During the fall of 1998, my family became very familiar with losing football games.
My older brother—a high school sports star who excelled on both sides of the ball, thanks to a massive frame and nimble feet— had earned a scholarship to become an East Carolina Pirate. Late that summer, he had shipped a few hours east, leaving us a family of three.
He was a redshirt freshman that year, meaning he wouldn't play. But mostly because we missed him, my mom, dad, and I would dutifully head to Greenville for every home game. Those Saturdays didn't go so well. Despite a string of good years, the Pirates dropped five of their 11 games and failed to land a bowl bid.
On Sunday, we'd eat breakfast at Perkins or lunch at Parker's and head back west. During each drive, we would tune in to the Carolina Panthers Radio Network, where Roman Gabriel and Bill Rosinski would deliver the day's events from Charlotte or whatever city our four-season-old home team had visited.
The news was never good. As with the Pirates, the Panthers' recent successes had soured; the early laurels of Dom Capers, Kerry Collins, and an NFC Championship loss in 1996 had the still-young franchise again attempting to establish a long-term identity. The Panthers lost a dozen games that fall, pushing my combined 1998 record as a fan to 10-18. It made for terrible weekends, but it was our family tradition.
As with most hobbies, my interest in the Panthers has waxed and waned, often depending on how busy I've been or my level of (dis-)enchantment with watching twenty-two men maul each other. But three years ago, bored by our backyard Hurricanes, my wife and I decided to turn our attention to the Panthers, the state's other pros. They were fun, with the coltish Cam Newton developing his leading role and the solemn Ron Rivera salvaging the team after John Fox's disastrous end. We watched them stumble, as when they dropped eight of their first 12 games to start last year's season, but we kept watching, anyway.
And now here the Panthers are, in the most unexpected and prime position—on the verge of finishing a nearly flawless season by besting one of the NFL's most historic franchises and players. They're now good enough to elicit jealousy and bandwagon backlash.
If the Panthers win the Super Bowl in Santa Clara on Sunday, the team improves to 176-175-1 all-time. And if they lose, as they did so often in the fall of 1998, well, they know all about that, too.