Panthers have overcome tragedy, losing

As time ticked down inside the Linc on Sunday, Carolina defensive end Mike Rucker stood near the Panthers' bench waving and blowing soft, mock, kisses that hit the Philly crowd like shots of pepper spray. Behind him Brentson Buckner dumped Gatorade on John Fox before bear-hugging the breath out of his coach. Soon the predictably nasty conference championship hats and t-shirts (who designs these … T.J. Maxx?) would be everywhere. But there were better images all around to signify this team's unlikely triumph. Like the warm, understated smile of linebackers coach Sam Mills, who has been battling cancer this season; the banshee wail of safety Mike Minter as he held the NFC championship trophy overhead like a title belt; and even the sweat-soaked sigh of relief on GM Marty Hurney's mug.

Meanwhile out in the stands, a lone, brave Panthers fan (his buddy was wearing a hard hat and I'm guessing it wasn't because it matched his outfit) unfurled a sign congratulating Carolina on its first trip to the Super Bowl. Caught up in all the excitement, the poor guy hung the sign upside down before quickly realizing his mistake and correcting the banner.

His goof is easy to understand. After all, sports fans in Charlotte haven't had a whole lot of practice in the art of celebration.

Nowadays, though, thanks to luckless baseball fans in Chicago and Boston, fan suffering is in vogue. And if this (albeit sick and twisted) method is indeed how we measure what region is the most deserving of a championship, then go find some black and teal to wear on Super Bowl Sunday.

Charlotte, the burgeoning, shiny new buckle of the bible belt, might come across as a professional sports neophyte, but when it comes to suffering during the last decade, this place has paid it's dues -- and then some. And I'm not just talking about 2001 when the Panthers became the only team in NFL history to lose 15 games in a row in a single season. Fifteen loses? That's nothing. Or the fact that 2003 is this franchise's second winning season in eight years of existence. Puhlease. Child's play.

"This city has been through so much with its teams, its bad records, scandals and whatever, we know it's been a lot to take," says Rucker, an Eagles media guide torn to pieces resting at his feet. "But that's what makes this so nice now, you know, getting a chance to bring (a Lombardi Trophy) home. Because winning cures everything. It cures all the ailments, all the scandals, all the hatred and all the negativity."

There's been plenty to go around down here -- trust me. In the seven seasons since the Panthers last made the playoffs, this city has been through an almost incomprehensible litany of horrors that I'm quite sure most other fans -- yes, even those so-called diehards in Philly, the ones who piled out of Lincoln Financial Field as if someone had pulled a fire alarm with five minutes left to play in the NFC championship game -- would not have been able to weather.

It began in 1998 when in the midst of a 4-12 season (while fending off allegations of heavy drinking and racism), then Carolina quarterback Kerry Collins walked into former coach Dom Capers office and, according to teammates, essentially quit the team. Collins, who had stood on the steps of the stadium just two years earlier and declared the Panthers a budding dynasty, was promptly cut by the Panthers. He eventually got himself together and led the New York Giants to the Super Bowl. But at the time, I sat down with Collins just as the controversy was about to consume him, and I can tell you this: I have never seen someone broken by this game the way that Collins was that season in Charlotte.

That, however, was just the beginning. You see, although Charlotte is a clean, safe, pleasant enough place to live and a major banking hub to boot, the city was lured, by the siren sound of the NBA and NFL, into using sports as a way to put itself on the proverbial 'map.' It's a shortcut the Queen City has regretted tremendously -- until now.

In November of 1999, former Panther Rae Carruth and three accomplices were charged, and later convicted, of murder conspiracy in the death of Carruth's pregnant girlfriend Cherica Adams. Two months later, beloved Hornet guard Bobby Phills was killed when his Porsche crashed while racing teammate David Wesley near the Charlotte Coliseum. And then on July 6, 2000, Fred Lane, the former Panthers running back, was gunned down in the doorway of his Charlotte home by his wife Deidra. (Although covered in her husband's blood, Deidra was caught on the chilling 911 tape desperately trying to nurse the couple's infant while waiting for police to arrive.) Prosecutors here allowed Deidra to plead down from first-degree murder and she was recently sentenced to eight years in jail for voluntary manslaughter.

In the middle of all this Hornets owner George Shinn -- whose autobiography was originally titled Good Morning Lord! -- was on trial for sexual harassment. Shinn was acquitted. But a fan revolt had begun and, after voters said no to public funds for a new arena, he was eventually forced to move down to New Orleans. (If you ask me, short of a Super Bowl win, standing up to Shinn and his Whornets is still Charlotte's finest accomplishment as a sportstown.)

Fans have even had their hearts broken by NASCAR. During an IRL race in May of 1999 at Lowes Motor Speedway, a wheel flew into the stands and killed three. A year later, a concrete pedestrian walkway at LMS collapsed at the track injuring 100 fans. The following season driving legend Dale Earnhardt was killed at Daytona and his death was compared, by locals, to the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

There's more, so much more (Derrick Coleman used to play here) but you get the idea. Charlotte has been through more sports-related agony and embarrassment in the last decade than most towns may ever face. "These fans have suffered, yes they have, " says Carolina kicker John Kasay who has been in Charlotte for the last nine years. "So what's been fun about this year is the idea of giving back something to them for the love they've shown and the sacrifices they've made for sticking with us."

Every image from this season, then, is one more layer between this city's troubled early relationship with professional sports and, what now seems to be a very bright future. The Hornets and Shinn, for example, have already been replaced by the Bobcats and Bob Johnson. And this season, the Panthers have gone a long way to burying their own kitty-litter past.

There's the dramatic comeback win in the season opener against Jacksonville that set the tone for the entire season. That adds a layer. There's the last-second wins in Tampa, New Orleans, Indy, Arizona (shoot, every week) that created the Cardiac Cats phenomena and added more layers. There was the domination of Dallas, the shock in St. Louis, the embarrassment of the Eagles -- all adding more layers, more distance.

There's the quiet dignity of linebacker Mark Fields as he battles cancer. There's the understated coaching brilliance of John Fox. That adds a layer.

There's the Cajun quarterback, Jake Delhomme. A guy who has gone from the World Bowl to the Super Bowl. A guy who Hurney says symbolizes this team's odd, cool-but-scrappy spirit. The guy who told me earlier in the season that he was "no Drew Bledsoe." Nope, Jake. You're a lot better. He adds a layer.

There's running back Stephen Davis zipping up his luggage after the game in Philly answering most questions about this team (and fellow running back DeShaun Foster's gutsy touchdown run) with one word: heart. He adds a layer. There's the astounding rookie season of tackle Jordan Gross, an anchor on this line for years to come. He adds a layer.

That defensive front four? The power of Kris Jenkins? The freaky speed of Julius Peppers? The mouth of Buckner? The guys who rolled up Donovan McNabb like sushi, busting his ribs and his spirit? They are the best in the game now and signed, I might add, through 2007? That's a ton and a half of layers.

Or how about linebacker Dan Morgan? That dude was like cheesesteak breath in Philadelphia -- he was everywhere. Or rookie corner Ricky Manning Jr. who had more catches than Eagles wideout James Thrash? Or Minter and his crew who scared the Eagles into six drops? Layer. Layer. Layer.

Tell me again what happened in 2001? I seem to have forgotten. You see, there is a redemptive quality to sports which, I imagine, is one reason why we are all so powerfully drawn to them. The idea that no matter how bad things have been in the past, 'There's always next season.' And no town has tested that concept quite like Charlotte.

"I can remember back to when we lost (in the 1996 NFC championship game)," says wideout Muhsin Muhammad who was a close friend of Fred Lane. "A lot of the older guys were crying in the locker room and I didn't understand. I thought it would be that easy every year. I didn't know. It's been a long road since then. Lots of challenging moments, both bad and good, for this team and this town. But I think you can say, now that we're here, that it's all been worth it."

This weekend, the Panthers leave for Houston and the circus that will be Super Bowl XXXVIII. They'll be at least a touchdown underdog. They might beat the Patriots. They might not. Whatever the outcome, this team has already earned back something even more precious than a Lombardi Trophy.

The heart of a city.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.