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Winning allows Panther fans to go along for the ride

The Panthers blew it and the whole city sulked. Even the sky cried for longer than was socially acceptable.

But let us not forget a better time, with the Super Bowl still in sight, when Panther hysteria ran rampant. Before the loss, on the past two Sunday nights carrying over into Monday mornings, thousands of fans marched, skipped or staggered up to Bank of America Stadium to catch a glimpse of the Panthers switching modes of transportation: from the team bus to their own cars.

"This is what Charlotte is all about," said one prideful fan.

Waiting to see a bus?

In other cities, this activity (which I am officially dubbing bus-gating) is uncommon for just winning a playoff game. It can be expected when a team wins a championship, it can be understood if a team advances to the championship game; but this excessive celebration is something you would have to call premature bus-gating. Now I know you can't exactly plan or not plan a bus-gate. They are spontaneous outbursts of enthusiasm channeled into idle waiting, and Charlotte fans are reckless when it comes to their patience.

When I arrive just before 10pm on the Sunday night after the Panthers' victory against the Chicago Bears, four white news vans are already at the scene. Channel 14's cameraman tells me he films two hours of footage just to capture about a minute that his station will actually use. There's only so much nonsensical screaming the viewing audience can handle. Breaking news takes him away from our conversation. The fire department has just raised the Panther flag on their ladder. This is the highlight of hour one.

As the time drags on, the anticipation builds. What will the buses look like when they finally come? Will the windows be tinted? Will they have smelly toilets in the back that no one uses? What about the players? Will Jake's hair be neatly gelled or carelessly mussed? Will Steve Smith wear his trademark bucket hat, or will the bucket-lover finally come out of the closet and just wear a metal pail over his head? Only time will tell.

As 11pm approaches, my search for the number one fan is on. Most people I interview throughout the night are initially confused by the concept of print journalism. As we begin to talk, their eyes drift in search of a camera. How aggressively they look for one, and how confused they get when they can't find it, correlates directly with their level of inebriation. I could probably convince some of them that a camera has been installed into my eyes.

The fanatics share with me their personal connection to the team. Two kids visited cornerback Ricky Manning in his home a few weeks ago and gave him an inspirational book for the playoff run. They believe he read it, thereby propelling the team to success.

Jennifer Easton was DeShaun Foster's neighbor until he moved to Piper Glen a few weeks ago. He once invited Jennifer and her friend Crystal into his house for cheesecake and to play Madden. Besides DeShaun, Jake Delhomme is their favorite Panther because he's hot, they say. I ask them about the upcoming opponent's quarterback -- Seattle Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck -- and if they're worried he might trump our quarterback in good looks, which could ultimately determine the outcome of the game, as confidence is a key attribute for the leader of the team. This causes dissension. Crystal sticks with the hometown QB, but not Jennifer.

"Jake's ass is not that great. Hasselbeck is much better," she says.

One fan, Rene Hobbes, has a sign that reads: I heart Hobbesie. Rene's husband, the team's cameraman, is actually on the fabled bus with the team. Rene has 10 McDonald's cheeseburgers stashed under her coat inside a hot pocket for him and some coaches. As a policy, she does not share her burgers with the press.

In my search for the biggest fan, I prepared one question that would distinguish #1 from the pack. Who is the long snapper on the team? (The long snapper is the most infinitesimal position in football, if not in all of sports. His only job is to fling a ball great distances backwards through his legs to a kicker.) Toni Whisnant is the only fan to answer it correctly: Jason Kyle. Toni states that she has never missed one minute of any Panther game ever, including the season they went 1-15.

The two most interesting bus-gaters are the ones with goals. Joe Burris, a retired truck driver, has brought a Panthers football helmet for a Panther to sign for his grandson. This might not sound like an interesting goal, but if Joe doesn't get that helmet signed, he won't follow the team anymore this year or ever again. And he's been a fan since day one. "If they can't do this little thing for a couple of their loyal fans, I'm through with them," says Joe.

The other goal-driven fan is Lisa Hildred from Waxhaw. Lisa reeks of booze and has brought her three kids and two friends with her to help keep her shirt on. Lisa claims to be a psychic. She tells me the Panthers will beat the Seahawks by nine points. She is a diehard fan with a massive collection of memorabilia including pages from the playbook and a signed jockstrap (she won't say exactly how she procured them).

A couple years ago, she got Jake Delhomme to sign her stomach (she lifts her shirt to reenact how and exactly where it happened). A few weeks after the torso tattoo, she was listening to a Panthers radio show and the broadcasters asked Jake to recall the weirdest request he's ever gotten from a fan. Jake shared the stomach-signing story.

Today Lisa is shooting higher (or lower): "I'm going to get Jake to sign my ass!" She exclaims. "I just know he will." As I'm leaving to get a better view of the bus, Lisa stops me. "Remember what I said. The Panthers will win by 14."

When the buses finally arrive 10 minutes past midnight, the crowd cheers for about a minute. Most of the players go directly to their cars, some without even waving. A few sign autographs for the fans around the gates. Lisa gets four body signatures (three on her back and one on her clavicle), while Joe, I'm pretty sure, is no longer a Panthers fan. Bus-gating isn't about actually seeing the bus; it's about the anticipation of seeing it.

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