CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The last time the Carolina Panthers played the New England Patriots in a game that counted, there were 50,000 empty seats. The Patriots went to the Super Bowl and won; the Panthers ended the season having lost 15 of 16 games. Some fans wore paper bags. The next day, Coach George Seifert was fired. It was a low point for a team that knew its share of struggles - and a dark day for Charlotte's civic pride.
Two years later, the Panthers' leap to the top and another date with the Patriots is symbolic not just of a team that's shed its Mr. Hyde, but of healing and a burst of unity in this divided Sun Belt city. In a gale of sleet on Sunday, nearly 10,000 fans packed Charlotte's downtown to see the Panthers off to Houston, some running half-naked next to the buses, waving flags.
"If there's any way a city can come across racial lines [and] income disparities ... it's sports," says City Councilman James Mitchell Jr. "The Panthers' run has really united our city more than ever."
Here in Charlotte, where a steel-and-glass veneer masks old bickering over segregation, traffic, jobs, and sprawl, unity is a welcome change. Charlotte has become, in recent years, emblematic of the New South's transformation. But though it rivaled Atlanta for the crown of the South, it never caught up: The tidy streets and pink granite plazas - filled with bankers and biotechies by day - rolled up at night.
Worse, the Queen City had become Exhibit A for all that's wrong with professional sports. There were the Charlotte Hornets - once the NBA's best-attended team - whose fans revolted over what many saw as the owners' greed. There was the NASCAR tragedy when native son Dale Earnhardt was killed in a crash. But the Panthers were the most extreme case of teams beleaguered and befouled: Within two years, Rae Carruth was convicted of plotting to murder his pregnant girlfriend; Fred Lane was killed by his wife, apparently in self-defense; and the team's much-anticipated first draft pick, Kerry Collins, got into trouble for drinking and carousing, and eventually left Charlotte.
"I saw what they had going on in Charlotte and it was like a curse," safety Deon Grant told the Associated Press last week.
But in an impossibly short time, the team has turned itself around. A decision to stress character and teamwork has paid off in a process that experts say could help other troubled sports towns in short order.
"This pride would happen in any city with a similar team," says Matt Bernthal, a sports-marketing expert at the University of South Carolina. Still, he says, the pride factor is bigger here, due to a small media market and a sense of the Panthers as an "egoless team" whose biggest star, quarterback Rodney Pete, spent much of the year chatting with teammates on the sidelines.
"There are a lot of fans out there that are becoming increasingly disenfranchised with the superstar status of a lot of professional athletes," says Dr. Bernthal. "The Panthers don't have that, so that adds to the affinity the community has for the team. No-name teams are good for building fan affection these days."
But to long-time fans who recall the Panthers' second-year run to the NFC championship, tragedies and trials have united a core of "character players," says Otis Scott, a DJ and a fan from the start.
"They're all in the trenches together and things players do affects other players. It was that way with Rae Carruth. And now you can see that with what happened to Sam Mills," who was diagnosed with cancer last fall, says Mr. Scott.
These days, the focus is on mental toughness - and, under Coach John Fox, discipline. One player who missed a court appearance was released from the team; another was benched for fighting with a teammate; others have been summoned to stern conferences in team owner Jerry Richardson's living room.
Some say Mr. Fox broke the team down, psychologically, before building it up. But he's quick to apologize to players: When a reporter misunderstood Fox as saying that Mushin "Moose" Muhammad lost a game with a wrong pattern, Fox apologized not just to Mr. Muhammad, but to the team.
It's a coaching approach with an astounding effect: Last year, the Panthers broke an NFL record by going from 31st in defense to second. That's "made us all Carolina Panthers," says Mr. Mitchell. "For us, this is how we get from a second-tier city to a first-tier city," says Mitchell. "It's because of sports that we're on TV, that we're selling merchandise in Japan - you just can't put a price tag on it."
That pride is rubbing off on a state perhaps best known for being the birthplace of Krispy Kreme doughnuts and Michael Jordan. Since the Dallas game, says Bernthal, the scene of "national reporters salivating over the Panthers" has brought in over $3 million in tourism.
"As North Carolinians, we don't think of this stuff, but you can imagine someone in Chicago saying, 'Hey, they've got something going on down in Carolina,' " says Mike Vanderslice, a college student studying Shakespeare at Raleigh's East Village pub.
Indeed, for many, the Patriots-Panthers game may go down as an NFL classic. Not long ago, every Super Bowl seemed to be a blow-out - but an emphasis on defense has made the games tighter, some say. "If you're a real football fan, you're going to like this game," says Mr. Vanderslice.
Win or lose, the Panthers have stretched not just city pride, but city bedtimes. "We're still a Bible Belt city," says Mitchell, "but on game nights, we stay up 'til one o'clock."