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CHARLOTTE, NC (CAP) - With the NFL playoffs in full swing and heavily focused on who is the most elite team in the league come words of appreciation from the commissioner's office for the effort put forth by the 2-14 Carolina Panthers. This year the Panthers became the first team to field a regular squad consisting entirely of special needs players.
"The NFL is proud of its commitment to equal opportunity and of our deep involvement in the special needs community," said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. "And we couldn't be more proud of the determination shown by these 53 very special players over the course of the grueling NFL season. Hats off to you, gentlemen."
The NFL has long been identified by its partnership with The United Way but quietly has been forging a relationship with the Special Olympics in recent years. While initial efforts involved placing special needs individuals in front office jobs with a handful of teams, this year the league decided to take it a step further and showcase special needs on a larger scale.
"You know what, Panthers players put their pants on one leg at a time just like everyone else in the NFL," said Jan Trevor, spokesperson for the Special Needs Advocacy Network. "Granted they may be backwards and they may need some help finding the right end zone, but we hope we've shown that special needs individuals can integrate successfully with society."
The accolades from the NFL front office also prompted a call from President Obama to Panthers owner Jerry Richardson whereby the commander in chief congratulated Richardson for giving so many special needs individuals an opportunity that not many people like them get. He explained that such a level playing field rarely exists in professional sports.
"Certainly what the, uhh, Panthers did pales in comparison to the Eagles giving Michael Vick a second chance, but it does warm the, uhh, cockles of the heart nonetheless," Obama said. "I just hope it doesn't lead to any widespread acceptance of mediocrity in America as we as a society need to continue to strive to be the best that we can be."
After the team started 0-5, Charlotte city officials staged a rally during the Panthers' bye week to raise their spirits and boost morale. Word spread to San Francisco and a week later when the 49'ers came in to Bank Of America Stadium, they took it easy on the Panthers, held back a bit, and let Carolina notch its first victory of the season.
"Whenever [David] Gettis caught that TD pass to tie the game and then [John] Kasay kicked the winning field goal with less than a minute to go, you couldn't help but want to root for those guys," said San Francisco coach Mike Singletary. "They were so excited as the clock ran out you'd think they just won the Super Bowl. It brought tears to my eyes.
"You know what, sacrificing that victory was a small price to pay to see the joy on their faces," added Singletary. "I'm proud of how my guys handled that and I would do it again in a heartbeat."
Unfortunately, the 49'ers organization didn't agree with Singletary's approach and fired the coach shortly after the team was eliminated from playoff contention. However, most Carolina fans are appreciative of what the 49'ers did and continued to rally behind their underdog champs like proud big brothers for the rest of the season.
"They're like the Walmart baggers of the NFL," said sports talk radio host Mark Packer. "You wanna get pissed at them for putting the eggs on top of the bread, but then you realize they just don't know any better and really are doing the best they can."
Following the conclusion of the regular season, the coaching staff took the players out for ice cream and gave them all certificates of appreciation for a job well done.
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