It was an unofficial but happy send-off for the Super Bowl-bound Carolina Panthers, who rolled out from Bank of America Stadium on buses Sunday, headed to the airport and ultimately California, where they will face the Denver Broncos on Feb. 7.
Hundreds of fans lined up on Morehead Street on Sunday to cheer on the team that has given them so much pride.
“I hope they realize how much joy they’ve brought to this city,” said Allie Cantrell of Charlotte, who sported blue hair and a Panthers necklace. “They are so appreciated.”
There was also excitement inside the stadium grounds as the players arrived for the trip.
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“This is what we’ve worked so hard for,” Panthers center Ryan Kalil said before climbing aboard a bus.
Cam Newton, with headphones, arrived wearing gold-patterned, zebra-striped pants.
By 11:20 a.m., about 200 fans were at the stadium gates cheering the Panthers as they passed through in cars and vans. Linebacker Luke Kuechly was dropped off in a small car and received a big roar from fans, who carried posters, waved flags, wore team jerseys and did the dab.
The crowd grew and fans chanted “Keep Pounding” and “Super Bowl” as players continued to arrive.
ESPN joined Charlotte TV stations in doing stand-up reports from the stadium grounds as Newton and the rest of the team arrived.
“It’s a windy day here in Charlotte,” began ESPN reporter Britt McHenry, also mentioning the “hundreds of fans” there to cheer on the players as the buses rolled away.
A few years ago you probably wouldn’t have found Letise Smith at a fan rally. She and her husband, Tony Smith, came out on Sunday with their two children, Kashe, 9, and Shyne, 4. Letise had painted the children’s faces and her own so they would stand out when they cheered for the team, especially Newton.
“It’s been an amazing ride,” she said. “I’m not even a football fan, but he changed that for me. He makes it fun.”
Kalil said the Panthers were built over time.
“I’m proud of the team and the way we’ve competed and the way we’ve grown in the last few years,” he said. “This season hasn’t been a fluke. It’s been something we’ve been building on for a while now, starting with coach Rivera.”
Last year at this time, the Panthers “were going home” rather than to the Super Bowl, Kalil added.
Panthers defensive tackle Kyle Love, who played in the 2012 Super Bowl with the New England Patriots, said there’s nothing like getting to go to the big game.
“There are a lot of players who play 15, 20 years and never get to this,” he said. “So if you can ever get to the Super Bowl, you know what that feeling means. I know what it means. This team does, too. Hopefully we’ll come back with a win.”
As for that long plane flight to the West Coast, Kalil, who grew up in California, said he’s learned one thing after making the trip many times.
“Make sure to download a lot of movies,” he said.
Tim Funk, Karen Sullivan
Keep an eye on charlotteobserver.com for live coverage of the NFL Network’s Super Bowl 50 Opening Night at 8 p.m. Monday.