by Anthony Harrison
Word of advice: If you get the chance to go to a Carolina Panthers game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, take it. No questions asked — get your ass in the car, scoot down I-85 and do it.
Even if it’s raining. Especially if it’s raining.
And definitely if it’s raining and they’re playing the New Orleans Saints.
I’ve been to two games in these conditions, and both rank among the most fun I’ve had at a sporting event.
The first was back in 2013. I was with two of my cousins, Ted and Madison, and another cousin’s husband, Daniel. It was three days before Christmas. A few weeks before, the Saints had skinned the Panthers 31-13 in New Orleans, ending an eight-game Carolina win streak.
The Panthers were out for blood after that insult, and they delivered an early Christmas present for the Carolinas.
In the midst of a tempest, the Cardiac Cats recalled halcyon days of a decade prior and won a nail-biter on a 65-yard drive in the final minute of the game, capped by Cam Newton’s clutch 14-yard pass to German-born wide receiver Domenik Hixon.
No matter how hard the rain poured, the Carolina faithful had kept pounding on their bright blue folding seats. The downpour quenched the fans and drove them to cheer harder.
And when Killa Cam connected with Hixon in those final seconds of the game and clinched the Panthers’ first playoff berth in five years, you’d think the stadium could’ve imploded.
Fast-forward nearly two years later, and the situation was similar.
Some people were missing. Ted and Daniel couldn’t make it for this game. Hixon, Steve Smith, DeAngelo Williams and other Panthers had either retired or been dubiously released.
But it was still dreary — not a monsoon, but damp. And Carolina fans showed up to keep pounding.
Blue, black and white jerseys featuring new favorites flooded into the North Gate of the imposing black stadium: Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly were especially popular. But many fan jerseys also represented former legends, like Smith, Williams, linebacker Julius Peppers, kicker John Kasay, even quarterback Jake Delhomme.
Granted, Saints fans were a little more creative, decked out in shimmering gold from head to toe.
One Saints devotee ahead of me and Madison in line couldn’t help but talk smack.
“Y’all Carolina fans don’ represent like Saints do,” he boasted from beneath a golden Afro wig. “Y’all bring yo’ jerseys and tees. We bring our bodies!”
But Carolina keeps pounding, especially at home.
One fan was pointed out in particular: Braylon Beam, a 6-year-old fighting brain cancer, got to lead the drum-pounding ritual before the start of the game. After hitting the big tom three times, the little boy ripped open his plain white T — just like his hero, Cam Newton — to show off the Superman shirt beneath.
With the Saints receiving the kickoff in the first quarter, the Panthers defense got to pounding.
Madison, who’s played football since he was in fourth grade, possesses a good eye for talent. He tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to a Carolina linebacker, No. 56.
“That’s AJ Klein,” Madison said. “I like him. Watch out for him this game.”
Klein performed admirably with 10 total tackles, six on his own.
Madison then noticed something more important: “Wait… that ain’t Drew Brees.”
New Orleans’ backup quarterback, Luke McCown, was on the field.
“Yeah, man,” I confirmed. “Brees is out this game with a sprained… something; can’t remember just what.”
Madison beamed. “Well, the game’s ours then!”
But, as the late Yogi Berra would’ve said, it ain’t over ’til it’s over.
McCown stepped up, perhaps unexpectedly, completing 31-of-38 for 310 yards.
But he also had journeyman running back Mark Ingram on his side, rushing 50 yards and picking up five receptions for another 49.
Despite consistent New Orleans triumphs, the Carolina fans kept pounding.
So did their defense.
While Klein did well, linebacker Thomas Davis matched him in numbers and provided the better show.
After one bone-shattering tackle, where the Saints’ ball-holder stopped as if he’d hit a concrete wall, I leaned over to Madison saying, “That’s how you hit.”
“Davis has got the power to stop you up top,” he said. “He’ll freakin’ kill you.”
Of course, you can’t win a game if you don’t score.
Cam Newton kept proving that he counts as a franchise quarterback, despite looking like a fat, sad baby with that comical amount of padding. He didn’t match McCown’s stellar completion percentage, going 20-for-31, but he threw for 315 yards and rushed for 33, including what proved to be the game-winning touchdown.
It wasn’t certain until the final minutes of the game, though.
Another dreary day. Another Saints contest. Another long drive. Another big play in the end zone.
But this one wasn’t a score: Instead, Carolina cornerback Josh Norman caught the only pick of the game with 1:17 left in the game.
Another round of high-fives and pounding stadium seats.
And another time the Panthers started the season 3-0.
Last time they did that, they went to the Super Bowl.
All they need to do it again is to keep pounding.