Before Panthers were born 25 years ago, Washington claimed the Carolinas

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CHARLOTTE – North Carolina native Julius Peppers wasn’t a Panthers fan growing up.

It simply wasn’t an option.

“The Redskins, the Cowboys and the Eagles – there was a lot of NFC East going on,” said Peppers, who was 15 years old when the Panthers made their regular season debut as an NFL franchise in 1995. “I liked Deion Sanders, and I liked the Eagles, liked watching Randall Cunningham. Me and some of the older men around there used to watch the Eagles.”

Growing up in the tiny town of Bailey just east of the state’s center, Peppers ran against the grain – his home state aside from the “America’s team” Cowboys crowd was Washington Redskins territory.

“I have an uncle who’s still a big Redskins fan,” Peppers said.

October 26 will mark the 25th anniversary of the day the NFL unanimously approved the “Carolina bid” to become the league’s 29th franchise. The region’s former favorite and its longtime inhabitant will face off for the 14th time Sunday with Washington serving as the host.

Over time, more and more North Carolinians who grew up as diehard Redskins fans – myself included – transitioned to root-root-rooting for the home team, although Peppers’ uncle serves as a reminder that they’re called “diehards” for a reason.

I never attended a Redskins game growing up just a few miles down the road from where Peppers was raised a decade later, but I felt like I attended them all. I went to a few college football games growing up, the first one featuring N.C. State and Syracuse two days before my seventh birthday in 1978 – a Wolfpack victory against an Orange roster featuring a receiver named Art Monk.

I didn’t make that connection until recently, but I would see or hear and scream and cheer for a multitude of Monk catches for the Redskins throughout my childhood. Every Redskins game was on TV in the area and I’d almost always see the end of it, but the first half often was experienced courtesy of the car radio after a post-church lunch outing.

Over a 10-season period that spanned from me becoming old enough to passionately follow football until I paid rent for the first time (1982-91), the Redskins won three Super Bowls and went to a fourth. In the middle of that streak, a nearly six-year process to secure an NFL franchise in Charlotte began.

The day the Panthers were awarded to the Carolinas 25 years ago, the Redskins were preparing for a Monday Night Football rematch of Super Bowl XXVI, their first game against the Bills team they had beaten in the title game 21 months earlier. Washington was a shell of its former self; Joe Gibbs had retired prior to the 1993 season, and the team was off to a 1-5 start on its way to a 4-12 finish.

Since winning the Super Bowl in 1991, the Redskins haven’t reached another (or an NFC title game). The next time they made the playoffs was in 1999, with Norv Turner as head coach. By that point, a Panthers franchise that had played just four NFL seasons had already played in an NFC title game.

Since the teams first shared NFL membership in 1995, the Redskins have won two playoff games. The Panthers have won nine, have twice gone to the Super Bowl and have four times advanced to the NFC Championship.

I’ve been fortunate enough to cover both of Carolina’s Super Bowls so far from the press box and three of the four the NFC title games. The one I didn’t cover marked the moment I realized that aside for nostalgic times like this, I was unequivocally a Panthers fan alone.

There were many moments leading up to that 2006 game, but many of them while wildly memorable were muted by me serving as a media member. Fighting traffic back and forth from Clemson for the Panthers’ first regular season home game against the Rams (the St. Louis Rams) the day before my 24th birthday in 1995. Getting to check out the pristine stands at Ericsson Stadium at the invitation of a newly minted PSL owner in 1996. Walking across a frozen lake and seeing an impassioned pocket of Panthers fans at Lambeau Field for the NFC Championship in 1997. Crossing paths with a much bigger Carolina contingent before Super Bowl XXXVIII in the winter of 2005.

But the real realization came at the end of the next season, when I wasn’t covering the NFL and I was rooting for a Washington victory over the Seahawks that would allow the Panthers to become the first No. 5 seed to host a conference championship game – against the sixth-seeded Redskins. I realized that I wasn’t pulling for Washington because it would mean one of my two favorite teams would definitely be in the Super Bowl; I was rooting because it meant my favorite team had a better chance of returning to the Super Bowl.

I understand and totally respect lifelong sports allegiances. I grew up a rabid Wolfpack fan, and that remained (mostly) intact after four years of higher learning in Chapel Hill. As crazy as it might sound to some, I get where Peppers’ uncle is coming from.

But most fans eventually let go of the team they grew up loving to join forces with the team they grew to love. That’s certainly the case with the Panthers’ love story that is approaching its 25th anniversary.

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