Dan Cross is a native Ohioan who’d long been a fan of the Cleveland Browns until the Marines moved him and his family to North Carolina, where his oldest son Andrew was born and turned his parents into Carolina Panthers fans. “That was their big bond, the Panthers,” Diana Cross said of her husband and son.
Andrew, a member of the Army National Reserve who served in Iraq in 2004, was 26 when he died in his sleep in June 2009. He was one of 46 fallen military members honored at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday before the Panthers faced the Kansas City Chiefs.
Long known for their close relationship with the military, the Carolina Panthers continued the tradition through a number of initiatives honoring men and women in military service on Sunday, all part of of the NFL’s Salute to Service military appreciation campaign. The effort caps off a politically emotional and surprising week in the U.S. that also included Veterans Day.
Diana Hosford started the sports arm of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), an initiative that now includes almost 100 sports teams. She said getting the families together through sports is meant to provide a sense of community to honor their loved ones.
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“This is an opportunity to honor those who have given their lives and service to America and regardless of what your political feelings are, looking at the men and women who put their lives on the line to protect our freedoms, honoring them and recognizing their living legacies, is an honor to the country,” Hosford said.
To begin the day, Lt. Gen. Tom Waskow, a retired three-star general who resides in Lake Norman area, served as the honorary Keep Pounding drummer.
And for the second year in a row, Panthers players wore a decal with the initials of a fallen service member on their helmets. Between the first and second quarters of the game, families of those military men and women processed onto the field to receive a replica of the helmets, signed by their player with a personalized note.
The players didn’t meet the families, but last week they received the bio and story of each service member they were to represent, said Riley Fields, the Panthers’ director of community relations. All of the fallen service members have some sort of connection of connection to the Carolinas – either they were born here, trained here or were deployed from here.
“There is an understanding by the players of who it is they’re representing on the field,” Fields said.
Also, between the first and second quarter, a video tribute was played to honor service members.
The helmet decal initiative was something the Panthers had vetted through the NFL last year. They’re the only team to do it, but Fields said the response last year was so positive that it was listed it as a “best practice” throughout the league.
Fifteen Panthers players have at least one family member in the military, though head coach Ron Rivera’s military ties are perhaps the most well known. His father, Eugenio, served in the Army, and Rivera is tied closely with the USO.
In 2013, the Panthers became the NFL’s first Purple Heart team, a designation meant to honor the way the franchise has reached out to the military throughout the region.
The Crosses said this was their first time participating in a Panthers event through TAPS, a program that has helped them find support through meeting other families with similar stories.
“Up until then you feel almost alone. When you start meeting the people and seeing the support that’s out there, it’s a huge difference,” Dan Cross said.