Panther Tracks

Charlotte’s emotions flew high before Super Bowl, then fell hard

I think Josh Norman’s post-game sideline weeping is the most apt visual of how Charlotte’s feeling after the Carolina Panthers’ unexpected Super Bowl loss to the Denver Broncos.

Norman’s the chatty, confident cornerback who donned a lucha libre mask on Super Bowl Opening Night. A week ago you wouldn’t have expected to see him with his head buried in his hands, stunned and sobbing as orange and blue confetti drifted in the background at Levi’s Stadium.

And the same goes for Charlotte. When I came back home Monday from a week in California for the Super Bowl, the city’s mood had taken a complete 180-degree turn.

Now that I’ve had a day to digest this, it seems that the higher you fly, the harder you fall.

I spent a lot of time talking to Panthers fans in Charlotte, San Francisco and Santa Clara before Sunday’s game. A Super Bowl win was, hands down, what everyone expected. Folks spent thousands of dollars and traveled thousands of miles to see the Panthers finally win a Super Bowl. Watch parties of epic proportions were held in Charlotte.

Carolina was favored to win, and victory would be the fitting end to a fairytale 17-1 season.

Panthers fans had dabbed on alongside the team and delighted in the players’ goofy “Creedbombing.” Drake and Future’s “Big Rings” became an anthem echoing the team’s hunger to soon get those big Super Bowl rings themselves after their trouncing of the Arizona Cardinals to win the NFC Championship. Local media started planning how to cover a victory parade uptown.

In California, our team of journalists joined other national media outlets chasing down everything Panthers-related. The week that began with the insanity of media night was jammed with celebrity-filled parties, interviews with NFL officials and long bus rides to San Jose to speak with the team.

Unlike some of those other reporters who kvetched about particulars of this Super Bowl – their sixth or seventh – it was a first for this business reporter. That my hometown team was playing made Sunday’s game even more exciting.

Exuberance surrounding the team gave way to downright sadness Sunday in a matter of hours.

Panthers fans left the game early droves, some openly weeping. I had friends and family send me messages of condolences as if someone had died.

One guy getting off our red-eye from San Francisco at Charlotte Douglas still wore his Cam Newton jersey and a Panthers face tattoo Monday morning. I spotted him wandering out to the remote parking shuttle in a miserable daze.

Like that poor fan, and for lack of a better Super Bowl cliché, Charlotte seems deflated.

The Panthers had a way this season of uniting the city and even the Carolinas, as evidenced by that #OneCarolina social media campaign. Many readers who normally don’t pick up the Observer sports section told us they’ve loved reading about this team.

After the Panthers’ only other Super Bowl appearance in 2004, it was now their turn, people said. They’d waited long enough.

I had a similar feeling when Notre Dame lost in the national championship football game in 2013 against Alabama. Sure, we felt it was our alma mater’s turn for its first national title since 1988. But we weren’t at all favored to win. That we were there at all was almost sweet enough – at least for me.

There was nothing sweet about the Panthers’ ugly Super Bowl loss. And Newton’s post-game demeanor hasn’t exactly restored morale in Charlotte.

And yet, by Monday night, you sensed a shift in mood, at least among the hardcore fans.

I didn’t get to go to Bank of America Stadium Monday to greet the team. But I heard stories, and I saw images of the nearly 1,000 fans who braved the cold and occasional rain to welcome the team home – nearly five times the number who sent them off last Sunday. They weren’t at home sulking or shouting expletives. They carried signs that carried words of encouragement like “We are proud of y’all.”

This is also a team that lives by the mantra “Keep Pounding,” a simple reminder to forge ahead despite the circumstances.

A loss like Sunday’s, I think, will only add fuel to their fire to come back stronger next year.

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta