Retro Charlotte

Tom Sorensen: ‘Carolinas fans, it’s time to start the tailgating’

Jerry Richardson pulls a Carolina Panthers shirt on after Tuesday night’s NFL announcement in Chicago. October 27, 1993
Jerry Richardson pulls a Carolina Panthers shirt on after Tuesday night’s NFL announcement in Chicago. October 27, 1993 The Charlotte Observer

Helping us figure out “what this means to Charlotte” as only Sorensen could. Tom retired in December -- we miss him!

By Tom Sorensen, Staff Writer

October 27, 1993

“For the past six years, we've heard the names of expansion, names like Orthwein, Muhleman and Rankin Smith. Today, we can start listening for the names of football, names like Emmitt, Thurman, Jerry, Joe and Dan.

“For the last six years, we've looked at a huge hole in the red clay in a barren part of uptown Charlotte and wondered if it would ever be filled. Now we know it will be. It will be filled with a large, gleaming stadium in which an actual football team will play.

“For the past six years, we competed against Baltimore, St. Louis, Memphis and, to a lesser extent, Jacksonville. Now we'll compete against San Francisco, Green Bay, Chicago, Washington and, to a lesser extent, Cincinnati.

“Finally, we can stop thinking about getting a team and start thinking about the team. Can you imagine the first time we get to see it play?

“Whether the game is at Clemson or in Charlotte, we'll want to get there early. The games start long before the football does. The Panthers are playing the first game in franchise history, a home game as it turns out, at 1 p.m. The ropes in front of the entrance to the parking lot will be lifted at 10 a.m.

“Traffic will begin to back up at 11:15, except on N.C. 51. Traffic on 51 is backed up now.

“Chairs will be unfolded, coolers opened, chicken fried, table cloths, some of them with red and white checks, spread. Kids will run pass patterns in the bright September sunshine, dodging grills, potato salad and boxes of Bojangles chicken. Some of the kids will be in their 40s. Footballs, real and foam rubber, will make graceful arcs through the air.

“Fans will wear 19 variations of Panthers electric blue. The Panthers won't collect any of the actual money from the sale of any of those variations for about 18 months - the NFL will - but they can live with it. They have no choice.

“Radios will play, horns will honk, TVs will blare. A man in a Mercedes will talk on his car phone. John Madden, the greatest announcer in football, will step out of a limousine - the network pays for it - at about 10:45 a.m. He'll be big and seem friendly, and a few fans will slip past the security guards around him to ask for an autograph.

“If Madden is here, you know this is big. So this is big.

“Expensive cars will roll past kids with pens and paper who lean over the fence next to player's parking lot. Players will step out of four-wheel drives and pickup trucks, BMWs and one especially shiny Porsche 911. The driver will be a quarterback.

“But he won't be the starter. Heath Shuler is. Shuler, the first pick by the Panthers in their first NFL draft, will drive a Bronco. Although Shuler is from Bryson City and played at Tennessee, team spokesmen will deny they picked him for his market value.

“Basically, in a moment of rare candor, they will admit they did not hold it against him. If the Panthers have a face, it is Shuler's. He is clean-cut and good-looking. He is also fast, strong and smart. Believers compare him to Troy Aikman. Cynics compare him to Rex Chapman.

“The veteran coach goes over his checklist, making sure one last time his team is ready. His team is ready. He is known for his cool, but when nobody is looking, he opens a door and lets go with a whoop.

“Joe Gibbs coached the Washington Redskins for 12 years. That was special. But to coach the first game in the history of the first NFL team in the city he's made his, that's beyond special.

“The 13 assistant coaches, the players and the fans, the fans in the stadium, in the parking lot and watching at home on TV, feel the same way. They know the feeling won't last long. In time, as much will be expected from the Panthers as from the NBA Eastern Conference champion Charlotte Hornets.

“But not today. Today, after a wait of more than 10 years, the Panthers are more than a concept. They are concrete. We can touch them, yell for them, yell at them. It's real now. We finally have a team.”