In Shellman, Ga., deep in Atlanta Falcons territory, they’re flying Carolina Panthers flags attached to car windows.
Ninety miles northeast, you’d think you were in a Carolinas town driving through downtown Hawkinsville, Ga. The storefronts are plastered in “WAY TO GO PANTHERS” or “KEEP POUNDING” and prideful support for “Sir Charles, #95,” one of their own.
The same is true in East Chicago, Ind., a 30-minute drive from Soldier Field where the Chicago Bears play. Outside the blue-collar city’s fire department, firefighters have hung a bold message on the marquee: “GOOD LUCK CAROLINA PANTHERS, KAWANN SHORT #99.”
They are points on a map touched by Panthers players. Many have used their wealth, celebrity and time to make a difference.
Their contracts don’t require charitable work. But some players such as linebacker Thomas Davis, defensive tackle Kawann Short and defensive end Charles Johnson grew up with little and feel a pressing need back home – each discovering that sharing their time and money can go a long way to change the life of a child stuck in poverty.
In return, the 17-1 Panthers have won widespread support during this magical season – support that is mounting well beyond the Carolinas for one more victory in Sunday’s Super Bowl 50.
Displacing the Falcons
Approaching Shellman in rural southwest Georgia, there once stood a wooden sign announcing the city of barely 1,000 as the home of star Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas “Pokey” Davis.
Two years ago, a semi-truck flattened the sign, and the city had no money to replace it.
But Shellman had Pokey, who was determined to help. They gave him his nickname because he was a fat baby. “It was supposed to be Porkey, but it got changed to Pokey,” Davis once told ESPN.
Shortly after the Panthers drafted him in the first round in 2005, Davis called Shellman Mayor Paul Langford to say he wanted to help his hometown.
Davis was learning to swim then, and he wanted to build the city a pool, Langford said. The mayor, who’s known Davis all his life, told the linebacker he didn’t have anyone to maintain a pool but that Shellman needed a basketball court. So Thomas’ Defending Dreams Foundation sent Shellman a check for $23,000 to build a full-length basketball court. “I told him the court only cost $22,000, but he sent $23,000,” Langford said. “Pokey told me, ‘Things come up.’ ”
In 2012, Davis called again. He’d heard that teenagers were hogging the court, so he wanted to build Shellman’s children a playground. Langford got a quote for $74,000, and Davis and Charlotte Checkers owner Michael Kahn sent him a check. The park was dedicated to Davis and Kahn.
And each December, Davis pulls up in a U-Haul loaded with Christmas gifts for the city’s youth. His comeback from three ACL tears in the same knee and his work in Shellman and Charlotte have been widely chronicled. He has spent the season as the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year.
In a town with so many needs, these are gestures that are hard to forget – they show children growing up there that someone cares. Throughout the NFL season, Shellman has cheered on Davis and the Panthers.
“Pokey’s had a lot of success, but he’s never forgotten us,” Langford said. “You have to visualize the abject poverty in this city and how hard it is to grow up here. Pokey knows it and wants to help.
“He and the Panthers have just about displaced the Atlanta Falcons in Shellman. We’ll be pulling for them hard in the Super Bowl.”
A force to rally behind
Defensive end Charles Johnson also remembers the struggles in his hometown and felt obligated to go home and help.
In the country town of about 5,500, he was raised by his mother, who worked in a nursing home, and his grandmother, a custodian at the Lumpkin Street School, a former “equalization school” in Hawkinsville, Ga., for African-Americans before integration.
In time, he understood their sacrifices. So in 2011, when he signed a six-year, $76 million contract extension with the Panthers, he decided it was time to pay back his hometown.
Through his Charles Johnson Foundation, he donated $41,000 for a new field house at his alma mater, Hawkinsville High. He has chartered buses to send high school students to college fairs and since 2012 has funded $20,000 scholarships each year to help two students – a boy and girl – go to college. He plans to expand the scholarship program to high schools in neighboring counties.
Johnson’s foundation has also repaired basketball courts and parks. When the football team at his old high school won the state championship last year, Johnson chartered a bus to Atlanta for the players and provided tickets for them to watch the Panthers beat the Falcons 34-3 at the Georgia Dome. Each summer, he holds a sports academy for children.
Johnson also challenged the town to raise $25,000 to renovate Lumpkin school and he’d match it. The school is being transformed into a community center.
“I do it because I want to,” Johnson said last week after practice. “I want to see people change their lives, change the town’s culture. I want to help kids get into positions to succeed. I know where I’m from, and I know how hard it is. I’m proud of my hometown.
“I tell the kids that if I can do it, anybody can.”
Last week, merchants on Lumpkin Street began showing their pride for Johnson, painting blue panthers, claws, “KEEP POUNDING” and love messages for “Sir Charles” on store fronts. They’re also selling T-shirts supporting Johnson.
Friday, Hawkinsville High is planning a Panthers Pride Day, said school board member Greg Brown.
“We knew that when Charles left, he’d come back often and help us. He’s done just that,” Brown said. “Now we’re showing our pride. This is a small town, and I’ve never seen it come together so strong for any one issue. And that issue is supporting the Panthers to win the Super Bowl.”
‘That town made me’
Anthony Marquez, a captain with the East Chicago Fire Department in Indiana, was worried last week. East Chicago, a tough, hard-working steel mill town, wasn’t doing enough to honor a native son, Panthers defensive tackle Kawann “KK” Short.
After the Panthers drafted Short in 2013, he made it known he wouldn’t forget “the city that raised me.” He started by donating 10,000 books for a literacy program at the elementary schools. He also charters buses to take high school students to his alma mater, Purdue University, so they can get a taste of college.
“I told them it’s a shame we don’t have anything up for Kawann,” Marquez said. “I mean how often do we get one of us who’s going to be in the Super Bowl? Never.” So after getting immediate permission from Fire Chief Carlos Aburto, the firefighters used the marquee out front to show their support for Short and the Panthers.
Those support signs are spreading, including a mural painted by the students at Carrie Gosch Elementary, one of the schools participating in Short’s literacy program in a city with high unemployment and high dropout rates. The painting is of Short in his No. 99 Panthers uniform with a message: “Carrie Gosch (loves) Kawann.”
Aburto said Short has brought the city hope. “He’s a young man who understands the struggles these kids face, so his help means that much more,” he said. “He does not have to do this. He certainly would have been appreciated because he’s from here, and through hard work he’s become a success.
“The fact that he comes back and tries to make this city a better place really resonates.”
Short said he had no other choice.
“That’s where I’m from, I have to give back,” he said after practice last week. “I want those people to know I’ll never forget how they and that town made me who I am today. I want the kids to know they’ve got to put in the work if they want to succeed. Education is important.
“And they’re showing the love. It’s crazy – they’re painting the town Panther black and blue.”
Panthers: Committed to helping
Many Panthers players perform charitable work, taking a lead from their bosses.
Head coach Ron Rivera and wife Stephanie contribute to animal causes. Over the years, majority owner Jerry Richardson has given generously to both Carolinas, including grants to build synthetic football fields in poor counties. Last year, the franchise helped South Carolina flood victims, and Richardson donated $100,000 to the families of the nine victims murdered at a Charleston church.
After their twin son, T.J., was born with a heart defect in 2012, tight end Greg Olsen and wife Kara established a fund to help families with children born with the same defect. Olsen has said he considers the help an obligation – and an honor.
Cornerback Charles Tillman’s Tiana Fund helps needy families at eight hospitals in Chicago, where he played for 12 years before being signed by the Panthers, and now at Charlotte’s Levine Children’s Hospital. The fund is named for the Tillman’s 8-year-old daughter, who required a heart transplant when she was 6 months old.
And quarterback Cam Newton made headlines feeding needy children in Charlotte last Thanksgiving, taking students from under-served elementary schools on shopping sprees at Christmas and equipping Charlotte’s Harding High weight room. Even as a student at Auburn, Newton mentored at-risk students at Wrights Mill Elementary.
When a player has a function scheduled, his teammates quickly volunteer to help.
The skeptics who think they do it to raise their image should “think again,” said Panthers spokesman Riley Fields. “It is a locker room full of men who understand and appreciate the platform they have to assist others. Their commitment to helping is really special.”