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Maybe We Care Too Much

THREE CAROLINA FANS HAVE REARRANGED THEIR LIVES TO FOLLOW THEIR BELOVED PANTHERS. ARE THEY SUPER LOYAL? OR JUST PLAIN CRAZY?

"That's Muhsin Muhammad," Panthers fan Shane Kimball says. "If you hit him in the head, 10 points. If you hit him in the nuts"-he pauses, as if conjuring an algebraic formula for betrayal- "that's, like, 30."

An image of the departed Panthers receiver has been torn from a magazine and affixed to a dartboard in a room Shane calls The Cave. Situated above his friend Andrew Wagstaff's parents' garage in suburban Charlotte, N.C., The Cave serves as a base of operations for Shane, Andrew and childhood buddy Michael Staub. Newspaper clippings of Panthers glory and Panthers suckage line the walls, along with jerseys of too-young-to-die Panther Sam Mills and Mark Fields, who's still alive. A TV shows a loop of historic Panthers games. Shane, Andrew and Michael-all juniors in college- once spent 10 days in this room over Christmas break, sleeping on air mattresses, drinking sodas out of the minifridge, breaking down game film.

The Cave, of course, is not the only lair of its kind. Similar shrines exist in countless towns, erected as obsessive shows of loyalty to a favorite team. It's what franchise owners, leagues, TV networks, jersey hawkers and players' agents dream about when they think of fans and the riches that rise from their wellspring of love. In terms of intensity, though, The Cave may be unequaled. It does for football fanatics what the basement in Silence of the Lambs did for moth-breeding serial killers.

FRIDAY, 9:37 P.M. Let's backtrack. Over the summer, in my neverending quest for Tim Biakabutuka kitsch, I found myself at the Panthers' website reading the story of three young fans-revved up, faces painted-who tailgate before each game. No big deal, until I read that they run more than a mile from their tailgate to Bank of America Stadium just before kickoff, game after game, season after season. I'd always wondered about face-painters. Why do they do it? How does it affect their perception of the outside world? Graciously, Shane, Andrew and Michael agreed to be my field guides, and when I arrived at The Cave two nights before the Panthers' season opener against the Falcons, they were ready for introductions. Shane Kimball, 20: a junior at Tennessee. Career goal: "Secret Service. I have some connections." Default: "Sales." Looks like a younger version of journeyman punter Mark Royals, with a dash of adult-film star Tom Byron. Favorite play in Panthers history? "Steve Smith, Rams game, NFC playoffs, start of double overtime."

Andrew Wagstaff, 21: also a junior at Tennessee. Key quote: "I keep it all together. I give advice." Andrew is the group's moral compass. When Michael gripes about the fancy new gourmet market installed at Bank of America Stadium, Andrew reminds him, "It wasn't DeShaun Foster making that decision."

Michael Staub, 20: resembles a young Joe Paterno. Attended Pfeiffer University in Charlotte for two years but was told that, due to his grades, he couldn't play on the lacrosse team. So he left Pfeiffer, moved back in with his parents and enrolled in community college. "I have a very hard personality to get along with," Michael says. "My mom was born in Cuba. My grandparents are from Spain and Cuba, so I'm, like, half Spanish, half Cuban, half American."

Every Friday before a Panthers home game, Shane and Andrew skip a weekend of campus parties in Knoxville to make the four-hour drive to Charlotte, where they meet Michael in The Cave and prep for the game. They've been pals since sixth grade and Carolina fans since the team's inception, in 1995. Their commitment to the Panthers was solidified after a 1-15 campaign in 2001, a.k.a. "the sucky season."

FRIDAY, 11:35 P.M. Settled in at The Cave, the guys debate the hotness of Kricket Morton, co-host of the local Football Friday Night, a high school highlights show. A perfect opportunity to pop the big question. "So," I ask, "you guys ever get lucky?" Because, well, c'mon. As a child, when I'd watch Walter Payton highlights set to Carly Simon's "Nobody Does It Better," I'd weep. But I never had a Cave! I never face-painted. I never spent serious money on Brian Piccolo jerseys. These guys skip campus parties to hunker down in a lair together. Go thirds on souvenirs. They can't possibly have time for girls.

"No women at the game," says Michael, who assumes we're talking Panthers. "Unwritten rule."

"We were watching the Seattle game," Shane says, referring to last year's NFC championship game, "and the girl I'm seeing came over. I'm watching the game and talking to her at the same time. In the first quarter, we turned the ball over, and Andrew grabs me by the collar, pulls me in another room, slams the door and yells, 'If you don't start concentrating on this game and stop talking to that chick, we're gonna lose!' "

The Panthers lost, of course, and Michael took it so hard that he didn't leave his Pfeiffer dorm room for a week. "Not even to go to class," he says. "I just ate bagels." Nevertheless, Shane continues to see the girl. But he's careful to point out that he blew off meeting her dad this summer to watch a Panthers preseason game.

"My priorities are Panthers, sex, breathing," he says.

"Dude, that's from a movie," Andrew groans.

FRIDAY, 11:50 P.M. Super Bowl XXXVIII is in the VCR. The Panthers rally before John Kasay's kickoff goes out of bounds and the Patriots prevail. The day after the Super Bowl, Michael was sent home from school for a vulgar, in-class besmirching of Kasay's performance, which only further solidified his hatred for the kicker. "John Kasay is all about himself," Michael proclaims from the couch. "He always trots onto the field on fourth and one, no matter what."

When I mention what is perhaps the ugliest moment in Panthers history-Rae Carruth's involvement in the murder of his girlfriend-the guys' reaction is not "What a tragedy!" but, rather, griping over other first-round picks who didn't pan out.

FRIDAY, 11:55 P.M. I wonder aloud if the guys don't spend too much time criticizing the thing they love.

"No," Andrew says. "If this kid [Shane] saw DeShaun Foster on the street, he wouldn't be able to speak."

"My favorite players are ones whose contributions go unrecognized," Michael says. "Like DeShaun Foster."

"Wait," I say. "Everyone knows that guy." "People may like him," Andrew says. "But not nearly as much as they should."

SATURDAY, NOON The guys need supplies for tomorrow's tailgate, so we pile into Shane's Honda CR-V. I ask Michael if he'll ever reenroll in a four-year college-maybe Florida State, his favorite school. He mulls this for a second. "Too far from Panthers," he says. Stop 1: Bojangles' Famous Chicken 'n Biscuits. In line, Michael brags that he snuck into a bar and sat with Chris Weinke after the Panthers beat the Eagles to get to the Super Bowl. The guys have a passionate hatred for the Eagles, mostly because they had a crappy time in Philly during a trip to the NCAA Lacrosse Final Four. "We wore our Panthers jerseys in a bad section of the city," he explains. "A pack of kids showed up, and we got into a shouting match about whose team sucked more. They flashed their knives, and the argument ended."

Stop 2: The Sports Fan-Attic. Shane gawks at Panthers neon bar lights, while Andrew purchases Panthers wristbands and Michael settles on a Panthers windshield sun-blocker. Stop 3: Wal-Mart Supercenter. The guys have no jobs and little cash, so they negotiate with each other over everything from hot dogs to buns to condiments. In between haggling, they randomly mention having respect for the dedication of NASCAR fans. Which moves our discussion to the topic of loyalty.

"Do you think Pat Tillman was crazy?" I ask.

"Pat Tillman was awesome," Shane responds. "Yeah, the Rams wanted to give him, like, nine million," Michael says. "And he said, 'No, I'm just gonna stay here with the team that gave me my first chance.' "

SATURDAY, 11:59 P.M. After a full night of watching college football in The Cave, the air mattresses are inflated and it's time for lights out, but not before the discourse takes two divergent paths:

1) "Could Tom Brady get Shakira?" Shane asks. The three reluctantly agree that, yes, he could.

2) "When Jerry Simmons brings a woman to orgasm, the angels weep and the devils bleed," says Michael. He's referring, of course, to Carolina's strength and conditioning coach, a man they believe to be godlike.

The lights, mercifully, are turned out.

GAME DAY, 6 A.M. A cell phone alarm goes off, and the room fills with groans. We jump into the car and head to the guys' tailgate location, the parking lot of a photo studio belonging to Michael's uncle Pat. It's situated in an industrial area about a mile away from the prime tailgating spots, which are occupied by the RVs of the more monied Panthers faithful. Arriving at Uncle Pat's, Michael sets four gallons of vegetable oil next to Andrew's deep fryer. Beside it is their new grill, a black behemoth from Wal-Mart. "It took us four hours to put together," Michael says, "but we're retarded."

GAME DAY, 7:30 A.M. The guys fondle their tickets, part of a season package sprung for by their parents. "Dan Morgan's on the front," Andrew says. "That's not a good sign."

GAME DAY, 8:13 A.M. "This is the time," Michael says, "when we sit around and reflect on the fact that we got up too damn early." They experience some tailgating glitches: A burger rolls into the lid of the grill; shrimps nose-dive into the charcoal; the brats taste like Morten Andersen's bathwater. Soon, Michael's dad shows up and tells us that the lettuce meant for the burgers is actually cabbage.

GAME DAY, 11:50 A.M. Wardrobe. The guys pull out their jerseys. Andrew = DeAngelo Williams. Shane = Steve Smith. Michael = DeShaun Foster. As they huddle around a mirror in Uncle Pat's bathroom, greasepaint appears, as do photocopied instructions for warrior looks from Braveheart.

As Andrew and Shane apply their greasepaint, the guys praise Panthers GM Marty Hurney's roster savvy and Michael dons a headband. "I'm really good at reading the Panthers' offensive formations," he says.

"He is," Andrew concurs. "But if he's sweating, the greasepaint runs into his eyes, and he can't identify the formations." Hence the headband.

Shane goes for a camouflage look not unlike the work of neo-impressionist painter Georges Seurat. Michael's approach is John Randle-meets-Gene Simmons. Andrew's is tougher to pin down. Mardi Gras? Paris in the 1920s? Whatever the inspiration, it's convincingly festive, mildly psychotic.

The guys tell me that painting their faces lets the players know how deep their loyalty goes. During warmups, they sometimes stand near the Panthers' tunnel to show off. "Steve Smith just laughed," says Michael. "I mean, it was preseason. The rookies, they don't look. They're too scared the coaches will see them not focusing."

I mention that you can also get your face painted at the stadium. "They put whiskers on you," Andrew says dismissively. "You can't get whiskers and not look like a fruitcake."

GAME DAY, 12:35 P.M. The trip to the stadium begins as a power walk, then turns into a full trot as we pass the fancier tailgaters closer to the stadium. A block from the stadium, jawing breaks out between Shane and a Falcons fan 10 feet away in a DeAngelo Hall jersey. "You're a joke," Shane shouts. "You're going down!"

"Look at your face-you're a joke," says Falcons Guy.

There's no retort. Michael, Andrew and Shane have started running again. The game's about to begin.

GAME DAY, 1 P.M. After we climb what feels like 183 ramps to get to the upper deck, the game starts. The Panthers aren't playing especially well, but the guys stand and cheer despite calls from fellow fans for them to sit down. Michael Jenkins scores a touchdown shortly before halftime to put the Falcons up 13-3.

The guys are discouraged by the fans' lack of ferocity. "When the other team is talking smack to us," Michael explains, "our fans aren't helping with their Cat in the Hat hats. The volume when we're on defense is way too quiet."

They see all the polo shirts at Bank of America Stadium as a symbol of privilege, at odds with the frothing crowd they feel the Panthers deserve. "If you're an opposing team, are you really afraid of bankers?" says Michael.

"Yeah, Charlotte isn't exactly a blue-collar town," adds Andrew.

"I don't know. Maybe we're just insane and care too much," adds Michael, looking around. "I guess we don't have as many worries as these people."

GAME DAY, 2:30 P.M. Halftime. The guys make their way to the concession stand. An older man, maybe 45, with an immaculately painted Falcons logo on each cheek, wanders over. "Gonna shut you down today," Falcons Face taunts. Passersby start to congregate. Before long, Shane yells that the Panthers are going to "rip Vick's frickin' head off!" Just then, a very large man inexplicably draped in Bears gear comes spiraling into the fray, joining Falcons Face's taunt. More jawing occurs before Falcons Face and Bears Dude are sucked into the crowd that's scrambling back to their seats.

GAME DAY, 2:50 P.M. The second half doesn't go much better. The Panthers muster only a Kasay field goal, and Julius Peppers drops what should have been an interception and a sure TD. We walk the ring of the upper deck, trying to help ignite a comeback. Despite what the guys say, I see a lot of fans who do care. I witness a mother and a young daughter nearly go over the railing with excitement as the Panthers try to stop Vick on a third down. A drunk makes a joke about a "split end wanting to be a tight end." The crowd tries to be loud several times.

When things get bad enough for the Panthers, down 20-6 with quite a bit of clock left, Michael turns to me somberly and says, "Watch 'em file outta here now." And sure enough, the bulk of the Panthers fans do, leaving a smattering of jackasses in Vick jerseys to taunt the remaining families trying to get their money's worth.

GAME DAY, 3:57 P.M. The clock runs out, and we trudge back to Uncle Pat's. As I gnaw on a chicken wing in the parking lot, I look back on a weekend full of hyperbolic vitriol for Falcons fans, Panthers fans and Muhsin Muhammad, the kind of disgust that inspires a 20-year-old to paint his face and build a Cave. Then I remember that if you play your cards right, these instincts eventually peter out. Turning you, in essence, into a mature, milquetoast wussbag.

So when Andrew says that, after college, "I'd like to work on Wall Street, in public policy," I experience a moment of fear. Was this whole weekend a mirage? "But I'd take a pay cut to return to Charlotte," he adds. "Our first priority is Panthers." His fellow Cave dwellers nod in agreement. ..

OF FANS WHO SAY THESE JOCKS ARE OVERRATED TERRELL

OWENS 30% | MICHAEL VICK 12% | BARRY BONDS 29% | ALEX RODRIGUEZ 18% |KOBE BRYANT 28% | DWYANE WADE 5% | DALE EARNHARDT JR. 19% | JEFF GORDON 17% | TIGER WOODS 13% | SERGIO GARCIA 9% | SERENA WILLIAMS 15% |MARIA SHARAPOVA 8%

% OF FANS WHO HAVE GONE TO A GAME AND

SNUCK INTO A BETTER SEAT 27%

MISSED A DAY OF WORK OR SCHOOL 20%

TRAVELED MORE THAN 250 MILES TO GET THERE 19%

TAILGATED FOR MORE THAN THREE HOURS 17%

SCALPED A TICKET 13%

VERBALLY ABUSED PLAYERS FROM THE OTHER TEAM 10%

PAINTED THEIR FACE 6%

LIED TO A PARENT, BOSS OR SIGNIFICANT OTHER TO GO 4%

HAD SEX3%

SNUCK IN WITHOUT PAYING2%

% OF FANS WHO'D RATHER HAVE THEIR FAVORITE TEAM WIN A CHAMPIONSHIP THAN

BE U.S. PRESIDENT FOR A DAY 83%

GET SUPERHERO POWERS FOR A DAY 64%

HAVE A YEAR ADDED TO THEIR LIFE 63%

HAVE THE BEST SEX OF THEIR LIFE 62%

GO ON A DREAM VACATION 48%

WIN $100,000 CASH 17%