Scott Fowler

How Billy Graham’s sports connections in Charlotte ran deep ... and wide

In August 1988, Graham dedicated the then-new (and now demolished) Charlotte Coliseum – the original home of the Charlotte Hornets.
In August 1988, Graham dedicated the then-new (and now demolished) Charlotte Coliseum – the original home of the Charlotte Hornets.

While Billy Graham’s profound impact on the world was mostly religion-based, the famous evangelist also made a number of sports connections with his hometown.

The most well-known: At age 77 in 1996, Graham conducted a four-night crusade in Bank of America Stadium (then known as Ericsson Stadium) . He drew crowds of about 65,000 every night and cemented his friendship with Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who still counts that Charlotte crusade among his favorite memories ever.

Said Richardson in an interview not long after the crusade: “How do you put a value on the Billy Graham crusade being in that stadium for four days? I don’t think you can. But I know in my mind it’s far greater than a winning season.”

Graham, who grew up on a dairy farm in Charlotte before spreading his Christian faith worldwide as “America’s pastor,” died Wednesday at age 99.

In this Aug. 18, 1996 photo, Bill Graham greets the crowd during the dedication at Ericsson Stadium, which later became Bank of America Stadium. Observer File Photo

For many years, Graham was a fan of the Dallas Cowboys owing in large part to their coach – Tom Landry, a devout Christian. But Graham changed his allegiance once his hometown established an NFL team and at least once wore Panthers garb for a photo shoot for a national magazine as a visual reminder of his support.

Graham wrote a personal letter to Richardson in January 1997. Richardson later shared that letter with former Observer reporter Charles Chandler and myself for a book we were writing. Graham wrote to Richardson after the Panthers’ first playoff appearance, which ended with a loss to Green Bay in the NFC Championship: “What you all have done this past year is a miracle from God. You have put Charlotte on the map and shown the world the strength that Christianity gives to a city, state and team.”

Graham also noted in the letter that Panthers players gathering in a prayer circle after games “touched me more than anything I can remember. ...I am delighted and thrilled and honored to be a part of the Panther family. My main contribution will be prayer and friendship.”

The Panthers hosted Graham twice within the first several months of their stadium’s opening – once for his crusade and once in August 1996, when the evangelist officially dedicated the stadium that had just opened. Graham said then he was dedicating the stadium “to the glory of God and the advancement of Charlotte and the Carolinas.”

Kevin Greene, who was a star linebacker for the Panthers at the time, said of Graham being selected to dedicate the stadium: “That’s the kind of power you can’t mess with.”

That was not the first time Graham dedicated a major sports venue in Charlotte. In August 1988, Graham dedicated the then-new (and now demolished) Charlotte Coliseum – the original home of the Charlotte Hornets.

Less than 24 hours later, the team’s 40,000-pound scoreboard crashed to the floor and was destroyed – hitting a spot on the hardwood roughly where Graham had stood. Graham had a well-developed sense of humor and would joke about that near-miss occasionally.

As a youth in Charlotte, Graham enjoyed playing baseball. And for as long as he was able to play, Graham also enjoyed golf.

In 1974, when Gerald Ford was the vice president, he came to Charlotte to play in some pro-am tournaments.

One day Graham and Ford were paired for 18 holes at Quail Hollow Club, making for some fun moments.

On one hole Graham missed an 18-inch putt. Then an Observer reporter saw him glance toward the sky, laugh and say: “Someone up there isn’t looking out for me.”

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140, @scott_fowler