The “modern era” of North Carolina high school sports began in 1959, when the N.C. High School Athletic Association began to host state football championships in four classes, dividing schools up according to enrollment.
And in that modern era, Mecklenburg County teams won exactly three Class 4A championships — in the largest classification in the state — before the Carolina Panthers played their first season in 1995.
But since the start of the 1995 high school football season, Mecklenburg County teams have won 16 state championships in 4A — and that doesn’t count dozens of championships won in that same period in smaller classifications and at private schools.
Mecklenburg County teams are regularly in the national rankings and sending athletes to high-level Football Bowl Subdivision schools. Those were rare feats before ‘95. And the Panthers being in Charlotte appears to be a big reason why.
“You can draw a direct line from the Panthers coming to Charlotte football being strong,” NCHSAA commissioner Que Tucker said, “and here’s how: Many of the pro players have made Charlotte their home, and as a result, their children go to Charlotte schools. They’ve invested in the community. They may sponsor camps and do things to help players get better. Over the course of time, football there has taken on a different look.”
Tucker believes that kids in Charlotte grow up wanting to be Panthers and are more inclined to join youth leagues after watching their heroes play every Sunday. Combine that desire with better coaching and more opportunities, and it has played a role in the ascension of local athletes.
“By the time they get to high school,” Tucker said, “they are farther along [in their development].”
To illustrate, consider this: In 1996, the year after the Panthers’ first season, two of the top 25 recruits in North Carolina were from Mecklenburg County.
In 1997, there were three.
In 2019? Five of the top 10 are from Mecklenburg County. Overall, 12 of the top 25 are from the county.
Mike Minter has seen this development up close. In 1997, the Panthers drafted him in the second round out of Nebraska. Minter played with Carolina for 10 seasons. During that time, he got into youth football coaching.
He stayed in the Charlotte area upon retirement, like many former Panthers do, and began to notice that other NFL players, such as Randy Moss (and even NBA star Allen Iverson), decided they liked the style of life here and moved to town. Minter believes that flow of elite athletes into the city produced a new wave of football.
“Anytime you put a professional league in any city,” he said, “it becomes a real dream for kids who are part of that city. That’s the key. You can touch it, feel it, see it and smell it. Kids begin to put in work to say, ‘I want to be a Carolina Panther one day.’ ”
Minter, now the coach at Campbell University, said he saw the biggest change when Carolina made its first Super Bowl after the 2003 season.
“I saw a transformation,” he said, “from Charlotte being a basketball city to a football city. That’s when it began to get real.”
By then, the Panthers had started developing more alumni who stayed, and more players from other teams — who were introduced to Charlotte while playing against the Panthers — began calling the Queen City home.
“That created more of a talent pool,” Minter said. “Not only are there Carolina Panthers retiring there, you also had retirees from other places understanding the significance of Charlotte and wanting to live there. Then you have the college kid who didn’t make it to the NFL but was really good, and they move here and then you get them into coaching. When I was coaching little league, every team had an ex-NFL player as a coach. These guys were coaching up at the lowest level of little league. So guys were getting instructed better from a young age. You see what happened.”
College coaches have made recruiting Charlotte a priority thanks to better-trained local prospects regularly turning up on national rankings.
Myers Park junior quarterback Drake Maye has committed to national power Alabama. He’s throwing this season to two receivers who are ranked among the top 25 nationally at their position: Porter Rooks, who’s committed to N.C. State and received a scholarship offer from Louisville in eighth grade, and Texas A&M-bound Muhsin Muhammad.
Muhammad’s father, also named Muhsin, was part of the 2003 Panthers team that made the Super Bowl run. And after he got done playing, the elder Muhammad kept his family in Charlotte.
Muhammad eventually coached in the Ballantyne Gators youth organization, which was formed by former Florida Gator All-American defensive back Larry Kennedy. Kennedy moved to Charlotte for his job in 1999 and has seen multiple former NFL players coach in his organization and for local high schools, including former Panthers Sean Gilbert, Carlton Bailey (South Mecklenburg) and Brad Hoover (Cannon School).
That number also includes the late Mo Collins, who played at West Charlotte High and later for the Oakland Raiders.
Kennedy, now an assistant at Charlotte Catholic, said the Panthers’ and NFL influence is all over youth football in town, including with star QB Cam Newton annually hosting a summer 7-on-7 for area high school teams.
“The Panthers influenced my program by giving us the opportunity to play on the field during halftime of preseason games,” Kennedy said. “They let us be part of the game-day experience and have our guys meet NFL players and see them out there in real time. That stuff is huge.”
Kennedy said he was watching the latest HBO episodes of “Hard Knocks,” a preseason show about an NFL team’s training camp. This year, the show focuses on the Oakland Raiders, and one of their assistants, Brentson Buckner, is a former NFL player and Charlotte-area high school and youth coach — one of the many with ties to the league Kennedy has coached against.
“These guys are all here, putting their wisdom back into the city,” Kennedy said. “Steve Smith is here. Muhsin Muhammad is here. I ain’t talking about your average guys. Look at [former Panther] Frank Garcia being at Charlotte Catholic all those years. I coached with him and watched the wisdom he’s giving back and the level of coaching he’s giving.
“He’s not in Charlotte doing that without the Panthers.”
David Green was perhaps the biggest high school football star in town in 1993. He played for the No. 1 local school, West Charlotte, at quarterback. He was being recruited by schools like Ohio State and UCLA, in addition to Duke and North Carolina. Green acknowledges that was rare during his time. He remembers Tennessee as the only big out-of-state program to regularly come on campus, or most any campus in town.
On Aug. 26, he sat at Vance High School and watched practice, where his son, Trey, is a freshman receiver. David Green was awed by Vance junior linebacker Power Echols, who was state defensive player of the year as a sophomore. He’s a top-10 recruit nationally at his position in the class of 2021 and holds more than a dozen Power 5 offers, including from reigning national champion Clemson.
“You could make a highlight reel of this kid just from practice,” Green said. “And he’s just one of them. The kids coming out of here are just bigger, faster and more athletic overall than we were. They’ve got resources and training we just didn’t have.”
Like Green, Kennedy has seen the jump in local talent and skill level.
“When I moved here,” Kennedy said, “football was good but very generic. Now, Charlotte’s no different than what you would see in Texas and Miami and Atlanta; of the big meccas of high school football. Recruiting in Charlotte is 10-fold better than when I moved here. The number of training facilities, none of that stuff was here, and a lot of that is influenced by the Panthers.
“Those pros needed places to train, and with that the high school guys started benefiting, and ultimately it trickles down to the youth guys, too.”