CHARLOTTE – For Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross, there's nothing quite like running through the tunnel on game day at Bank of America Stadium – except perhaps watching participants in the Challenger Flag Football League run through the tunnel at the practice fields adjacent to the stadium.
"We get introduced every Sunday in the tunnel," Gross said. "Guys are excited, bouncing off the walls, but I don't think they're half as excited as these guys are."
Tuesday evening, the six teams in the league as well as the "Spirit Squad" cheerleaders took turns running through the Panthers tunnel as friends, family, Panthers players, TopCats and Sir Purr cheered them on.
The event kicked off the fifth season of the Challenger Flag Football League, which provides nearly 100 children and young adults with disabilities the opportunity to participate in a structured flag football league.
The Panthers are partners in the league, along with Mecklenburg County Park & Recreation and Pop Warner Football.
The games begin Saturday at Marion Diehl Center, but the pure joy on display Tuesday will be hard to top, even on game day.
"I'm blown away. It's awesome. The kids are having a blast," said Tonya Ashrafi, whose 8-year-old twin sons, Dylan and Spencer, are participating in the league for the first time. "It's great for the kids, for this population to be able to go out there and feel successful at something that I only knew that typically developing children could do.
"I think it's just so good for all kids to be included in things like this."
The children aren't the only ones enriched by the league. Chris Doll has been coaching in the league since its inception.
"I love football, and I wanted to work with kids, so it's been perfect," Doll said. "Every time you come out, it's a lot of fun, no matter what else is going on in your life.
"This is something you look forward to. The kids just make it great."
Richard Carpenter's son, 12-year-old Tyler, has been a part of the league since its inception. Carpenter said that beginning with Tuesday's kickoff celebration, it will be all about football in his household from here forward.
"He'll start wearing his jersey every night. He won't want to take it off," Carpenter said. "Luckily I have three or four from previous years, so I'll rotate them around, and he'll wear one to bed every night.
"Game day will start early in the morning. We come out of the room with our jersey on, ready to go, even though we're not leaving for another two hours. When we get there, we go through warm-ups. Then he plays pretty hard for an hour, and we get to go to McDonald's afterwards."
The league is offered annually at no cost to the participants.
"It's truly a model for any other city that would want to start one, and all the thanks goes to the Panthers organization for doing it," Carpenter said. "We know the time and the effort involved, and the jerseys are always donated.
"I'll give it to (Panthers owner) Jerry Richardson – he's done an excellent job in the community."