You’ve got to tip your hat to the Panthers. Despite ranking among the NFL’s youngest franchises, they have enjoyed a level of success and rabid fan support that many older teams would kill for. Here’s a quick primer on Carolina’s Super Bowl-bound squad.
1. Pro football was first introduced to the Tar Heel State long before the Panthers came along. A depression-era team known as the Charlotte Bantams played there for three seasons before folding in 1934. This was followed in 1941 with the Dixie League’s Charlotte Clippers, and in the 1970s when the Charlotte Hornets played for the now forgotten World Football League.
2. Bipartisanship helped bring the modern NFL to the Carolinas. Senators Jesse Helms (R-NC) and Ernest Hollings (D-SC) both lobbied the league for an expansion team that would represent their shared region. Thanks in part to these two politicians, Charlotte was officially awarded a brand-new franchise on October 26, 1993.
3. The nicknames “Cobras,” “Rhinos,” and “Cougars” were all considered before franchise owner Jerry Richardson settled on “Panthers” at the suggestion of his son Mark, who’d always liked the big, black cats.
4. Super Bowl XXXI could have featured a pair of not-quite-2-year-old teams. In 1995, both the NFC’s Carolina Panthers and AFC’s Jacksonville Jaguars made their on-field debuts. Just one season later, they reached the Conference Championship round of the playoffs—coming up short against the Packers and Patriots, respectively.
5. Bank of America Stadium—the current name of the team's home—wasn't ready for the Panthers until 1996, so their first season was played at Clemson University’s Memorial Stadium in Clemson, South Carolina.
6. According to NFL Films, the Panthers logo “loosely [represents] the outline of North and South Carolina.” Tilt your head and squint and you’ll see it.
7. Among the NFL’s 31 current owners, Jerry Richardson—a former Baltimore Colt—is the only one who’s actually played in the league. Perhaps his proudest moment on the gridiron came during the 1959 NFL Championship Game, when he caught a touchdown pass thrown by Johnny Unitas. Richardson’s Colts went on to win 31-16.
8. The inaugural 1995 campaign came with a huge highlight. By defeating San Francisco in Week 10, the Panthers became the first franchise to ever beat a reigning Super Bowl champion during its maiden season.
9. Mascot Sir Purr is advertised as “the coolest cat in the Carolinas.” Slick as he may be, the feline screwed up big-time during a 1996 home game against Pittsburgh. After one Steeler punt, Sir Purr dove onto the (live) ball in Carolina’s end zone, forcing his Panthers to settle for a touchback. Performer Tommy Donovan was wearing the suit that day. “It never registered that I was interfering with the game,” he said. “But the crowd went nuts. I looked up and all these players were around me, laughing and hitting me and saying, ‘Good job. Way to down that punt.’”
10. Super Bowl XXXVIII pitted Carolina against Tom Brady’s Patriots. That contest—which the Panthers lost—saw the most fourth-quarter points in Super Bowl history, with the two teams combining for a grand total of 37.
11. A multi-sport athlete, longtime Panther Julius Peppers (currently with the Packers) played football and basketball at the University of North Carolina. Along with ex-Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, he’s one of only two men to have ever participated in both a Super Bowl and an NCAA Final Four game.
12. Statistically, the chances of losing 13 consecutive coin tosses are one in 8192. But that’s exactly what happened to the 2012 Panthers, who didn’t get a favorable flip until Week 14.
13. Though they now call Charlotte home, Jerry Richardson’s club reports for training camp in Spartanburg, South Carolina. With this fact and the Clemson connection in mind, Governor Nikki Haley of the Palmetto State declared July 30, 2012 “Carolina Panthers Day.”
14. In 2014, the Panthers became the first team to ever win back-to-back NFC South titles. As if that weren’t impressive enough, they’ve gone and clinched the division for a third consecutive time this season.
15. The Boston Red Sox aren’t the only pro sports team to embrace a certain Neil Diamond song. After every home win, you’ll hear “Sweet Caroline” being broadcast throughout Bank of America Stadium.
16. At home, the Panthers have started an adorable tradition. After almost every successful touchdown drive, the players give away the football to a lucky kid in the stands. In this year’s NFC championship game, Carolina defended its home turf against the Cardinals, finding the end zone on five separate occasions. But when the dust settled, only four youngsters wound up with a TD ball. The fifth was reserved by wide receiver Devin Funchess, who’d promised to save one for his grandfather.
17. Panther Cam Newton has recently become the first quarterback in league history to have at least 3000 passing yards and 500 rushing yards in five consecutive seasons.
18. Carolina’s Ron Rivera is now the first Hispanic head coach to bring an NFC team to the Super Bowl.
19. So far, the Panthers have never won a playoff game in their black home jerseys—which they’ll be rocking at Super Bowl 50. This awkward situation comes courtesy of Denver. In even-numbered Super Bowls, the AFC squad is designated the home team and given the choice of what colors to wear. This year the Broncos bucked the trend and selected their white road outfits instead, thus forcing Carolina’s hand.
20. We’re all about to witness the largest-ever age gap between opposing Super Bowl quarterbacks. Peyton Manning of the Broncos is 39, making him 13 years Newton’s senior.
21. “Keep pounding” is the team’s rallying cry. This was the personal motto of linebacker Sam Mills, who, after a battle with intestinal cancer, passed away in 2005. To honor his memory, those words are now stitched inside the collar of every Panthers jersey.
All photos courtesy of Getty Images