I had a dream the Friday before Super Bowl Sunday. It was one of those lucid episodes where you remember everything so vividly to the point where there’s no question that what you’re experiencing isn’t real. I was in a bar, and it was the week after the Super Bowl. I ran into one of my friends, and, in the midst of our conversation, he pointed up at the television screen with feigned indifference. “Welp,” he said. “Can’t believe the dab’s over.” I looked up and read Super Bowl 50’s final score in glowing gold type: Denver Broncos 29 – Carolina Panthers 13.
In the dream I was livid. I began to yell and gnash my teeth and scream at anyone around me about the stupidity of the NFL. Then, before I could finish a coherent sentence, I woke up. It was Saturday morning and the sun started peaking through the blinds. There were no think pieces about the loss, no crying Jordan memes and no odes to the “everyman” brilliance of Peyton Manning. There was just the sound of a dog barking in the apartment over. I would have to wait another day to wake up again.
The 2015-’16 Carolina Panthers were one of the most glorious fantasies that the city of Charlotte indulged in for the better part of a year. It was a form of escapism for a city dealing with a multitude of issues stemming from rapid economic development. City-approved gentrification, transportation struggles, the mistrial for the murder of an unarmed Jonathan Ferrell at the hands of the CMPD, after-hours racial segregation among Charlotte’s social outlets and an alarming income disparity from neighborhood to neighborhood were all topics that received coverage in the past two years leading up to this season, all of them too cumbersome and complex for any young, moneyed professional to discuss seriously in a banking town where simple spreadsheets and charts are the preferred language. Instead, the only thing that anyone could talk about with any kind of passion or authority was the Panthers and their young, grinning quarterback, Cam Newton, because it was agreeable.
There was nothing complicated about cheering on Cam as he dabbed his way into the mental spaces of lesser opponents. It was easy to watch Luke Kuechly crush opposing quarterbacks as if they were Pepsi cans. Josh Norman’s trash talking was as unanimously favored as a free pizza from Fuel at 2 in the morning. There was nothing weighty about the wins; it was effortless to take joy in them, especially when Cam was handing out game balls to young fans. The 2015-’16 season was like house-sitting for a rich couple and trying on their fur slippers. It was a taste of luxury that no one wanted to imagine would end.
Did the fans have a right to think it would end? Carolina headed into Super Bowl 50 with a 17-1 record, with two of those wins being the dismemberment of new money franchises Seattle and Arizona. No one in their right mind thought that the decrepit bones of Peyton Manning would outplay Cam, nor did he. Yet no one dared to think about whether or not Cam could outplay the likes of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. That would’ve ruined the fantasy of Carolina as an indestructible unit.
In the end, the largely-disregarded Miller, not Manning, won the Super Bowl MVP award. He stood on the NFL’s hastily constructed, self-indulgent awards platform and smiled to an audience of millions. After all, he was the difference maker, with 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles, completely disrupting Cam’s striding confidence. He and the Broncos defense were the reason that Panther fans woke up from one of the greatest fantasies since 2003. But in this reality, it’s Manning who receives the coronation via Papa John, everyone’s favorite drunk corporatist.
For a large swath of Charlotteans, this reality is okay because it’s Peyton Manning, he of the Southern banker-approved haircut and needlepoint belt. They can go on because they are basking in the light of a quarterback that the NFL has pushed as the embodiment of their mythical, ridiculous ideal: not flashy, doesn’t complain about getting hurt, an “Everyman.” A guy that almost everyone agrees is one of the greats. It’s easy.
What isn’t is confronting the pain: The pain of learning that this was all an illusion. The pain that this could’ve ended at any moment. It did, in the worst way possible. It ended with Aqib Talib reminding everyone that “there’s no Easter bunny, there’s no Santa Claus and there’s no Superman.” It ended with our smiling hero in discomfort, sadness and, ultimately, an abrupt exit. A whole season of laughter, warmth and community around the one thing that Charlotte rallied behind is now dust.
Carolina flew too close to the sun, and now here we are: back on Earth. We are forced to face the reality that we gave repugnant sourpuss Jerry Richardson a king’s ransom in tax money for stadium renovations with no Super Bowl to show for it. We also have to face the reality of the issues which have plagued the city of Charlotte from the beginning of the season that are still here and are nowhere near as agreeable as they once were. People are still being forced out of homes without places to house them; communities are turning into sanitized playgrounds for young professionals with money; the opportunity rate suggests a community struggling to help people in poverty. This is the reality Charlotte has come back to after the Super Bowl. It’s time we start living in it.