Training camp offers fans more than football

With the clock ticking down, members of the Carolina Panthers huddled to discuss last-minute strategy.

The final touches for the Panthers' new and improved training camp almost are in place.

The camp, which runs through Aug. 18, will kick off Thursday at 9 a.m. at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., with the team's first practice.

"There is a significant amount of coordination and logistics and people involved," said Peter Vacho, the Panthers' youth football coordinator and a member of a five-person committee charged with a fan-friendly revamping of camp. "We wanted to create more fan-based experiences for the folks coming to training camp."

Training camp always has afforded Panthers fans an up-close look at their favorite team, free of charge, but this year, the fun will continue away from the football field -- from movie nights to T-shirt tosses, from a face-painting station at a "Back to Football" party to a chance to paint the town Panther black and blue at a tailgate party.

"This will make it a destination," Vacho said. "This is great for our fans, to create that energy and excitement around the Carolina Panthers. We want to give people some fun, unique experiences."

Since December, Vacho, account manager Casey Beamer, media relations manager Deedee Mills, premium services assistant Beau Patterson and football operations coordinator Bryan Porter have been working to implement the additions. The committee has worked closely with the club's longtime partners at Wofford, a group headed by Debbi Thompson, director of alumni and parents programs.

Highlights of training camp will include Monday Night at the Movies, featuring football staples "Radio" (Aug. 2) and "The Blind Side" (Aug. 9) on a 35-foot screen immediately following evening practices. James "Radio" Kennedy and former Hanna High School coach Harold Jones, the inspirations for "Radio," will make an appearance prior to the screening.

On T-shirt Tuesdays, players will throw T-shirts into the crowd following practice, with some also taking part in an autograph session.

In addition, the team will twice practice at Gibbs Stadium, a first in the Coach John Fox era. Those two evening practices will be accompanied by a Back to Football Party (July 31) and a Tailgate Party (Aug. 14).

Family Fun Day follows on Aug. 15, which includes the popular Kids Combine (2-6 p.m.) and is one of 14 days that again features Panther Pals, a program in which five children are chosen daily to meet a player after practice.

Outside of food and beverages, festivities throughout training camp are free of charge.

It should be a special time for team president Danny Morrison, who is in his first year with the Panthers and was director of athletics at Wofford when Carolina held its inaugural training camp there in 1995.

 "It's been tweaked every year, and I think it's gotten better and better every year," Morrison said. "We want to continue to improve the overall experience at training camp, with a particular emphasis on our fans and our sponsors.

"We're excited about the year ahead and our young team, and it will also be good to be back on the Wofford campus. There are so many wonderful people at Wofford that are still there from my days on campus, and I have high, high regard for all of them. It's amazing what the college has accomplished in recent times.

"It's been fun to watch it all unfold."

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