The Carolina Panthers became the 29th franchise to join the NFL in 1995, but the club’s journey began nearly eight years before, when eventual owner Jerry Richardson announced his intentions to bring pro football to the Southeast. He was willing to set up shop in either Carolina, as long as it meant that gridiron contests would be coming to his neck of the woods. To further convince the league, a series of three exhibition games was held, and crowds of over 50,000 attended each one. Finally, in ‘93, the announcement was made that Charlotte was getting a squad of its very own.
Presumably, no one told Richardson how first-year teams are supposed to behave, because the Panthers entered the league and began turning heads right away. They won seven games in Year One, including a victory over the San Francisco 49ers that marked the first time an expansion franchise downed the reigning Super Bowl champs. In ‘96, Carolina clawed its way to a record of 12-4 and captured the NFC West division. After the bout of early success, a downturn was inevitable, and the Panthers posted just 34 wins combined over the course of the next six seasons.
As the franchise was rebuilding, the league’s divisional alignments were reconfigured, and the Panthers were placed in the more regionally appropriate NFC South in ‘02. One year later, the club stormed back toward the top en route to their first-ever appearance in the Super Bowl. The thrilling run is fondly remembered by fans, not just because of the championship quest, but also because it’s when former player Sam Mills gave his landmark “Keep Pounding” speech to inspire the team. The phrase became a rallying cry for the Panthers, and it has since been immortalized in the locker room and stitched into the collar of each Carolina jersey.
Subsequent trips to the playoffs would follow in ‘05 and ‘08, while players such as wideout Steve Smith and defensive end Julius Peppers emerged as some of the game’s most promising performers. However, the all-star efforts weren’t enough to elevate the franchise’s fortunes, and by ‘10, the Panthers were in the league basement. As a result of the serious stumble, the club had the first overall pick at the ‘11 NFL Draft and selected quarterback Cam Newton in an attempt to revive the fanbase. Put simply, it worked. By the end of his fourth season, Newton had led Carolina to the playoffs twice and was named to the Pro Bowl roster on two separate occasions.
With six large panther statues guarding the gates, Bank of America Stadium looks like something out of Game of Thrones, but fortunately, fans are nowhere near that vengeful or bloodthirsty. In fact, Carolina diehards are viewed as some of the friendliest supporters in the league, but that isn’t to suggest that they’ll roll over in the face of adversity. They’re not just here to win, after all, but to keep pounding.