View photos from Tuesday's special Shop with a Panther event at Academy Sports + Outdoors in Concord.
CONCORD, N.C. – Christmas came early for a group of middle schoolers courtesy of the Carolina Panthers and Academy Sports + Outdoors.
Twenty students from Kannapolis Middle School arrived at the Concord Mills store Tuesday morning to a hero's welcome, then they got to shop with some of their heroes.
"I watch them all the time on TV," said Josh, a sixth-grader meandering through the store with Panthers guard Greg Van Roten and former Panthers safety Nate Salley. "This is great."
Van Roten was among seven current players and Salley was among 11 former players that helped the students make their choices as they scoured the store with $200 worth of Academy Sports + Outdoors gift cards. They were joined by the Women of the Panthers Community and a sea of black and blue created by Sir Purr, a quartet of TopCats and the United Way of Central Carolinas.
The look on Ja'Shawn's face when he learned he was going to be joined on his shopping spree by defensive end Julius Peppers topped even his reaction when he realized how far $200 can go.
Peppers said he couldn't have imagined having such an opportunity growing up in rural North Carolina. Video games were the first thing that came to mind when Peppers thought about Christmas gift memories, though he also remembered that he had to go to a friend's house if he wanted to play Atari.
There's no telling what Christmas might have been like for these underprivileged middle schoolers without Tuesday's treat. That's why defensive end Mario Addison, who helped young Jameel pick out a trick bike, also works with Academy Sports + Outdoors during the summer in his native Alabama to help kids in the Mario Addison Community Partnership.
"This organization is phenomenal the way they're always reaching out to the community – no matter where you are," Addison said. "And some people need it. It's great that they're a blessing to families like that."
Bikes and trampolines and clothes and shoes were a part of Tuesday's transactions, but so were some moments that money can't buy.
"I got this for my little brother. He loves dinosaurs," said Chris, a sixth-grader who had picked out a backpack for his sibling.
"That's what Christmas is really all about – giving," former Panthers guard Kevin Donnalley told Chris as they stood in line to check out. "You got some stuff for yourself, but the best part is getting something for someone else."
Panthers players also got to experience that feeling.
"It's a good experience for us, and I know the kids enjoy it," Van Roten said. "It's cool to bring a little joy this time of year – 'tis the season."