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Panthers continue to grow high school football in Charlotte with Keep Pounding Classic

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CHARLOTTE— High school football in Charlotte is technically still six months away. Six months of spring training and two-a-days and summer break before returning to the early morning workouts. But through each step of the grind, four local schools have a date scheduled that will keep them moving during the offseason.

"That's all the motivation you need when you work all off season; 'I'm going to be playing in the Panthers stadium' just makes you work a little bit harder."

Providence Day offensive lineman David Sanders Jr. is the consensus number one player not only at his position, but in the state of North Carolina. For that matter, he's the composite number two player in the country overall for the upcoming 2025 recruiting class. One would think, after winning three-straight state championships and garnering the personal accolades, little would faze the top prospect. Yet opening his season on August 22 in the Panthers' stadium is what he'll think about all summer.

"I mean, those are the thoughts and memories, you'll never forget the bus ride here, the bus ride back just with your team," Sanders said.

On Tuesday, the Carolina Panthers welcomed head coaches and players from four local high schools; the Independence Patriots, Myers Park Mustangs, Providence Day Chargers and Weddington Warriors, to announce the Keep Pounding High School Classic, a double header to be held at Bank of America Stadium on August 22, kicking off the high school season in the state. The Patriots and Mustangs will kick-off at 4pm, then the two defending state champions (Providence Day, NCISAA and Weddington, NCHSAA) will face off at 8pm.

As each coach spent time expounding on the importance of not only the sport around North Carolina, but the opportunity to play in such an event, one theme was prevalent: "I think high school football is the purest form of football."

The statement from Weddington High School head coach Andy Capone was a reminder of why this event, now in its second year and growing, is so special to the schools, to the state and therefore, to the Panthers.

"It's extremely important because (high school football is) where these young athletes are being shaped, where they're being molded and where they're going to ultimately become the players that they want to become," former Panthers All-Pro linebacker Thomas Davis Sr. said.

TD's son, Thomas Davis Jr., is a linebacker at Weddington. He'll get to pull up to the stadium and walk on the field in August, where his dad spent 14 seasons becoming a three-time Pro-Bowler, All-Pro and Walter Payton Man of the Year. It's the type of experience that Davis Sr. knows can be invaluable for a teenager still trying to make their dreams a reality.

"I think it's something that definitely adds motivation to the kids, give them an opportunity to have an experience that a lot of other kids probably will never get to experience or they may never get to experience again in their lifetime," Davis Sr. explained. "For them to have this opportunity now, it's all about doing the job to make sure that they take advantage of it."

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It was a sentiment echoed by the coaches and players on hand Tuesday, getting excitement started for a double-header that is still on the other side of the yearly calendar.

"I think it's awesome for our players, our coaches; 99% of them aren't ever going to play in NFL Stadium," Myers Park High School head coach Christopher James pointed out. "So to give them the opportunity to play in one, and to coach in one, is really, really special for these guys."

DJ McFadden knows what it takes to make high school football special in Charlotte. He led the Independence Patriots to back-to-back state titles in 2005 and 2006 as a quarterback. He now heads into his fourth year as a coach for his alma mater, having posted back-to-back 11-win seasons. For this upcoming season to kick off with the Keep Pounding Classic, is a testament to what high school football has been in Charlotte, and even more so, what it can continue to become.

"I thought high school football in Charlotte was always good," McFadden said, "but now you see the talent…the big-time players we got coming out of there. It says a lot about our city, but it also says a lot about our state too, and how we compare to other states."

"(This game) is huge. It shows that (the Panthers) support the high school community, shows they support the coaches and all the things that we do; our kids deserve opportunities like this, so very grateful for the Panthers to be able to put us in this position."

Another face that has seen high school football in Charlotte grow from the ground up is Providence Day coach, Chad Grier. The longtime coach at both Davidson Day and now Providence Day, Grier has won seven state championships. Three have been in subsequent years at Providence Day, but four came after starting a program from scratch at Davidson Day. Seeing the sport grow in the city, Grier can tie much of it back to one reason.

"I think that all the growth of Charlotte football is really tied to the Panthers," Grier said. "It's not just guys from the Panthers that came and stayed. But guys from other teams come and see the city and enjoy the city and want to live here. There's so much more development going on for youth in Charlotte because the guys like TD, that everywhere you look, there's somebody that can train and develop and help."

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There's were multiple examples on hand Tuesday, such as the Panthers, Providence Day and Charlotte's own, Ikem Ekwonu. The first-round offensive lineman served as one of the honorary captains for the coin-toss to determine home and away team. Ekwonu was joined by Davis and another Panthers product, Captain Munnerlyn, who is now on the coaching staff at Myers Park.

While the game may still be six months away, looking around the Panthers media auditorium on Tuesday at current players with NFL dreams, former players who have made it their mission to grow high school football in Charlotte, and the Panthers throwing the clubs weight behind the cause, Capone echoed once again what made this event so important.

"It can't be expressed enough how awesome of opportunity it is; you don't see many states doing it. And, for us around Charlotte, where the kids grow up and go to the Panthers games and then kids grow up and then get drafted by the Panthers…it just means so much to these kids."

The Carolina Panthers hosted a press conference on February 13 to announce the 2024 Keep Pounding Classic. The four team double-header will be hosted on August 22, featuring: Independence High School versus Myers Park High School, and Providence Day School versus Weddington High School.

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