Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper had already surprised West Charlotte High once.
Wednesday morning, Tepper did it again.
Back in March, Tepper paid for two charter buses to help the Lions’ boys basketball team and its cheerleaders get to the N.C. 4A state championship game in Raleigh. He also paid for the team’s hotel rooms.
West Charlotte wanted to say thanks, and Lions athletics director John Yewcic figured he would put the boys on a bus and visit Tepper at his office at Bank of America Stadium and present him with a team jersey.
But Tepper said he preferred to come to the school.
“This is a real big deal to us,” Yewcic said. “I never expected it.”
So around 11:30 Wednesday morning, Tepper climbed out of a large, black Chevy Yukon in the West Charlotte gym parking lot. Riding with him was former Panthers star Julius Peppers, on his first day at his new job as the Panthers’ special assistant of business operations.
Once the visitors got to the school’s auditorium, where a group of students, parents and faculty were waiting, the Lions basketball team gave Tepper a white No. 1 jersey.
Tepper held it up and deadpanned: “You guys think this will fit me?”
After laughter filled the room, Tepper eventually told the crowd that he went to an inner-city school like West Charlotte, a school called Peabody High in his hometown of Pittsburgh, where he was raised by a school teacher mom and an accountant father.
“This is a bit of an underdog story, and I view myself as an underdog, too,” Tepper said, “There are amazing things that can happen from a place like West Charlotte. Don’t forget that.”
Tepper became aware of West Charlotte’s story via two Lions’ alumni — city councilman James “Smuggie” Mitchell and Walter Price of the Moore & Van Allen law firm. Moore & Van Allen helped negotiate the sale of the Panthers to Tepper.
As West Charlotte’s memorable state championship unfolded, Mitchell reached out to alumni to pay for a charter bus and meals for the Lions’ regional championship game. When West Charlotte won, Mitchell asked the alums about re-upping for the state final.
Price mentioned it to Tepper, who quickly stepped in.
“Time was getting short, and they needed some funds,” Tepper said after the ceremony Wednesday, “And so you’ve got to step up. That’s what it comes to. That’s what you’re supposed to do in life ... I’m a big believer in helping out.”
Tepper said coming from an inner-city school, he understands some of the needs that arise at a place like West Charlotte.
“I know some of the challenges,” he said, “and when you can do something good, you do it. Period.”
Yewcic said the visit by Tepper and Peppers definitely did something good at West Charlotte.
“How many schools can say they had an NFL owner — and I heard on the radio the other day that he’s the richest NFL owner — come to your 1,300-person school and hang out with you for a few minutes?” Yewcic said.
“Man, that’s awesome.”