous ride after a now 16-1 season.

Whatever their reason, the cat’s growl is growing louder.

‘After-thought’ no more

Josh Klein grew up a Panthers fan in Charlotte and Joey Nitz grew up the same in Winston-Salem. They met in Denver in 2010, during the “Jimmy Clausen year,” when their favorite pro football team’s 2-14 record that season was the NFL’s worst.

They’d laugh at us, and look at us like we were dopes all dressed up in our Panthers jerseys and ask ‘who the hell do you want to watch on TV?’ Usually, they’d give us the smallest TV in the corner. We were such an after-thought.

Joey Nitz, on being a Panthers fan in Denver

Still they’d meet Sundays to watch games at any bar that dared air them in Denver Bronco territory.

“They’d laugh at us, and look at us like we were dopes all dressed up in our Panthers jerseys and ask ‘who the hell do you want to watch on TV?” Nitz recalled. “Usually, they’d give us the smallest TV in the corner.

“We were such an after-thought.”

That began to change the following season after the Panthers replaced Clausen with quarterback Cam Newton, who put up memorable numbers as a rookie.

They began to meet more Panthers fans and formed a club they named the Mile High Cats. They needed a home to watch games. Klein, a 1999 Myers Park High graduate, worked near a family-owned bar called Shelby’s, surrounded by office buildings 18th Street in downtown Denver. He approached the owners.

The family closed Shelby’s on Sunday, but Klein and Nitz persuaded them to open it for their club, reasoning that it was only for 16 Sundays (now at least 18) and they’d bring them a lot of business.

They agreed. Soon, the two realized they’d built a Panthers bar west of the Mississippi, especially on days the Panthers and Broncos played at the same time.

Every TV was tuned to the Panthers.

Along the way, the Mile High Cats became the Denver chapter of Roaring Riot, and last Sunday, 200 fans packed the bar – many turned away at the door.

Filled to capacity: 450

Klein had moved to New York in January 2015, and searched for other Panthers fans to gather with and watch games. He found pockets of fans scattered across the city.

In no time, he met Darren Thompson, a Panthers fan in New York, and told them what they’d done in Denver. They began to pull the groups together and joined the Riot club as the Big Apple Riot.

They just liked the team, and they liked being with us. We take on all comers.

Josh Klein, on bandwagon fans

They wanted a bar that would turn up the play-by-play sound. “If you have the sound on your game, you can call the bar your own,” Klein said. They found Amity Hall on 80 West 3rd St. in Greenwich Village and on most football Sundays it could be any bar in Charlotte – a critical part of Panther Nation.

As the Panthers’ win streak continued, the crowd of Panthers fans grew.

Last Sunday, Klein had tickets to the Seahawks game at Bank of America Stadium. Fifteen minutes before kick-off, he received a text that the bar was filled. Capacity: 450. Dozens more dressed in Panthers finery stood in line outside and had to be turned away.

Most were sincere Panthers fans, some late-hour. You could spot them: They wore no Panthers gear.

“They just liked the team, and they liked being with us,” Klein said. “We take on all comers.”

‘So much like Charlotte’

Kate Grove of Hoboken, N.J., was at Amity. As she’s done all but one Sunday during the season, she arrived early with the same seven friends who live in the New York area and had two things in common.

They’re Panthers fans and UNC Charlotte graduates.

Grove, 25, grew up in suburban Philadelphia and had paid no attention to the Carolina Panthers. But when she traveled south to Charlotte she had no other choice. “I didn’t really watch football and barely knew the game,” Grove said. “But when I got to UNC Charlotte all my friends said, ‘well you’re a Panthers fan now.’ And I said, ‘I guess so.’ 

When the Panthers score a touchdown, we all chant (John Lee Hooker’s) ‘Boom! Boom! Boom!’ like they do at the stadium. The other half of the bar responds ‘Bang! Bang! Bang!’

Kate Grove, on environment at Amity Hall in New York City

The scene at Amity still startles her.

“It feels so much like Charlotte,” she said. “People tell us it feels like being at Bank of America Stadium. When the Panthers score a touchdown, we all chant (John Lee Hooker’s) ‘Boom! Boom! Boom!’ like they do at the stadium. The other half of the bar responds ‘Bang! Bang! Bang!’ 

The eight Charlotte graduates missed only one game during the season – the one the Panthers lost against Atlanta. Saturday’s storm won’t keep them away Sunday.

Watch at The Lucky

The Lucky Bar on Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., actually plays the “Boom, Boom” song after Panthers touchdowns. That’s where the Capital Riot gathers to watch the Panthers.

Keith Hall, Winston-Salem-raised and a former Charlotte resident, is on his second tour in Washington with wife Amy. When they moved back in 2009, they found other Panthers fans but no place to watch.

Three fans showed up when Hall arranged for the Rhodeside Grill to show the game one Sunday. Then they found The Lucky and the crowds grew impressively during the current season. Last Sunday for the Seahawks, The Lucky was at capacity: 250 fans.

“We’ve got something special going on,” Hall said. “This has been a special season. If it’s a Super Bowl season, you know I’ll be at The Lucky watching.”

The bar will have the Panthers on Sunday – if the power stays on. Hall encouraged the Capital Riots not to watch alone.

May have to Skype

Nash Harloe will be looking for someone to watch the game with too.

Harloe, 30, grew up in Charlotte, and lives in San Francisco after four years in Los Angeles. In LA he had a regular watching group.

Not so in San Francisco, though last week he’d heard of a bar where Panthers fans apparently tend to congregate.

He plans to check it out, but if no one’s there to watch the game with, that’s no problem. He’ll go home and Skype older brother John, 35, a lawyer in Dallas, Texas.

They’ll watch together from afar.

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