CHARLOTTE — Chad Cota still remembers the sound that day, the ringing in his ears — and the reception he'd get trying to buy groceries afterward.
When memories turn to games against the Steelers, it's easy to look back on the first one the Panthers played here, and not just because it's the only time they've beaten Pittsburgh in the regular season (1-6 all-time).
What the Panthers did on Dec. 22, 1996, made a special day for many Panthers fans, and Cota was the man who sealed it.
"Sometimes it's like, 'People still remember that?'" Cota said with a laugh this week from his home in Oregon. "There are still times, at least a few times a year when people will come up to me and ask about that game, even out here.
"That was just such a special game for so many people, such a great moment, the kind of thing it's fun to look back on."
It stands out in a lot of memories for a good reason.
For starters, it capped a storybook first season in Bank of America Stadium for the Panthers (then known as Ericsson Stadium) after the expansion franchise played its first year of home games in Clemson in 1995.
And though they were young, they made quite a splash, winning the NFC West title in 1996 by sweeping the established 49ers, a remarkable level of success for any team, much less a new one. And that day against the Steelers, they had a chance to secure a bye week in the playoffs and a weekend off over Christmas.
Cota's interception of Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart with 29 seconds left preserved an 18-14 win which moved the second-year expansion team to 12-4.
"I remember all the families being pretty happy with us since it meant we didn't have to work on Christmas," he joked.
But that day was memorable in so many ways.
"I remember the stadium and how loud it was, to begin with," Cota said. "There were some Pittsburgh fans there, of course, because they travel well, but our fans were incredibly loud too, so it was a great atmosphere.
"At that point, everything was so new around here. It took a little bit. At first, when we would go out on offense, our own fans would be way too loud. It took some time, but they figured it out quickly. The support that year was crazy because people loved being part of something new and something that was going so well. There was some real energy in this city, and we were rolling."
That extended far beyond the stadium walls, too. Cota remembered what it was like in the city after games when many players would go to South End Brewery to celebrate a lot of wins, and it was the hottest spot in town. "I remember seeing Kevin Greene and Ric Flair in there and thinking it was just so wild," he recalled. (This was back when breweries were still novel and new in this town, and South End barely reached a block or two past East Blvd., but there was always a line to get in that place.)
"I remember early that year since we were all so new, you could kind of blend in a little," he said of a simpler time in Charlotte. "But after that play in particular, it was hard to go to Harris Teeter without getting noticed."
Now, Cota's now moved on to a second career as a contractor, designing and building homes in his native Oregon.
He's also been able to be a proud dad for the last season, as his son Chase transferred to Oregon this year to play his final season for the Ducks under his dad's watchful eye.
Chase Cota, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound receiver, had 33 catches for 455 yards and two touchdowns for the Ducks this season, getting him on some NFL radars as a possible third-day pick.
"It's been a blast being about to watch him play for the Ducks," the elder Cota said of his son. "There are a lot more nerves watching as a parent, but it's been great having him so close to home again."
And if the Panthers wanted to take a late-round flier on his son, Cota wouldn't mind that a bit since it would give him a chance to reminisce about his days here.
"I'm just saying, that would be a pretty good late draft pick for the Panthers," Cota said. "Would be great to get back to that place again."
And at least part of the reason is that he knows what it was like when it was new, and what it sounded like when the games in December mattered.
The Steelers lead the all-time series against the Panthers, 6-1.