The Carolina Panthers couldn’t possibly play the Super Bowl on Sunday without their Coach Jack.
At least Jack Bolton thinks so. He’s the precocious 11-year-old Davidson Elementary student with a degenerative muscle disease who uses a motorized wheelchair to get around and, during the Panthers’ 2013 season, was named a one-day associate head coach for Fan Fest. It was arranged by the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Before the event, Coach Jack told the players he’d be “looking for mistakes” and “everybody knows the Panthers are awesome.” Since then, he’s written notes to the team to urge them when they were losing to keep working hard. He always told them: “I’m watching you.”
And this message: “Nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it.”
About Jack, Carolina’s other coach, Ron Rivera, has said: “Jack is part of who we are. ... He really is part of the organization.”
Jack’s one-day contract became a forever contract.
Two weeks ago, Coach Jack and his father, John Bolton, were at Bank of America Stadium for the NFC Championship game that propelled the Panthers into Super Bowl 50. They were guests of defensive tackle Kyle Love.
The day after the game, Coach Jack’s mother, Holly, called his father to tell him their son was willing to spend a wad of cash in his piggy bank from a monthly allowance to go to California.
“What you have to understand about Jack is that he’s real tight with his allowance money,” John said. “When she told me, that was it for me. I was all in.”
‘I’m Watching You’
Jack and his older sister, Eleanor, were both born with spinal muscular atrophy that requires them both to use a motorized wheelchair – Coach Jack’s is Panthers blue – to get anywhere. John and Holly Bolton are carriers, and they didn’t know it until Eleanor was 2 and Jack was due in a month.
Getting to the Super Bowl was no easy trip. John not only had to figure out how to get the two there with the 350-pound wheelchair and medical equipment that Jack needs, but find tickets for seats that are wheelchair accessible. He checked online ticket sites. They cost a bundle: the cheapest $5,000 apiece. He called the NFL in New York and was told the deadline to reserve a spot in a ticket lottery for wheelchair-accessible seats had been last Sept. 1.
He refused to stop.
His determination was fueled after the Panthers were crowned NFC champs and he and Coach Jack were invited into the locker room. “The players who were there when I coached – Cam (Newton), Mike Tolbert, Jonathan Stewart and Thomas Davis – all came up to me and said, ‘What’s up, Coach Jack?’ ” Jack said.
He told each of them: “Awesome game! Great job today! You’re going to the Super Bowl – keep pounding!”
Defensive end Kony Ealy was a rookie the day Coach Jack coached and remembered him. He also knows “The Poster.” Last season when the Panthers were struggling, Jack brought a poster to two games. It said: “I’m Watching You.” The team won both games that helped turn around the season.
Coach Jack gave the poster to Rivera, who had it framed and hung outside the weight room.
Ealy offered to wheel Coach Jack around to introduce him to the new players. As John followed them, he was near tears. He knew he had to get his son to the Super Bowl.
‘Was meant to be’
Last week, Riley Fields, the Panthers’ community relations director, called with good news. A PSL holder, familiar with Coach Jack’s story, had been picked in the team’s random drawing for Super Bowl tickets.
He couldn’t go and wondered if the Boltons might want to buy them.
The Panthers ticket office made a swap with the NFL to get wheelchair-accessible seats. “Once that was done, the Boltons were able to purchase the tickets (for $900 apiece),” Fields said. “It happened so fast it seemed like it was meant to be.”
John cashed in frequent flier points for plane tickets and a hotel near San Francisco International Airport – 35 miles from Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. He’s working with Yellow Cab to get them and the wheelchair to and from the stadium.
“They’ve promised me they’re working on it,” he said. “If they stand us up, Jack’s wheelchair has a 26-mile battery.”
No. 1 Panthers fan
John and Coach Jack’s family coyly delivered the news.
Holly brought home Panthers and Super Bowl 50 balloons. Sister Eleanor spun her wheelchair inside the house, holding a water bottle with “SB50” on it. “Is this great or what?” she asked Coach Jack. Then a cousin, Julia Metz from Cornelius, walked in with the balloons. “Don’t these look great?” she asked. “Look at what they say.”
John followed with a license plate that says: “No. 1 Panthers Fan.” “Rumor has it that you’re the No. 1 Panthers fan,” he shouted to Coach Jack. “Shouldn’t the No. 1 Panthers fan be at the Super Bowl?”
“Yes!” Coach Jack shouted back.
“Well, why don’t we just go?” John said.
Coach Jack got quiet, then flashed a Cam Newton-like smile. “Are you kidding me?” he shouted. “What are you talking about? We’re going to the Super Bowl?”
‘You guys are tough’
The season Jack Bolton coached the Panthers for a day, the team won 12 games and lost 4. John and Holly promised Coach Jack then that if the Panthers played in the Super Bowl, they’d do everything they could to get them there.
The Panthers didn’t make it, losing in the playoffs to San Francisco.
Now on Super Bowl Sunday 2016, 3,000 miles away, his favorite team will be playing the Denver Broncos. And their Coach Jack will be in the stands, section 108, row 35.
Jack was recently sprung from the hospital after a bout with pneumonia. He and John fly out Saturday. They’ll catch a red-eye flight Sunday night back to Charlotte. In between, they’ll watch a football game that Coach Jack and his father will never forget.
“We knew what it would mean to Jack,” John said. “Of all the favorite things he likes to do in life, watching the Panthers is No. 1. Going to watch them in the Super Bowl will be out of this world.”
Two days before they left, he asked Coach Jack what he’d tell the Panthers if he could:
“I’d tell them to keep doing what they’ve been doing to get to 17-1.
“I’d tell them that Peyton Manning is a good quarterback and the Broncos are a tough team. But you guys are tough, too.
“I’d tell them to keep pounding.”