It was 1996, the year before Bill and Cindy Buchanan got married and the year the Carolina Panthers played their first NFL game in Charlotte.
Bill just wanted a place to smoke cigars, drink beer and watch football.
So began the transformation of their two-car garage into “Garage Mahal” – a virtual Panthers museum with floor-to-ceiling paraphernalia, five flat-screen TVs, three bars, a gas fireplace and two refrigerators stocked for neighbors who have a standing invitation to party on game days.
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In 2007, it was featured in Sporting News as one of the best places in the country to watch sports – right up there with the Green Monster seats at Boston’s Fenway Park.
“My wife and I have never missed a home game,” said Bill, an insurance agency owner who has season tickets in the front row of the end zone by the visitors tunnel at Bank of America Stadium.
And while the Buchanans are at the game, neighbors are welcome to use Garage Mahal like a sports bar.
Angie Neel, who lives across the cul-de-sac, is one of the regulars whose last names are stenciled on placards and attached to the front of custom-made cabinets designed to look like the Panthers locker room. She decided long ago to join the game-day parties because she could hear them from her house anyway. “What’s that saying? ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,’ ” she said.
A look inside
For a first-time visitor, Garage Mahal can be overwhelming. You enter from a quiet suburban driveway, not far from Lake Wylie, and you’re bombarded by blue and black. You hardly know where to look first amid neon signs, autographed photos and footballs, bobblehead figurines and a year-round Christmas tree with Panthers ornaments.
Bill, 58, and Cindy, 54, point out some of their favorite items. High in a corner there’s a life-sized cutout of Jake Delhomme, starting quarterback from 2003 to 2009. (They’ve now covered his face with a photo of current quarterback Cam Newton.)
One of their most prized pieces is a “spotter board” used by former Carolina play-by-play announcer Bill Rosinski to identify players during the first game in Panthers history, the 1995 Hall of Fame game against Jacksonville.
That game was during the preseason and Rosinski’s handwritten roster lists Kerry Collins – eventually the star quarterback – as third string.
Bill bought it for $375 during a silent auction on a local radio station. But he only got it after Cindy dropped her separate pursuit. When she called the station with a bid, she said the voice on the other end of the phone asked, “Buchanan? Do you know a Bill Buchanan?”
Cindy replied, “Yeah, he’s my husband.” And the voice said, “Did you know you were bidding against him?”
The Buchanans move through the garage, remembering where they were during great moments in Panthers history. In 2008, for the penultimate game of the regular season against the Giants, a local TV station filmed the cheering crowd at Garage Mahal and then switched to a separate interview in New York with the Buchanans, who were attending the game, waving to their neighbors back in Charlotte.
In another corner is a 3-foot-tall bobblehead of Julius Peppers, who played for the Panthers from 2002 to 2009. There are only two of these in existence, Bill said, and Panthers owner Jerry Richardson has the other.
Cindy says the Peppers statue weighs about 40 pounds, and she should know. She lugged it around training camp in Spartanburg for a couple of hours in 2006 before getting Peppers to sign it so she could give it to Bill for Father’s Day.
And then there’s the carpet. Blue and black with a 22-foot wide Panthers logo that fills most of the space. They bought a leftover roll at a stadium “yard sale” after George Siefert, head coach from 1999 to 2001, banned it from the locker room. He was superstitious, Cindy explained. “He wouldn’t walk on the team logo.”
Getting ready for the Seahawks
Although she’s as big a fan as Bill, Cindy sets some limits. Many of their sleek black Panthers figurines are displayed in the garage, as if prowling the perimeter, ready to strike. But there’s one prized cat, made of Murano glass and purchased in Italy on their honeymoon, that is reserved for a special spot on the mantel in their bedroom.
Mention of that honeymoon prompts another story. While in Florence, they got word that Collins broke his jaw during the 1997 preseason. They had carefully arranged their wedding plans around the Panthers season schedule, but since then, they avoid taking vacation even during the preseason, Cindy said.
The Buchanans often travel to away games, but because the Panthers hadn’t played well before they reached the playoffs this year, the couple hadn’t planned for Saturday’s game against the Seattle Seahawks. As an urgent care doctor, Cindy even scheduled some shifts in January and February that she would have avoided if she had thought the team would reach the playoffs.
So on Saturday, she’ll be working when Bill opens the door to Garage Mahal, sets up the tent, and starts cooking brats and hot dogs. Cindy calls them “Seahawk dogs,” as in “We’re gonna eat those birds.”
By 5 or 6 p.m., neighbors will begin gathering, wearing their Panthers garb and ready to cheer. Cindy will finish her shift in plenty of time to be home for the 8:15 p.m. kickoff.