Tom Sorensen

Sorensen Classic: In 1996, Panthers came home after year at Motel 6 in Clemson

Panthers fans at a 1996 preseason game at Ericsson Stadium.
Panthers fans at a 1996 preseason game at Ericsson Stadium.

Here’s what Charlotte Observer columnist Tom Sorensen wrote to mark the first Carolina Panthers football game at their new stadium in Charlotte on Sept. 1, 1996.

Today is a huge day for Charlotte and the Carolinas. K.C. & the Sunshine Band will leave town and the longest preseason in the history of sports will end.

K.C. and the fellows played in front of Ericsson Stadium Saturday night. I happened to be walking by Saturday morning when they were doing their sound check and am offering a $50 reward to the first person who can dislodge the phrase "get down tonight, " that would be, "get down tonight, " from my head.

The preseason began in 1987, which was after K.C. fell out of favor but long before the Charlotte Hornets did.

In 1987, the Richardson family decided to try to convince the NFL to sell them a franchise. The Panthers were merely a concept then. They didn't have a name, a place to play or a former cornerback named Tim McKyer. But they've been with us since.

In the last nine years, we've purchased permanent seat licenses - $5,200 for the right to buy a seat? Hey, count me in! - waited for Joe Gibbs to become the first head coach, learned to spell Tshimanga Biakabutuka's name and watched McKyer return a pass 96 yards to help the Panthers upset San Francisco 13-7.

We listened to the Panthers explain one day they had done nothing wrong when the NFL accused them of tampering with Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dom Capers. We listened to them explain the next day they had tampered. We stopped waiting for Steve Spurrier to become the first head coach.

We watched the Panthers go after famous free-agents such as linebacker Kevin Greene and obscure free-agents such as defensive end Mike Fox. After watching Fox play, we realized Greene will be a steal if he has the season Fox did.

We drove 2-1/2 hours, in theory, to Clemson to watch the Panthers play home games. On the way back, we drove by what would become Ericsson Stadium. Ericsson would be home. Clemson would be the motel in which the team stayed until it was finished.

Clemson was kind of like Motel 6. The folks were friendly, and they always left a light on. If they hadn't, we never would have found the place. There is only one road to Clemson, and before the first preseason game both Carolinas decided to work on it at the same time.

The trip was such that many fans never made it again.

But once you attained Clemson, you know what you saw? You saw a beautiful stadium full of hard-core fans. Nobody has ever gone to Clemson to be seen. Even though the crowds were sparse, there were probably more football fans in the stadium than there will be in Ericsson today.

That Clemson was worth the trip was really no surprise. You can have a great time in a motel.

McKyer, a reserve for the Atlanta Falcons who moves from team to team the way Elizabeth Taylor moves from husband to husband, was responsible for some of those great times. A career drifter, he seemed to find a place to land. He was part of something new, and he was important. Remember that if he should play against the Panthers today.

The Panthers won seven games and flirted with the playoffs. And Charlotte did not embrace them, as the TV ratings attest.

This season, Charlotte will. The Carolinas will. The Panthers have checked out of the motel and moved into their new digs. The team finally seems real.

Ericsson Stadium is a striking building, imposing even when the Panthers are not inside, and fans circle it and pose for pictures in front of it every day.

On the sidewalks and streets near the stadium are dark blue paw prints. Today we finally have a reason to follow them. It will be interesting to see where they lead.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen