If any members of the Grace Presbyterian Church congregation are rocking their Panthers gear from the pews Sunday, pastor Joanne Sizoo will understand.
She’ll be rocking hers from the pulpit.
Rev. Sizoo plans to make good on a promise she made five years ago, when church member Michael Pratt presented her with a handmade, Panthers-decorated stole – a vestment worn by clergy – in a very public display not wholly out of place in a church known to let its hair down now and again.
“He just hauled out this stole and everyone started laughing,” Sizoo said.
“We’re a terribly not formal church,” she said. “I’ve always been pretty playful – that part isn’t anything new – and this congregation has always been willing to do some silliness.”
Pratt, a Panthers season ticket holder who first started attending games with his wife in the team’s inaugural season in 1995, when they played at Clemson, said he paid attention to his pastor’s ribbing on the toll football season takes on church attendance.
“Joanne was saying how on Sunday the church population seems to go down on football game days and things like that,” Pratt said.
Handy with a sewing machine – Pratt said he learned to sew as a Boy Scout because his mother didn’t and Scouts need to affix patches to their uniforms – the super fan was struck by inspiration.
“(Rev. Sizoo) always had really colorful stoles and I happened to be in the fabric store one day and I look at my wife and I said, ‘I think I should make her a stole!’ So, I bought fabric and just made it. We love the preacher of our church, we love the Panthers as well and it never hurts to have God on our side, so, here’s a stole to add to your collection.”
Then came the promise that gets put to the test Sunday.
“We gave it to her in front of the whole congregation,” Pratt said. “It’s been kind of a running joke since, but she did say if (the Panthers) went to the Super Bowl, she would wear it (during the service).”
And the day of reckoning is nigh. Sizoo, approaching her eighth year at the church, has every intention of keeping her word and for the record, she’s worn the stole in church before – just not while preaching.
“It won’t be the first Sunday I’ve worn it, but it was after the service,” she said.
“It’s a little irreverent to wear at worship, but I gotta keep my promises. At some churches you couldn’t get away with stuff like that ... which is why I love our church here in Fort Mill.”
Growing up a Dolphins fan in Miami, Pratt, as a South Carolina transparent, felt compelled to adopt the Panthers as his new No. 1 team. It wouldn’t be long before something of an omen showed it was a good choice.
A diminutive but speedy running back in high school, Pratt was given a football scholarship to Bemidji State University in Minnesota, where he was immediately converted to cornerback.
“I was five-foot-nothing and 140 pounds out of high school and they said, ‘It’s nice to know you’re a great (high school) running back in Miami, but there’s no need for a 140-pound running back in college football.’ So they told me I was going to learn how to run backwards instead of forwards,” Pratt said with a laugh.
Graduating from Bemidji State did not mean he wouldn’t see his coach, John Peterson, ever again.
Pratt, the principal at Fort Mill’s Banks Trail Elementary School, and his wife, Lipi, attend at least a day of Panthers training camp every summer. One day, looking across the field, he thought he glimpsed a familiar face.
“I saw a guy across the field and said to my wife, ‘I think that’s coach Peterson!’ ” he said.
“About the time I was looking at him, he was looking at me and he ran across the field and gave me a big bear hug and almost took me over the fence. He’s a scout for the Panthers and goes to training camp. My football coach from 30 years ago. We reconnected and now we see each other every summer because of the Panthers.”
Now Panthers home games are a family affair for Pratt and Lipi and their sons, Clay and Heath, and sometimes their friends if one of the boys can’t make a game. Clay doesn’t make as many as he used to since starting college, so Heath often gets to bring a buddy.
The family is all in.
“We’re kind of superstitious,” Michael Pratt said. “We wear our Panthers clothes and if they don’t win, we find new Panthers clothes.”
Not that that’s been much of an issue during a season and playoff run that finds the Panthers at 17-1 heading into Super Bowl 50. It’s also been a bonus for Pratt’s Banks Trail staff.
“Every time the Panthers win, the teachers get to wear jeans on Mondays, so I feel like we recruited 60 more Panthers fans,” Pratt joked.
Getting to watch his team’s runaway win in the NFC Championship Game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte to get to the Super Bowl was the experience of a lifetime, he said.
“You could just feel the energy in the stadium,” Pratt said.
“It was by far the greatest football game I’ve ever been to. My youngest son and one of his friends, who we call our extra child because he’s gone to a lot of games with us, you can just see on their faces and even my wife’s face the excitement and the over-the-top of it. I think it hit them that this is something special and you don’t get to see this all the time. I turned to my wife and said, ‘They’re going to remember this the rest of their lives.’ ”
Rev. Sizoo will wear her Panthers gear in the pulpit Sunday and tens of thousands of fans will be hoping a whole school full of teachers in Fort Mill will be wearing jeans on Monday.