Nearly 1,000 Carolina Panthers fans on Monday night celebrated a winning season despite the Super Bowl 50 loss, waiting for hours in chilly weather and occasional rain at Bank of America Stadium to give the team a warm welcome home.
The Panthers returned home Monday, landing at Charlotte Douglas International Airport around 6:30 p.m. They were honored on the runway with a ceremonial water cannon salute shot by airport fire trucks.
The players quickly and quietly boarded several waiting buses. The public was not allowed into the area near the runway, but a cluster of cheering fans gathered outside the fence. Many held signs of support.
Hours before the Panthers landed, local fans made their way home on other flights from California.
The VanWingerden family from Huntersville – decked out in Panthers gear as they arrived at the airport Monday afternoon – said their memorable trip to the Super Bowl was worth every minute and every penny spent.
The players should hold their heads high, said Art VanWingerden.
“They didn’t win it all, but there are 30 other teams that didn’t make it there,” he said. He described feeling “dejection” over the game outcome but said “at least (the loss) was to Peyton Manning” – one of his favorite NFL players.
Even before they boarded their return flight to Charlotte on Monday morning, Art and his brother, Abe VanWingerden, looked up information about next year’s Super Bowl in Houston – a trip they want to take and hope to see the Panthers there.
The VanWingerdens, who are suite owners at the Panthers stadium, said they believe the team will be even better next year, bringing back young players such as Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, Kelvin Benjamin and possibly Josh Norman.
Other fans, such as John Williams of Charlotte, agreed.
“They didn’t know what was in store for them at the Super Bowl,” Williams said. “You could see them dabbing and dancing in warm ups. Now, they’ll know they’ve got to get to work.”
Williams was at the stadium Monday night, dressed in character as “Panther Man,” complete with a light-up costume and a black-and-blue cane.
He chalked up Newton’s walking out of a post-game press conference as evidence of the “the youth in him.” That youthfulness should bode well for the future, Williams said. “I expect them to be (at the Super Bowl) next year.”
Panthers President Danny Morrison praised the team’s loyal followers on Monday night.
“We’ve said all along we have the best fans in the NFL and seeing this turnout tonight only reinforces that,” he said.
Fans began gathering at the stadium mid-afternoon. Around 5:45 p.m., nearly 300 people had gathered at the stadium. By the time the team buses arrived at 7:15 p.m., there were nearly 1,000 fans.
Waiting fans chanted “Keep Pounding” and did their best “Dab” for cellphone cameras as they held balloons and homemade signs. Coach Ron Rivera and some players walked along the edge of the crowd, trading high-fives, before gathering their things and heading inside the stadium.
Anne Long, Emily Dunning and Laura Sekelsky, all season ticket holders, held blue-and-black balloons and said they hoped the stadium crowd boosted the team’s spirits.
It is not a pity party, Long said.
“This season was such a gift,” said Long, 57, of Charlotte. “It was so much fun, I couldn’t feel bad.”
Added Sekelsky, “I was bummed, but the fact we were there (at the Super Bowl) is a win.”
‘This is my dream’
LaQuan Hall, who moved from Charlotte to New Jersey in 1987, couldn’t watch the second half of the Super Bowl because he was en route to the Queen City – hoping to see a victory parade.
But after the 15-hour, 630-mile bus trip from New Jersey, Hall had to settle for Monday’s welcome-back gathering at the stadium.
Hall, 44, a truck driver, arrived in Charlotte at 3:15 p.m. Monday and made it to the stadium just before the team store closed. He bought a large NFC champion magnet to go along with about 200 Panthers jerseys Hall said he owns.
He said he isn’t disappointed in the loss, or his decision to travel to Charlotte.
“This is my dream,” Hall said. “I came here to live my dream.”
Such a warm reception despite the devastating loss to the Denver Broncos should remind players that fans still stand behind them, said Kenny Terry, 27, of Charlotte.
“Hopefully,” he said, “this will give them the drive to come back strong, to know we’re all right here.”
Observer reporters Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Gavin Off contributed.
Anna Douglas, @ADouglasNews