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Carolina Panthers, NFL welcome fans back with 'Back Together Saturday'

More Panthers fans were in attendance Saturday night than at any point during the 2020 NFL season.

SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Like the villain from your favorite scary movie, no matter what gets thrown at The NFL, like say a global pandemic, it just keeps coming.

All 32 NFL teams reported for training camp this week, officially marking the beginning of the 2021 NFL season. The easing of the league’s COVID restrictions allowed the Carolina Panthers to return to Wofford University for training camp. Players, coaches, and team staff were not alone in making the trip to Spartanburg South Carolina as fans are once again allowed to watch practice. The first three practices were sparsely attended, perhaps due to the 9:30 am start time, but on July 31st over 6,000 fans were in attendance for Back Together Saturday.

Back Together Saturday is a league-wide initiative meant to celebrate the fans who will hopefully fill stadiums once again this fall and winter. Panthers fans from the Carolinas and beyond filed into Gibbs Stadium as the doors opened. Pictures with Sir Purr, raffle booths, and performances from the TopCats, and the Purrcussion Drumline entertained fans until the players took the field for the 7 pm practice.

Fans big and small could barely contain their excitement, and hope, for a 2021 season that will look and feel a lot more normal.

“It is Incredible. It's bringing a kid out of a grown man.” shared Isaiah Bowens--a Panthers fan from Tampa, Florida.

Bowens told me it’s painful to think about last season and how wasn’t able to be in the stands at Raymond James Stadium for the Panther annual trip down to Tampa Bay. He was more than happy to make the long trip to Spartanburg to lay eyes on some of the new faces that he hopes can move the team in the right direction. Bowens is a believer in the “Matt Rhule process” and knows a Super Bowl appearance is likely too lofty a goal for this team. That said, he expects the team to take another step in the right direction in 2021.

“At least take that extra step forward, putting the pieces in the defense that we need, we have Sam Darnold as our quarterback so hopefully he does exactly what we need for the Carolina Panthers to win games, that’s all that matters right now.”

He wasn’t the only fan at Gibbs Stadium expecting an improvement in the win column this year.

“Definitely, possible for them to get at least 7 wins but I wouldn’t be shocked by 10 or 11 with a playoff appearance”

Tony Salazar is no stranger to training camp despite growing up and living on the West Coast until the fall of 2019 when he moved to Rock Hill, South Carolina. Even though he won’t be able to interact with players and get autographs this year he is just glad to be back after being unable to attend last year.

“Oh man it was rough, honestly I am a little bummed that we can't do autographs but I am still just happy to be here.”

Tony's sentiment was shared by the other 6,000 plus fans in attendance who cheered as head coach Matt Rhule spoke just before the practice portion of the night commenced. Rhule spoke about the team being excited to play in front of fans again then he reminded everyone just how strange last season really was when he said this crowd was the largest he had coached in front of as the Panthers head coach.

Despite the practice mostly consisting of low contact position and team drills, the fans at Gibbs stadium stayed engaged and provided a spark to the players, especially after a couple of big catches by Robbie Anderson and DJ Moore. However, that spark had the Panther's players acting differently than they had the previous 3 days.

“I was not happy at the end, because we were doing too many things we don’t normally do. You’ve got to be the same guy every day.”

Coach Rhule felt the players were a little too amped up with the fans in attendance but that it provided a good learning experience for his young team. Even the change of practice time and the disruption of their daily routine provides opportunities to grow.

“I think we are always trying to prepare for chaos so I think anytime that things are different, it's good for us,” he told reporters after the practice had concluded, “You never know what's going to happen in a game.”

As Coach Rhule shared his thoughts on that evening's practice some of the players were throwing autograph T-shirts into the stands to the fans who remained, while others were embracing family members after the NFL further relaxed COVID restrictions earlier in the week. It was a surreal experience, a combination of the familiar and the new normal. Back Together Saturday was a celebration of what is hoped for but just 4 days into the season and with the Delta variant surging, nothing is set in stone.