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Why John Isner might be the Carolina Panthers' biggest fan

SAN FRANCISCO -- It's hard to be swept away from basketball in a basketball-mad region such as Greensboro, North Carolina. But when the Carolina Panthers first took the field in 1995, one 10-year-old boy was swayed.

Yes, tennis star John Isner might be the team's biggest fan.

Now 30, the highest-ranked American on the ATP Tour went to great lengths to follow the Panthers since those early days.

As a student at the University of Georgia, he regularly made the six-hour round-trip drive from Athens to Charlotte with a roommate to watch the team from the nosebleed seats. The Panthers went to the Super Bowl for the first time at the end of the 2003 season, his freshman year, and he remembers every detail. Don't get him started on Jake Delhomme.

Sadly, he said he would not be in attendance during their second title appearance Sunday in Santa Clara, California.

"No, no, no," Isner told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "Got some things going on. Really disappointed it didn't work out."

Although the Panthers made last season's playoffs with a 7-8-1 record and won a postseason game, it never occurred to Isner they would be playing in Super Bowl 50. When he made his 2016 schedule many months ago, he booked a brutal slate for February.

This week, he played a charity event with Andy Roddick in Charlotte on Thursday, followed by exhibitions in Atlanta and Nashville on Friday and Saturday with Sam Querrey and the Bryan Brothers before flying home to Tampa for a single day, Super Sunday. On Monday, he'll take a flight to Buenos Aires, where he'll play in the Argentina Open later in the week. Rafael Nadal is the top seed.

"Thank goodness I have a bye," Isner said. "As much as it pains me, I could have conceivably made it, but I'd be putting my job in serious jeopardy. You've got to be a professional."

While the Panthers were making their move in the playoffs, Isner was playing at the Australian Open, where he reached the fourth round before losing to David Ferrer.

"Gosh, if I was in the States, I would have gone to those two [playoff] games," Isner said. "All these years, this is what I've been looking forward to."

Isner isn't just jumping on the bandwagon, he's truly committed. You just need one look at his Twitter profile picture and his overall social feed:

As Isner found more success on the ATP Tour, he developed a personal relationship with the Panthers. He also struck a friendship with former Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith, who at 5-foot-9 was a bit of a mismatch with the 6-foot-11 tennis star.

"Mutt and Jeff," Isner said with a laugh, referring to the old comic strip cartoon. "He'd hook me up with seats in his box. I even got to meet [owner] Jerry Richardson and watch part of the games from the field. It's humbling.

"Man, I love this team. The future's so bright. We've had some great moments in 20 years, but this tops it all."

Of course, he is predicting a Panthers win against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.

"It's funny," Isner said. "For the first time all year, the Panthers are getting the respect. Seattle and Arizona were both favored, and now the role is reversed against the Broncos. They're up against Peyton Manning and that defense that handled Tom Brady and the Patriots. It's going to be a tight game."

Isner has been invited to a number of Super Bowl parties, but like many devoted fans, he will watch in the relative isolation of his home, joined by only a few close friends.

"It'll be pure focus on the game," Isner said. "I need to see how the left tackle's playing, the defensive calls we're using, the punt coverage, stuff like that.

"It's not a party. I can't have people talking to me."