Nicole_Crewsby Nicole Crews

It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose — you still get to cheer.

— 10-year-old Nicole, Thomasville Colts’ little league football cheerleader

There was a time when — believe it or not — I thought I wanted to be a sports writer. I envisioned myself in the locker room, towel-snapping half-naked athletes and getting scoop-worthy quotes that would transform a bunch of pituitary cases into philosophers. With the right words, I would make a mere game a larger-than-life metaphor and athletes into gods.

Then came my interview with baseball hopeful Brien Taylor.

A North Carolina native, Taylor was the Yankees’ high-ranked draft pick in the early 1990s and, at the time, played for the Greensboro Bats. After a drudgingly forgettable nine — or was it 90 — innings, I had my locker room moment.

“So, Brien, the Yankees have a lot riding on you. What are your aspirations?”

Brien replied, with all the stoicism of a mound of dirt, “Uh, oh, I’m a Presbyterian.”

Talk about dropping the mic.

Writing about sports is like dancing about architecture.

After that, the only diamond I ever wanted to see again was in a box marked Cartier. But as fate would have it, my boyfriend at the time was an avid fan of the great American past time — a Detroit Tigers fan to be exact. And of course this meant making the pilgrimage to Tiger Stadium to see Cecil Fielder knock a few out of the park.

“Smell that,” he said as we entered the hallowed halls of his beloved ballpark. What he meant, I suppose, was the whiff of greatness built by generations of Michiganders flocking together in non-union unison after grueling days spent on Detroit assembly lines.

What I smelled, however, was urinal cake as old as a Model T. Mix in the sweat produced by thousands of beef-eating, polyester-wearing, stale-beer-swilling Midwestern yahoos. Add the mustard caked on the back of my own shirt strewn there by a Ritalin-fueled 5-year-old wielding a hot dog, and you get the olfactory picture.

But since love is a dum-dum, I endured. And spring training in Florida was not so bad. Intimate ballparks with, say, Evander Holyfield and Julia Roberts in ballcaps enjoying the blushing day. Quiet, post-game dinners in some of the Redneck Riviera’s better restaurants. Stat sparring over cold cocktails with fellow writers and ballpark dorks like Lee Smith and Hal Crowther. And a close-up view of some of the tighter ends of baseball (oh, wait that’s football). This I could handle.

Inevitably, regular season would roll around again, and I’d find myself in some ballpark — novel in one hand, stale beer in the other (anything to anesthetize myself for the ensuing nine-inning snoozefest.) I was a baseball widow for six years.

So, now, when I meet some beaming young man who asks me casually, “So how do you like baseball?” I always reply, “Uh, oh, I’m a Presbyterian.”

Football is the new Carolina.

— Denise Landi, artist and sports widow

But enough about baseball — enter the Carolina Panthers. Since the team’s inception in 1993 and through years and years of sucking, I have been strangely drawn to this band of blue brothers. Maybe it’s because I like the story. Jerry Richardson, who became just the second former player in history to own an NFL team, brought opposing and cross-state-line politicians to the same table to lobby for the Panthers. Pre-season games were sellouts and fans traveled from Raleigh to Columbia, SC to Chapel Hill to show their support before a stadium even existed.

These cats grew from kittens to killers in no time. Their late coach and former player Sam Mills — the man who coined the motto “keep pounding” in his playoff game speech in 2004 when the team was facing the then formidable Dallas Cowboys — turned them into crusaders. Today, the Levine Cancer Institute and the Carolinas Healthcare Foundation, benefits from the team’s Keep Pounding fundraising efforts. And, now, as Cam and ’em head into Super Bowl 50 against the Broncos, I can proudly reply to the question of do I like football by saying, “Keep pounding.”

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