by Anthony Harrison
The grass outside my friend Lamar’s house felt cold on my chest. My eyes were wet, stingy and hot, and my heart pounded divots into his lawn. My phone buzzed as friends and family sent text after text, message after message, probing for proof of life. I turned the annoying bastard off.
It’s just a game, I tried to remind myself. It’s all just a game kids play in the backyard.
The door to Lamar’s place opened. I looked left from out of my elbow and saw my host before returning my eyes to the sleeve of my Carolina sweater.
I heard him tramp over to me.
“You alright?” he asked, almost confidentially. “You need anything?”
“No,” I answered. “I just needed to be alone for a second.”
I had walked out without a word after Broncos running back CJ Anderson rushed for Denver’s only offensive touchdown against the Panthers, making the score 22-10 before a successful two-point conversion in Super Bowl 50. I don’t know how long I’d been lying face-down in the chilly night. Five minutes, maybe. It felt like endless hours.
Lamar retreated to the house.
“Is it over yet?” I asked.
“We’re inside of two minutes,” Lamar said. His screen door closed.
Just a game.
I collected myself and returned.
The attitude in Lamar’s living room could only be described as cheerful as a mortuary located inside a deflated bouncy castle. The friends with whom I’d watched many Panthers games this season sat silent, sullen and solemn. I leaned against the wall opposite the television, arms crossed, and we watched the game end like rubberneckers ogling a 10-semi pileup on Interstate 85, halted in traffic with no other choice.
This isn’t how it’s all supposed to end, I thought. Not like this.
And then it was over.
The following minutes were a blur.
I remember somber hugs and the return of that stinging sensation in my eyes. I remember making a doggy bag for some banana pudding, brownies and a macaroon. I remember orange confetti falling like dead leaves in Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. I remember Denver quarterback Peyton Manning — arguably the greatest quarterback of all time — giving what was likely his final post-game interview, the Sheriff riding into the sunset like Shane, dead on his horse.
Mainly, I remember Josh Norman.
Between shots of celebration, CBS’s cameras cut back to the Panthers cornerback, one of the fiercest competitors in recent memory, the eccentric, villainous hero of the Carolina defense, the Dark Knight of football. This brash young man couldn’t help but weep openly, uncaring as millions viewed his anguish.
Just a game.
“Man, get that camera offa him,” Lamar shouted in vain at the television.
On the drive home, I thought of Norman — a stupid, little game — and the floodgates opened.
Every tortuous moment that transpired in Super Bowl 50 rushed back as I processed this emotional tidal wave. The Panthers’ offensive line collapsing under Denver’s crushing pass rush. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton succumbing to nerves from that defensive pressure. Kicker Graham Gano’s field goal attempt edging just too wide and glancing off the upright with an otherwise funny “kerrang.” Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery making the clutch play I’d predicted in print since the divisional round — in private since September — only to have it snatched away by one of the worst officiating decisions in a season full of referees’ fumbles.
Speaking of fumbles, all the horrid turnovers pounded me like a sparring partner.
And the moment when all hope imploded: The righteous, soon-to-be Super Bowl MVP for Denver, linebacker Von Miller, smacking the ball out of Cam’s hand as he began his throw an instant too late.
Until that play, my faith remained strong.
I foresaw Killa Cam firing a laser to tight end Greg Olsen in double coverage, then marching down the field for a touchdown, putting the Panthers up by a point and sending Denver into a panicked tailspin. In this alternate universe, Carolina won its first Super Bowl. After all, you only need to win by a point.
I don’t throw blame around. That Broncos defense pinned the Panthers, and it won Denver the championship. It’s not any Panther’s fault — they wanted it way more than we did as fans. And while referee Clete Blakeman probably shouldn’t step foot in the Carolinas, you ultimately can’t blame him, either.
No matter what I or you or anyone else hoped, it simply wound up not being Carolina’s year.
There’s an old joke amongst sports fans which goes, “When I die, I want my favorite team to lower me into my grave so they can let me down one last time.”
Well, let me state it here: If I should die before I wake, I request as my pallbearers Panthers linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis Sr., kicker Graham Gano, wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, tight end Greg Olsen, cornerback Josh Norman, quarterback Cam Newton and head coach Ron Rivera.
Not because they let me down, though. It’s because I want them to touch me indirectly one more time.
As much as the Super Bowl loss stung, these guys — this entire team — gave me some of the greatest thrills I have witnessed not only in football, but in any sport. And they delivered time after time.
While they didn’t bring home the Lombardi Trophy, they played their hearts out, thus giving us the best season of Panthers football we’ve yet had the pleasure of watching.
The 2015-’16 NFC Champion Carolina Panthers never let me down.
And I don’t think they will next season.
Or the next. Or the next.
Keep pounding, Cardiac Cats. I’ll see y’all in Super Bowl LI.