I was born in Eastern North Carolina, which means I wasn’t born in the heart of ACC country: I was born in Pirate Territory.
I explained to a Kinston tourist that local infatuation with piracy had more to do with a black-bearded man named Edward Teach than East Carolina University, but deep down I knew it was all bluster.
My high school colors were purple and gold; my uncle played at Dowdy-Ficklen back in the 20th century when students could also be athletes; heck my mother got her nursing degree while commuting to Greenville, (but she always rooted for the Wolfpack.)
The ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament (which is not canon if it’s not held in Greensboro) is broadcast in nearly every classroom in the state of North Carolina, but when you talk professional sports, you’ll see a schism in this state, not concerning allegiance, but degree of allegiance.
The Charlotte Hornets might as well have been in Tennessee when I was growing up watching from Goldsboro (Don’t forget this is when cable was 36 channels) and the most connection I ever felt to the team was through Mugsy Bogues in Space Jam.
I “rooted” for the Hornets, but Charlotte still felt a world away.
When the Panthers joined the NFL, though — I remember hearing about it from a clown at a birthday party in 1994 — I immediately became a fan.
Madden 98 cemented that fandom as my Panthers played game after game against my dad’s Indianapolis Colts (Remember, this was when a LAN was two controllers). He was a Johnny Unitas fan who followed the horseshoe when it left Baltimore and I used every gambit in that Dom Capers playbook to lead Kerry Collins, Tim Biakabutuka and Muhsin Muhammad to victory.
That didn’t happen, of course, as I learned that expansion teams don’t necessarily come equipped with the best personnel when it comes to offensive linemen (I ran Fake Punt Pass so many times that a Maddenesque “IT’SAFAKE!” is still a three-syllable punchline between us anytime a team runs a special teams play).
My dad and I always carried a special torch for the Panthers; through the Steve Beurlein years, the Jake Delhomme years — even a few Chris Weinke snaps!
But that all ended when He was drafted.
I had my own reasons for disliking him, of course: He was an Auburn player and I rooted for Alabama in that particular rivalry.
Because college loyalties ran deeper, I eschewed Newton, convinced that his collegiate indiscretions and Tiger stripes were enough to warrant a temporary hiatus in my allegiance to the Panthers. At least until he was traded.
Yes, I was one of those fans who turned away when Cam Newton got behind center, and it’s not just because he’s led the team to the Super Bowl and is coming back from a concussion that I’m asking for atonement, although that’s impossible to believe right now: I need to free myself.
When I was first figuring out the rules to football (I was raised in a baseball family) I remember hearing about Kordell Stewart; Slash, so named because he could run, pass and catch — but I never heard good things.
I was made to believe that Stewart was bastardizing the sport somehow — never mind the allure of a triple-threat quarterback. I was raised to believe that quarterbacks stayed in the pocket, scrambled only when pressured and spoke to the media in cliches.
In other words, I was raised to believe that quarterbacks were white.
When Cam Newton talked about race in January, it wasn’t the first time I had heard him talk about how he was treated differently, but it might have been the first time I really listened, mostly because it was the first time I had listened since moving back from Texas
Between living in a region that was 90 percent Hispanic and having a black best friend I gained an understanding of white privilege, but what truly shocked me was not the privilege I held, but how much harder my non-white friends had to work to earn the same favor as me.
It’s easy to ignore, but make no mistake; you can see it if you look.
Having a team to root for that wasn’t the Texans or Cowboys gave me a new perspective on the NFL and an appreciation for the short, 2.5-hour drive between Mecklenburg and Wayne counties. It also gave me an appreciation for the role of a black quarterback in a state that looked the other way while a white supremacist insurrection claimed its largest port city. It’s not the same as a nation that once condoned slavery electing a black man to lead its government, but it matters to the people of Eastern North Carolina.
It matters to a woman I met last week wearing a Panthers shirt while preparing for a mandatory evacuation from her home. By Friday, her house was badly damaged by surging waters from the Neuse River. The waters didn’t reach her home during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, but Hurricane Matthew’s rains up and down the Neuse River basin led the river levels past 100-year-flood levels in the historically black community for the second time in 18 years.
As the waters rose, she wanted to talk about the game against the Saints — a franchise familiar with the role football plays in rebuilding an area after a storm — and their 1-4 start after finishing within a strip-sack of a Super Bowl ring last year.
“They just need to get Cam, back,” I offered.
She shot me a knowing look.
I hope that the Panthers today can give Eastern North Carolina an inkling of diversion. They will watch the news cover the clean-up of businesses and farmers in the coming weeks, but they don’t expect to see much of their own story.
She wasn’t the only person I heard from last week who wondered why Raleigh’s Falls Lake dam hadn’t been emptied as the storm was approaching. She and neighbors think that might have prevented water from rising so high at Crabtree Valley Mall, which, led to the unceremonious release of water down the river through Goldsboro and eventually reaching the switchback portion of the east-flowing river where it doubles back along the Highway 70 Corridor. The waters have but one way to flow, and that’s straight across the southeast portion of town once known as Lincoln City, where blacks purchased homes in segregated Kinston as early back as the 1910s.
Most of the homes there were claimed by Floyd, but Matthew likely cleaned up the rest. Water reached as far as South Queen Street during the river swells that culminated Friday, leaving homes, cemeteries, basketball courts and entire neighborhoods underwater from Cedar Lane to South Herritage.
How is it that a near-identical flood can overrun the same black neighborhoods with water twice in the time it takes to raise an eligible voter?
Those are questions for Monday. Today, let’s be Panthers fans.