By Laura Hendrix Corbin, produced in cooperation with the HubCity Writers Project.
It was a real-life Mean Joe Greene-Coca Cola moment. “Hey, kid,” I heard someone holler, and I turned to see then-Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme looking at the young fan standing next to me, proudly wearing his bright blue Panthers Pals T-shirt, eagerly waiting for player autographs. I touched the young man on the shoulder, and pointed toward Jake – who took off his sweat-soaked practice #17 jersey and tossed it to the wide-eyed youngster.
Both Jake’s and the kid’s smiles were wider than a football field, and the young man’s eyes were bigger than a linebacker’s shoulders.
It’s one of those moments that may come rarely, but at the Carolina Panthers summer training camp at Wofford College in Spartanburg, the opportunities for such experiences are real.
This year marks the 20th season for the Panthers as a team and the 20th year of the team holding summer training camp at Wofford, where Panthers’ founder and owner Jerry Richardson played his college ball.
Spartanburg is privileged to host an NFL team’s training camp – only 15 or so of the 32 teams in the league now hold practice away from their home facilities, and that number is decreasing each year. Not only is training camp a great free, family friendly activity for our community, it is a source of tourism dollars – drawing nearly 500,000 spectators over the past 19 years from around the country and the world to Spartanburg, infusing millions of dollars into the local economy each summer.
It’s hard to fathom that there are now adults who have never known a world without the Carolina Panthers. A fan base that has grown up wearing the black and blue – that’s exciting to think about.
That young fan was one of that day’s Panthers Pals – five randomly selected children who get the experience of a lifetime, watching part of practice from field level and then meeting players afterward and getting “their own” Panthers player to hang out with while the player walks back to the training facility. Each Pal gets a unique experience – some players have even been seen playing a little game of catch on the practice field.
The summer of 2014 will be the 12th year for the popular Panthers Pals children’s program in which youth ages 6 to 13 have the chance to go to field level to watch practice and to meet players afterward for a unique experience – carrying helmets or pads, getting autographs, and even having some players give them wristbands, autographed cleats or even that coveted jersey.
Panthers Pals is a tradition that has taken hold and is one of the elements that led Sports Illustrated writer Peter King to dub Panthers training camp among the most “fan friendly” in the NFL.
Making training camp that way is a priority for the Panthers, and it starts opening day – this year Saturday, July 26 – with the “Back to Football Kickoff Party” that celebrates the team’s return to Spartanburg each year. It’s held at Gibbs Stadium at Wofford and admission is free. TopCats cheerleaders, mascot Sir Purr and the Panthers’ PurrCussion drum line entertain the crowds. There’s an autograph wall where fans can leave their messages for the team, food, videos and more. Also featured is the ceremonial Mayors’ Ball Run with representatives of Spartanburg County’s municipalities participating.
Gates open at 4 p.m. and practice is from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
This young football franchise has seen the next generation of fans grow up, and these youngsters have seen the Panthers go from an expansion team in 1995 to a Super Bowl contender in 2003 and in 2013, the NFC South Champions.
It all starts in Spartanburg – where players show up for nearly three weeks of intense workouts, practice and studying; where veterans come to hone their skills even more and cement their spots on the roster, and where rookies come young, strong and eager to try to win a coveted spot on that roster.
For them, it’s work – very intense work. For the fans, it’s a thrill.
Training camp puts the fan closer to the players than they could ever be at a game. At Wofford, practices unfold on three practice fields or in Gibbs Stadium, where the Terriers play, so fans can watch all the action. It’s exciting on the field, but for fans, sometimes the excitement starts after practice, when they can line up along the fence leading back to the locker rooms and get dozens of autographs from their favorites – vets and rookies alike.
The Panthers have other activities through camp, all aimed at the fan experience – such as T-shirt Tuesdays, where players toss T-shirts in the crowd following practice, Play 60 Fun Day for children, and this year’s new Play 60 Mini Camps, football interactive activities for children of all ages.
Practices throughout camp are free and open to the public, and parking is free. For a full practice schedule (subject to change), go to http://www.panthers.com/schedule/training-camp/practice-schedule.html.
Laura Hendrix, Produced in cooperation with the HubCity Writers Project.
Laura Hendrix Corbin is the director of news services at Wofford College and a freelance writer. She has been a Panthers fan since before there was a team and has attended 19 training camps.