Exceptional to Me

I couldn’t believe it. I stared at my television screen trying to digest what just happened as the ESPN generated scoreboard displayed ’20 Patriots 24 Panthers Final’. I watched as Luke Kuechly pumped his fist and Cam Newton flashed his signature smile. My mouth gaped open as Tom Brady yelled at an official and then proceeded to head to the locker room. I could hear all of Bank of America Stadium scream jubilantly in a moment of much needed catharsis.

I have not seen Charlotte like this since 2008 when John Fox was still the head coach. There was electricity in the city again. I could hear it two doors down as my neighbors entered into the night to vocalize their joy with bursts of “WHEWWWWWWWW” and “YESSSSSSSS.” Their gleeful expressions soundtracked the immediate press conference that followed where a frustrated Bill Belichick had to describe what went wrong in New England’s loss to the Carolina Panthers in the year 2013.

For many, it was redemption for the loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII. For me, it was a point of great civic pride in a city that has been plagued by the perception that it is an unexceptional town with unexceptional sports teams.

The greater Charlotte area has been my home for the past 17 years. I first moved here with my family when it’s population was listed at a paltry 485,445 compared to today’s 772,202. I have been to games where Bogues, Johnson and Mourning were center stage at “The Hive.” I was here when Jake Delhomme was seemingly worth every penny. I was here when the area around the intersection of Trade and Tryon was known simply as ‘downtown’ rather than the awfully pretentious, city-approved re-brand of ‘uptown.’ I was here when the Plaza-Midwood and North Davidson areas had yet to become gentrified urban enclaves of Charlotte’s creative class.

Yet even as exciting as all the development has been within recent years, Charlotte has not shaken the stigma that unless it is winning it is vastly uninteresting. People seem to think it is an above average flyover town that some would lead you to believe belongs in the same breath as Jacksonville. These ideas of the Queen City are not without warrant.

The city’s music scene is a patchwork of clubs and bars that play host to more out of town cover bands rather than a fostering network of venues that feature burgeoning local as well as national talent. In this regard, Charlotte is often snubbed in favor of smaller towns like Asheville, Raleigh and Chapel Hill where artists can gain greater followings from the diversified ear of college kids than the seemingly generic listening public in the Southeast’s second largest city.

The food in the city is good, and there are a plethora of great joints that I would recommend. But folks in the region would probably point you in the direction of Charleston or Greenville for a great meal before they even thought about anything within the 704 area code.

Museums, theaters and galleries in the city have only become a recent obsession as the national banks have poured money into these post-recession ventures as a “two birds with one stone” effort to shore up the public image within the community. All in all, the cultivation of culture within the city has been a haphazard affair with many old institutions having their funding city funds revoked to pay for other ‘uptown attractions’ such as the towering memorial dedicated to mediocre franchises known as the EpiCentre. Charlotte has a reputation as a middle-of-the-road city but it’s not like we haven’t earned it. And when your sports teams are losing, it doesn’t make things any better for your sense of pride.

With the Bobcats stuck in a perpetual ‘transition year’ since 2010, the Panthers have been expected to answer the call.

In 2011, Carolina wasn’t expected to do much with what they had. With the addition of Newton, though, the Panthers improved to a 6-10 record from 2-14 in 2010. Their offensive efficiency went from dead last in the league to 4th overall with a total of 6,237 net yards amassed over the season (a team record). If 2011 was a hiccup, 2012 was definitely going to be the year for a deep playoff run.

The 2012 season started with fevered anticipation and frenzy. People were arriving in droves to watch the Panthers in the preseason. Then, once everything kicked off, the wheels seemed to fall off. Carolina went 3-9 in it’s first twelve games with six of those games being decided by a margin of six points or less. Fingers were pointed left and right, Rivera’s head was called for and General Manager Marty Hurny was given the boot. Owner Jerry Richardson gave a “wait and see” approach in regards to Rivera’s status at the helm. The Panthers, however, finished out their season by winning the final four games. Richardson gave Rivera another chance to prove himself under the new regime guided by former New York Giants front office man Dave Gettleman.

I will be the first one to admit I did not have high hopes for the Panthers in 2013. This was a team whose offensive game plan was being formulated by a member of the dunce corner of coaches who failed to win big at Alabama, Mike Shula. I thought Newton was going to regress as a quarterback and he was going to be bottled up again in an effort to please every person in the Metrolina area who argue that Newton’s play is an extension of his perceived “character issues”. This coupled with my general malaise towards the defensive side of the ball saw 2013 as another transitional year for the Panthers.

For the start of the 2013 season, I created a banner for my office cubicle that was a futile attempt to get rid of the Panthers’ highly sexualized motto “Keep Pounding.” I placed the official logo in the middle of the piece of white, legal paper with the text “#KeepScratching” typed in blue font underneath. When Carolina lost its first two games after what seemed like another case of the defense disappearing in the 4th quarter, I struck through the text with a black Sharpie marker. Underneath it, I had changed my fabricated motto to “KeepPlaying.”

While the Panthers went on to beat the terrible New York Giants in a 38-0 blowout, I did not expect the winning to continue. I was ready to strike through “KeepPlaying” and write “DontSellTheFranchise”* underneath after its loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Then before I could even think to do it, the team would go on to beat the Vikings, the Rams, the Buccaneers and the Falcons in a manner that suggested the team was a bully beating up weaklings in a schoolyard. Yet, with its record improved to 5-3 and an average margin of victory of 20.25 in these four games, I was still highly skeptical of this turnaround team that national writers were starting to pick up on.

Then, it beat San Francisco by one point with the Monday night New England game on the horizon.

Maybe it could beat all the weak teams left in their schedule, but could Carolina win against the Patriots? Or even the Saints?

As the city poured into Bank of America Stadium and roared with every Newton to Steve Smith connection, every Luke Kuechly tackle and every Thomas Davis stuff of the run, it felt like this was for real. This was legit. All of the buzz and the excitement that had been building throughout the course of the week was all deserved. It was not another case of “Panthers Blown Out on National Television” like their Thursday night game against the New York Giants last year. This was a competitive, blow-for-blow football game. This was Charlotte like I had seen it back in 2005 and 2008. It was a rally around a legitimate team whose supporters can sometimes err on the side of delusion.

Despite my constant skepticism and fits of defeatism, the energy that I could feel from my city during that broadcast convinced me that not even Peyton Manning could lead a successful last ditch effort in those final seconds in the red zone. It was a surreal communal experience that started during the initial rumblings overheard at the Thunder Road Marathon parties this past Saturday and was fully realized when the first “WHEWWWWWW” was heard through the walls of my apartment after the game was called as final.

I realize that the Panthers could lose the rest of their games. There’s a lot of season left to be played. Even if they do, the display of passion that I saw on TV spoke volumes to me. I don’t care if the rest of the country thinks my city is uninteresting or is the butt of their jokes about mediocrity. I know what we are doing here to improve that image. If a city full of transplants can rally around something that is as new to their experience of Charlotte as being a fan of a winning Panthers team, I think the city’s image will change.

In the meantime, there may be those who think that this city is unexceptional or not inherently interesting. That’s fine because Monday night just reinforced that it’s exceptional to me.

*a reference to Richardson’s ploy of associating himself with Los Angeles’ effort to bring an NFL franchise to town in order to force the hand of city officials to pay for the renovations to BofA with tax dollars

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