Tom Sorensen

Tom Talks: New Panthers stadium would be sound investment for Charlotte

Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper says a new, retractable stadium in uptown Charlotte would pay huge dividends for the region.
Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper says a new, retractable stadium in uptown Charlotte would pay huge dividends for the region. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

In an interview with Ben Fischer of the SportsBusiness Journal, David Tepper says that within 10 years he’d like to build a stadium in Charlotte, and he’d like taxpayers to help.

Tepper owns the Carolina Panthers, and because he is a billionaire, many fans don’t believe Tepper is entitled to taxpayer assistance.

I disagree.

Charlotte invests in business. The corporations that relocate here don’t come exclusively for the breweries. Inducements are offered.

Charlotte is stronger with the Panthers than without them. As long as Tepper invests his money – and so far, he has done everything he said he would – we should supplement his investment. And I live in Charlotte and pay taxes.

Tepper isn’t standing on a concrete island on South Boulevard asking for $1s and $10s. He doesn’t strike me as a guy with his hand out. He strikes me as a businessman.

His business comes with a price. South Carolina paid it to entice him to move his team’s headquarters from Charlotte to Rock Hill, and Tepper was a billionaire then, too. The investment was astute. The Panthers will be the catalyst for development that Rock Hill almost certainly would not otherwise attract.

I want the Panthers in Charlotte. I especially want the new stadium in Charlotte. Where Tepper finds land to accommodate the stadium will be interesting. I think I know, but I’m just guessing.

When he builds it, businesses – bars and restaurants obviously – will scramble to get close to the stadium. And since it will offer a retractable roof, Charlotte will host its first Super Bowl.

If Tepper has shown us anything since he bought the team little more than a year ago, it’s that he has committed to the Carolinas. He’s not an outsider who drops in on game day. He digs in.

So we’ll invest in the stadium, and we’ll invest in him. Why punish the man for being a billionaire? Billionaires have feelings, too.

He made his money by trusting his instincts. I trust him, too.

A fighter’s son

SPARTANBURG -- Jake Peetz, the Panthers’ new running backs coach, needs help. He calls for a drill in which players get low, move quickly around and, when they finish, hang onto the ball while Peetz punches it with a boxing glove.

But the drill begins to unravel before it begins. Peetz has one glove on, and because he does, can’t get the second one on.

Who do you think he ought to call for assistance?

“Holyfield,” he says.

Elijah Holyfield runs to him.

Says Peetz: “Strap ‘em up. You should know how to do this.”

Good choice. Cool drill.

“Oh yeah, he gets after it,” Holyfield says of the punches his coach throws at the ball. “He works just as hard as we do on the field. He’s fun to play for.”

Holyfield has strapped up gloves before. He’s the son of Evander Holyfield, the former heavyweight champion. The younger Holyfield also boxed. But he didn’t like to get hit. So, he stuck with his other sport, football. As a running back, Holyfield gets to deliver blows as well as take them.

A guess is that, as a boxer, the younger Holyfield didn’t dance.

“No sir,” he says.

Holyfield, 21, left Georgia after his junior year. He ran a 4.78 40-yard dash at the combine, disastrous for a running back, and wasn’t drafted. But at Georgia last season, he rushed for 1,018 yards, averaged 6.4 yards a carry, and scored seven touchdowns.

He doesn’t look slow at practice.

It’s tough to tell what a running back offers when the defense isn’t tackling him. But no question Holyfield is tough. He’s built like his father, albeit smaller. Listed at 5-foot-10 and 215 pounds, he has the body fat of a brick.

“You see a scrapper,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera says when I ask about Holyfield. “A real hard working, physical player. He’s really establishing who he is as a football player for us.”

Holyfield has to. Competing with him to back up starter Christian McCaffrey are veteran Cameron Artis-Payne, Reggie Bonnafon, and Jordan Scarlett. Scarlett, the fifth-round pick out of Florida, has had a good camp.

Holyfield says practices at Georgia prepared him for the NFL.

“Yes sir, I’ve been loving it so far, how physical we are,” he says.

If you need a reason to pull for Holyfield, here’s one. The temperature in Spartanburg when practice breaks Monday is 90 degrees. Holyfield, as he does every day, stays on the field.

He doesn’t want to ask a quarterback to work with him on this blazingly humid day, but he’s found a man who works for the Panthers who has a good arm and is willing to work overtime.

Holyfield will top off a route and catch a pass, repeatedly. He doesn’t leave until he’s been thrown 100. That’s every day.

“It’s one of the areas of the game I want to get better at,” Holyfield says about the extra work.

This isn’t about his famous dad. This is about him.

“Yes sir, (the NFL) has been my dream,” Holyfield says.

You could say that with the extra work he puts in, along with having played for one of college football’s elite programs, Holyfield has made a name for himself.

But you might be wrong.

After we talk, Holyfield walks to the crowd to sign autographs.

Trying to get his attention, one fan yells, “Hey, Evander Holyfield’s kid!”

18 games? That’s too many, thanks

Forcing a team to play four exhibitions, and charging fans full price to watch them, is dumb. Forcing a team to play 18 regular-season games is dumber.

The NFL has played a perfect schedule, 16 games, since 1978. In 1990, the league added a bye week. That number, 16, is ideal.

There are two major problems with expanding the schedule by two games, which owners appear to favor.

The lesser of them is saturation. We have Sunday afternoon football and Sunday night football, Monday night football and Thursday night football and, late in the season, Saturday football. Do we want to need two more weeks of it? The more games you play, the less each game counts. The beauty of the NFL is that every game is significant.

We have just the right amount of NFL. We don’t need more.

The larger problem is injuries. What happens if, during regular-season game No. 17, a star is hurt? What happens if that star plays for your team?

Imagine how you’d feel if, during the overtime portion of the season, in game 17, Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey is hurt? What if quarterback Cam Newton comes all the way back this season, and in game 17 is sacked and the Panthers have to go into the playoffs without him, or forfeit the opportunity to make the playoffs because he’s not there?

The contract between owners and players expires after the 2020 season, but conversations, about the next contract already have begun. The only way owners can entice the NFL Players Association to agree to 18 games is to give players a larger piece of the revenue the league generates. But the NFLPA has been steadfast in its refusal to agree to an expanded schedule. Hope it stays that way.

I’d love to see the NFL cut the preseason from four games to two. Keep the first game, which is like a greeting card, football is back, here’s what it looks like in case you forgot. I’d also keep the third, which is as close to a dress rehearsal as the league gets.

The owners are not going to drop the exhibitions, for which fans pay full price for a ticket and concessions, unless they get something in return.

To attempt to make the 18-game schedule more palatable, the league will add tricks. A team gets two byes. A player can participate in only 16 games. For Carolina, maybe rookie Will Grier gets to start a game at quarterback.

But why would the NFL alter a schedule that fits so perfectly? Oh, yeah, to make yet even more money.

Aside from that, I mean.

Panthers have real receiving depth

Some of the highlights I saw at training camp included a one-handed catch by receiver Aldrick Robinson. Robinson ran a post and quarterback Will Grier threw a hard pass near the back of the end zone. Robinson stuck out his left hand to stop the ball and secured it with his right. He then ran into general manager Marty Hurney. Despite this, the catch was a good career move.

While the Panthers lack Steve Smith Sr. and Ted Ginn Jr., they might have more receiving depth than they’ve ever had.

They signed Robinson, for example, in April. The Panthers are his sixth team. Last season, he played for the Minnesota Vikings and caught 17 passes, five of them for touchdowns. If you’re keeping score at home, that means one of every 3.4 receptions went for six points.

Robinson also has a bowling average of 208, the bowling equivalent of a scratch golfer, in case you were wondering.

Despite all the depth and speed the Panthers have at receiver, defensive backs have also looked good. D.J. Moore ran a nice route, and with a sharp cut reached the right corner of the end zone. Ross Cockrell read it perfectly, cutting in front of Moore as the ball arrived and knocking it down.

You remember Cockrell. He played at Charlotte Latin and Duke, and turns 28 next week. The Buffalo Bills took him in the fourth round of the 2014 draft.

You also remember one Cockrell play in training camp last season. He collided with Torrey Smith. Teammates somberly gathered around him so you knew the injury was bad. He broke his leg, and left on a cart.

Although Cockrell has always been a cornerback, the Panthers have used him some during camp as a free safety. At 6-0 and 190 pounds, he’s big enough, and has the ball skills, to pull it off.

Two other impressions:

I saw one pass travel about 25 yards. The trajectory and speed were such that it looked as if somebody had hit a line drive. Will Grier, the third-round pick, threw that pass.

Almost every time I looked up, it seemed as if a receiver was sprinting for or diving for a pass. There is so much speed at the position that Carolina appears to collect it. Many are on the edge of the roster, fighting for a spot. Be interesting to see who wins.

Boxing’s benefit

I’ve been going to boxing matches in Charlotte since the early 1980s, and Christy Martin’s Aug. 17 boxing card at CenterStage@NODA offers a quality no other card has.

The main event features women. Undefeated Logan Holler, formerly of Columbia, and now of Charlotte, will fight Samantha Pill of West Virginia, who has one loss.

oller fought on Martin’s last card, which attracted a standing room only crowd. Fans stood and, well, hollered, as Holler fought to a draw with Bertha Aracil, the Cuban Princess out of New York City.

Holler is super welterweight (154 pounds). She’s 28.

Her fight with Aracil was the next to last on the card. When the fight ended and the result was announced, fans began to leave. By the time the evening’s final fight, which matched men, began, at least half the fans had departed.

Along with seeing hundreds of Charlotte fights, I’ve interviewed at least 100 boxers. Holler tells me something no other boxer has.

Boxing saved my life,” she says.

When she was in school at South Carolina, she began to experience depression. She didn’t know what was going on, and neither did the people around her. She didn’t tell a lot of people.

“I actually thought about taking my life,” she says.

Holler needed something to throw herself into, and she chose boxing. But she couldn’t find amateur fights in Columbia. So, she skipped straight to the pros.

Says Holler: “As Christy says, my safe place is in the ring.”

Martin, the promoter and long-time women’s lightweight champion, was a domestic violence victim, stabbed and shot by her then husband. Her foundation, Christy’s Champs, fights domestic violence.

Holler and I talk at Jackelope Jack’s. We stand near a wooden pole, and she speaks quietly. I ask what boxing does for her.

“I like the journey of it,” she says. “Inside the ring, I can’t fake it. You can’t fake boxing.”

So, she commits to the reality of her sport, prepares and trains.

“I break it down day by day,” Holler says. “When I’m just exhausted mentally, I can feel those feelings coming in.”

I ask if depression is like alcoholism; you might kick it repeatedly, but it doesn’t go away.

She says, yes.

Most boxers don’t like to acknowledge any kind of perceived weakness, so why be so candid?

“If I talk about my story, maybe I can get somebody else to get help,” Holler says.

The other part of her story takes place between the ropes.

“This fight is going to be her coming-out party and really make a statement,” Martin says.

I ask Holler her what she feels when, on the night of a fight, she steps into the ring.

This is what she feels. Holler asks herself: “Why am I doing this? Why am I putting myself through this?”

She recently saw a story about an MMA fighter who asked the same questions. That was relief for her. She’s not alone.

Holler won’t be alone Aug. 17. A lot of fans called her name when she fought the Cuban Princess. They’ll be back.

Tickets are $100 VIP, $65 ringside and $40 general admission. Centerstage@NODA is on 2315 N. Davidson St. Doors open at 6 p.m., and boxing begins at 7 p.m. For more information, go to www.christymartinfightnightcharlotte.eventbright.com.

Cam great? Let the debate begin

I missed DeAngelo Williams’ appearance on on ESPN’s First Take, so I watched the video. As far as I can tell, Williams, a former Carolina Panthers’ running back, said Cam Newton is a good but not great quarterback.

That’s it.

That’s enough. A Twitter battle between Williams and Newton’s fans soon devolved into Tweetageddon.

Williams was a Carolina running back and a good football player. He played nine seasons for the Panthers and was jettisoned in 2014. He was angry, and did not leave quietly. He’s been gone five years.

So why is everybody so worked up about Williams’ opinion?

They’re worked up because nobody in Panthers’ history attracts the combination of support and criticism that Newton does.

Early in Newton’s Panthers career, I wrote that he is a franchise quarterback, and Carolina should pay him like one.

Readers were vicious. One guy sent me a roughly 400-page email. He wrote that since I was a white columnist advocating for a black athlete, I must be a liberal. But he didn’t say advocating and I think he misspelled liberal. Politics aside, I wrote the column because I thought Newton could play.

I still do. I don’t believe Newton is a great quarterback. I think he has great games. But sustained greatness? I don’t see it.

Also, there are so many good quarterbacks in the NFL that if we call them all great, the word will cease to mean what it’s intended to.

If Newton is healthy this season, and if his offensive line and receivers are what they appear to be, Newton will be in position to excel.

If Newton has a great season, his legion of fans will celebrate by vigorously attacking his critics.

If Newton fails to have a great season, his legion of fans will commiserate by blaming the offensive line, receivers, coaches and general manager, and vigorously attack Newton’s critics.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Observer columnist.
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