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Ryan Nanni | September 18, 2014

The new cats turn 20

The state of the Jaguars and Panthers fanbases after experiencing two decades of football

If you go to EverBank Field, walk to the last parking area, the one almost pushed into the St. Johns River. You'll know you're in the right place when you see a man in a Tony Brackens jersey, sunglasses, and a Batman cowl smoking a cigarette. This turf belongs to two of Jacksonville's most passionate fan groups, Bold City Brigade and Teal Street Hooligans. They're not exactly quarantined  the location is more of an unspoken warning that what you are getting into may not be for everyone. Nicotine Tony Brackens Batman can't protect you.

These Jaguars fans have gathered on a muggy Friday in August for what may be the stupidest of football things: a preseason game. Nothing about the setup is unusual. They pull simple fold-up charcoal grills out of cars that have standard paint jobs. But there is a geothermic energy to the tailgate, bubbling up here and there, as it does when three people dressed in Bucs gear (the opposing team that night) have the audacity to quietly walk through the parking lot to the exit. The chorus of boos suggests they should have just tried to climb the fence.

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Three-hundred-eighty miles to the north, the Carolina Panthers play their games in the middle of Uptown Charlotte, amidst a cluster of towering corporate headquarters. There are advantages to this location  you're always a short walk away from a great bar or restaurant or place to duck inside and cool off. The major disadvantage? You can't tailgate in an office building, which means the fans fill in every available parking lot and green space like batter poured into a waffle iron.

They're out in numbers, though, for Carolina's second preseason game and the first in which Cam Newton will appear since his offseason ankle surgery. And they don't do this on the cheap; wander into any tailgating lot and there will be a customized RV or a classic car painted black and blue or an expensive-looking smoker billowing out delicious foreshadowing. It's a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, even for the visiting Chiefs fans roaming about. It turns out there are quite a few of them in town.

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both began their 20th season in the NFL this month. Of course, they're actually a bit older than that. catsA 25-year-old Mark Brunell runs for a first down in the 1995 Hall of Fame Game between the Panthers and Jaguars. (Getty Images)

The Panthers and Jaguars may still feel like relatively new franchises to you, but both began their 20th season in the NFL this month. Of course, they're actually a bit older than that  Carolina was awarded a franchise just before Halloween 1993, and Jacksonville followed shortly after Thanksgiving. Go back before that to 1987 and you'll be at the actual moment of conception for the Panthers, when Jerry Richardson decided that Charlotte's new pro basketball team should have a football one to go with it. And Jacksonville's pursuit of a franchise stretches to 1979, when Robert Irsay landed a helicopter on the 50 yard line of the Gator Bowl on top of an emblem that read "Jacksonville Colts."

Of the two, Carolina was the easier sell. Richardson's group offered the only proposal to the NFL that didn't require public funds for stadium construction or renovation, thanks to the (at the time) innovative decision to raise funds by selling Permanent Seat Licenses. Over 40,000 would-be Charlotte season ticket holders signed up for a PSL on the first day they were made available, and nearly 50,000 orders had been placed by the time the existing owners voted on Carolina's bid. That kind of financial commitment made the decision an easy one.

Jacksonville's road was comparatively rockier. The television market wasn't big enough. The Gator Bowl was old and the lease deal took so long to close that Wayne Weaver's group had dropped out of the bidding altogether for an entire month. And, of course, Florida already had two NFL teams. It was only a relatively late stadium renovation commitment from the city and commitments for ten thousand preferred seats that put Jacksonville back in the race. Even then, two owners voted for other cities.

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The memories of that inaugural season in 1995 have a symmetry to them. Jaguars and Panthers fans will both tell you there was a giddy newness to everything back then that gave everything the feel of a college football game as cities adjusted to their new reality. (In Carolina's case, this was enhanced by the fact that the Panthers played all their '95 home games at Clemson's Memorial Stadium.) Both fan groups will tell you 1996 quickly changed that. That was the season we nearly got an all-expansion Super Bowl, with both Jacksonville and Carolina losing in the conference championship.

"It was the loudest, to this day, that I've ever heard the stadium. Ear-splitting noise, and people believed if we'd had the NFC Championship at home, we could have won it." That's how Dan Ortel, head of the tailgating group Pantherfanz, remembers Carolina's 1996 home playoff win over the reigning Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys. And Morten Andersen might be the one non-Jaguar who'd get a warm greeting in Jacksonville; it was his missed 30-yard field goal that secured the Wild Card for the Jags, where they went on to beat Buffalo and Denver on the road before falling to the Patriots.

The thing is: success has a tendency to create expectations.

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Everyone shouts "J-A-G-U-A-R-S JAGUARS!" And then the beers are shotgunned. cats (Via Instagram)

Because the supply of wandering Bucs fans is limited, there is a ceremony the Teal Street Hooligans and Bold City Brigade use to harness their collective energy. Roughly every hour (like most things found in nature, the timing doesn't strictly adhere to a clock), the groups form a large circle and 20 or so Jaguars fans form a smaller ring inside. Each one holds a can of beer. The inner circle starts to jog around its invisible axis, and a resonant and sustained "ohhhhh" gets louder and louder. After maybe 2.7 revolutions, the jogging circle stops and everyone shouts "J-A-G-U-A-R-S JAGUARS!" And then the aforementioned beers are shotgunned.

These are the fans of a team that has won six games in the last two seasons combined.

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Maybe it's a testament to the hospitality of Charlotteans, but the striking thing about the Chiefs fans in town is not their number. It's how comfortable they are, cooking food and strolling about and giving each other high fives. Weirder still are the random fans of teams not even playing in the game; there's one guy in a Jeremy Shockey Giants jersey, and a woman wearing a Seahawks hat, and two Steelers fans carrying a cooler, and a kid wearing an Eagles shirt waiting to cross the street. There's even a dad wearing a Mason Crosby Packers jersey. It is a bizarre glimpse into the world the NFL wants to create, where fans love football the product first and the local team just happens to be the distributor.

This is the city where the home team went 12-4 and won the NFC South last year.

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Combine a major public works project, creating and staffing a multilayered business, and a massive marketing effort. That's what it means to start an expansion team. Oh, and all your most promising customers likely have some existing loyalty to a competing brand. At first, you have nothing to sell but novelty and the abstraction that is hope. That can get you started  it's what sold all those first PSLs in Charlotte and preferred seats in Jacksonville.

But it is not a long-term plan. Every franchise experiences downswings, and when that happened to the Jaguars and Panthers, a sizable number of those original ticketholders moved on. That's not an indictment of either city, only an acknowledgment of one stage in a franchise's growth cycle. You can't be the new thing in town forever.

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As one of the founders of Bold City Brigade, John Caputo gets a lot of attention at the tailgate. "Cap!" someone will yell, and then beckon him over to share a story or talk about the roster or just say thank you. When the Jaguars started playing, Cap was an 11-year-old kid growing up in Daytona, just the right age to form the kind of deep, meaningful, irrational love of a team that crystallizes inside you. That love was part of why he wound up moving to Jacksonville as a young man, and it is why he and all the others are celebrating the chance to spend a Friday night with Chad Henne.

"Our generation is more passionate about this city and this team than anyone else has been in 20 years," Cap tells me. "This is a part of us, and what galvanized that even further was the narrative from the national media. We were here every week doing this. We were the ones packing that stadium while we watched other teams have much worse attendance than us. At some point we flipped the script, and we said you know what? We're just gonna own the shit out of the fact that nobody thinks we should have a team."

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"I can only remember a few times where you felt like everybody in the stadium was rooting for Carolina."cats (Getty Images)

From the outside, everything seems promising in Charlotte. They've got a franchise quarterback, the youngest Defensive Player of the Year in league history, a stable ownership situation, and a home sellout streak that stretches back to 2002. The roster has problem spots, but the reasons for optimism are there.

The fans hesitate by varying degrees to embrace that optimism. According to them, the sellout streak is a farce, an accounting trick only made possible by the same PSLs that helped Jerry Richardson secure a franchise in the first place. The ones who were going to Bank of America Stadium in 2010 when John Fox and Jimmy Clausen were stumbling to a 2-14 record know the stands weren't full.

They're all waiting for...something. One says the Panthers just need a face of the franchise to rally behind. Another says the people of Charlotte still feel burnt by losing the Hornets in 2002; he's frustrated and feels like the fans only show up for good seasons or big games. Yet another thinks the Panthers don't have enough homegrown fans because of the city's demographics. Most of the young adults he knows in the area came to Charlotte for work or school and have some other primary allegiance. "I can only remember a few times where you felt like everybody in the stadium was rooting for Carolina," he sighs bitterly.

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It's tempting to look at these Jaguars fans chanting and chugging beers and wonder if they're a little off. The passion, however, is tempered by realism. Nobody here thinks the team will surprise the league with a 12-win season and a deep playoff run. So when Gus Bradley decides to go for it on fourth down and the snap's not even successful, they laugh and shake their heads.

Bold City Brigade and the Teal Street Hooligans feel confident that the new ownership and coaching staff are taking steps in the right direction, and that those efforts will pay off in time. For now, that's enough; the recent sale of the Jaguars reminded them that the continued existence of a Jacksonville franchise wasn't guaranteed. An unspoken promise exists between the Jags and these fans. They'll take it upon themselves to be "Generation Jaguar" so long as the team keeps giving them a reason to believe in the future.

And to those who think they're nuts for enjoying themselves in the meantime? Cap has this to say: "If you don’t want to be here, we don’t care. If you don’t want to be a part of this, then you don’t like fun. If you can’t identify with this, then what’s the point?"

As we drive out of the parking lot after the game, a woman flags down Cap and motions for him to roll his window down. She shouts, "They let me in with this," holding up a bottle opener. "And a throwing star!"

OK, maybe you don't have to identify with all of it.

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Dan Ortel and his group started out in 1996 with a small gas grill set on the ground. He knows fans have come and gone over the years thanks to the transient nature of Charlotte; Ortel himself was a New York Giants fan when he moved to the city. Still, Pantherfanz has grown in steps every year, making their tailgate more impressive, recruiting new people to join them for games, buying and customizing a freaking school bus.

There's a point where you can't just keep adding on to your pregame setup, however. It's a simple matter of diminishing returns. And Ortel knows what the 20th year of Carolina football means  it's time for the next generation, like his teenage son, to start taking the reins. Waiting for the team to reach some unspecified next step or for a divine signal to appear is pointless. You just decide to fly in the face of whatever negative reputation has been assigned to Panthers fans and take ownership of the thing, because if you don't, who the hell will?

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Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Spencer Hall | Title Photo: Getty Images

About the Author

Ryan Nanni writes about college and professional football without having played either, which makes him an expert on both and a true American.

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