Tom Sorensen

‘They were here.’ Ron Rivera’s popularity with fans goes beyond the Panthers’ record.

You wonder how many fans feel as if they know Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera. As he leaves minicamp Tuesday, he shakes a hand and poses for a picture. He signs a jersey and answers a question. He slaps a shoulder and laughs at a joke.

One fan that has been waiting more than an hour is shy, so Rivera asks her name and introduces himself. One fan tries to take a picture of Rivera and the two people that accompany him, but can’t quite organize the pose so that everybody will fit. Rivera does, arranging the subjects by height.

One fan talks about cash versus credit and tells a long a story. Rivera, 56, is as attentive as a middle manager listening to his boss.

I ask if fans would react similarly if instead of winning 11 games last season the Panthers had won four.

“They would,” says Rivera. “When we were working out way up, and hadn’t been winning, they were here.”

Fans stand behind a rope, and as players and coaches walk from the practice field to the stadium, they have to walk past the fans – unless they get a ride on a golf cart. Rivera disdains the ride.

Rivera works his way from fan to fan and group to group. When he finishes, when there are no more fans, he is approached on the sidewalk by three young fans. Will he pose for pictures?

Rivera poses individually with each of them.

I ran into Rivera at a Charlotte celebrity golf tournament late one afternoon and a man introduced himself to the coach. The man said his brother is a huge fan of the Chicago Bears, the team for which Rivera played, and would Rivera talk to him?

The man called his brother and handed Rivera the phone. The afternoon was hot, and Rivera found a chair and talked to the fan, listening mostly, for almost 20 minutes.

Every year, the barrier between athletes and fans becomes greater. For safety reasons, it has to. Check social media.

But there also are thousands of fans that invest their passion, and money, on a team, and simply want to meet the people they cheer.

It might not be a big deal, the manner in which Rivera treats fans.

But listen to them talk about the autograph and picture and conversation, and it feels as if it is.

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

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