Columns & Blogs

‘Coach Jack’ keeps Carolina Panthers on track

Coach Jack Bolton’s Davidson bedroom is furnished in Early Panther. So is Coach Jack.

He wears a visor crammed with the autographs of Carolina Panthers players. He carries on his lap two colorful canoe-like Cam Newton cleats that Newton signed. Across the No. 1 Newton jersey Coach Jack wears is the signature of former Panther Steve Smith.

What do you like about the Panthers?

“I like that everyone there is doing their best and they’re all super nice,” Coach Jack says.

Did you ever give up this season?

“No!” Coach Jack says with rare emotion.

Not even when they lost six straight?

“No!” he says.

Coach Jack can prove it. Before the Panthers began their current four-game winning streak he sent his Carolina counterpart, coach Ron Rivera, a letter: “I’m still watching you, your fans are still watching you and everybody still thinks you can win.”

If you’re an adult, with an adult’s sensibilities if not an adult’s cynicism, you did not expect the Panthers to make the playoffs. They not only lost six straight but they also looked terrible doing it.

Yet they did make the playoffs. They play the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday at Bank of America Stadium.

If you’re a 10-year-old, and in ways warm and wonderful are a part of the Panthers like Coach Jack, you never had a doubt. They’re 3-0 in games he attended, beating Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland.

Coach Jack has spinal muscular atrophy, SMA. The body grows, but the muscles fail to keep up. He uses a wheelchair.

Last season, under the auspices of the Make-A-Wish-Foundation, he asked to become Carolina coach for a day.

When he was in first grade at Davidson Elementary, he would diagram plays for his classmates to run at recess. He used Xs and Os and arrows. He learned them watching Carolina on TV and by playing Madden video games.

Coach Jack was introduced to the Panthers in a meeting before 2013 Fan Fest. He was somehow confident. He was confident enough to deny tackle Jordan Gross’ request to take a veteran’s day off, and calmly told the players he’d be watching.

I wrote about Coach Jack before the playoff loss to San Francisco last season. The Panthers had invited Jack and his dad, John, to join them at practice. John often signed Coach Jack out of school by writing “Doctor.” That day, he wrote “Panthers.”

After practice, players walked past on a drizzly afternoon and almost everybody stopped to talk and joke and offer a pat on the back or practice-worn gloves.

Coach Jack’s theme was I’m Watching You. He created a poster with the message and brought it to a home game last season against New Orleans and a road game against Atlanta, both of which Carolina won.

He gave the poster to Rivera. Rivera had it framed and hung it above the door that leads from the weight room to the locker room.

Players walk the route almost daily. Glance up and there it is. Rivera could have framed his own words there or plucked an inspirational quote from a name players would recognize. He chose a poster by a then-9-year-old.

“This community does a lot for us,” says Rivera. “We want to do a lot for the community.”

The Panthers worked with three Make-A-Wish Foundation kids this season. Ashley Aikin, 17, from outside Orlando, served as a Carolina athletic trainer.

George Gring, 7, of Houston wanted a pro experience and was given a locker next to Newton. Newton insisted that the locker remain George’s and it still is.

Andy Giarla, from Monroe Parkwood High, was diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer. He asked for the Panthers experience for him and three of his best friends. Giarla underwent surgery to remove a large tumor from the base of his skull and played football for the Rebels this season.

“We’re the go-to team for Make-A-Wish, and that’s an honor for us,” Rivera says.

We leave Coach Jack’s room for the house’s non-Panthers rooms. The hardwood floors throughout are impeccably smooth and clean. Despite the fast wood, the speed limit for the chairs inside the house is 3 mph.

Eleanor Bolton, Coach Jack’s 12-year-old sister, also has SMA. The Boltons didn’t realize they were SMA carriers until Eleanor was 2 and Coach Jack was a month from being delivered. The odds were 50-50 the children would be carriers and 1-in-4 they would have SMA.

On Feb. 2, 2013, the Boltons had a third child, a son who does not have SMA.

Coach Jack had been lobbying for a Panthers name, and his mother, Holly, admits she liked DeAngelo, as in running back DeAngelo Williams. Instead, he was named Robert, for Holly’s father.

Certain friends, though, insist on calling the baby DeAngelo regardless.

Coach Jack wasn’t thrilled with the name but he was thrilled with his little brother. He told Robert the Panthers have to be his favorite team, although he doesn’t believe Robert got the message. He says he will hold off coaching him until Robert is old enough to hold a football and walk.

As Robert coos and crawls, Jack sits in his Christmas wheelchair, a Permobil M300. The shroud, a cover, is painted perfect Panthers blue – the Panthers provided a kit to match their colors. Outside the house, the chair does 7.5 mph, John says. That would be 7.7 when it goes downhill, Coach Jack quickly adds.

To prove it, Coach Jack drives the chair outside, lines it up at the bottom of the driveway and takes off. Although the trip is uphill, the speedometer says 7.3 when he passes me halfway to the street.

He knows he can go faster, just as he always believed the Panthers could come back.

“There’s always downs,” Coach Jack says. “But after that, there has to be up.”

Related stories from Charlotte Observer