SPARTANBURG -- Kolton Atkins held the football tightly as his father held him over the edge of the concrete barrier at Gibbs Stadium.
It was a cool night by late July standards and Kolton clung to the ball with both hands, calling out to Luke Kuechly in hope that the Carolina Panthers' All-Pro linebacker would notice him.
Armed with a black Sharpie pen, Kuechly made his way down the wall, signing as many footballs, jerseys, posters and hats as he could reach. When he finally made his way to Kolton and put his signature on the 11-year-old’s football, a huge smile spread across the young fan's face.
It was the opening night of training camp for the Carolina Panthers at Wofford College and the Atkins made the hour-long drive from their home just north of Greenville. It has been a familiy tradition for the past “four or five years” to come to Spartanburg and see the Panthers practice and collect autographs.
In the quarter century since the first Panthers camp launched — and particularly over the last five years — Spartanburg has developed a "sustainable, tourism-driving community."
“I was a Cowboys fan growing up,” said Jonathan Atkins, 43, who works as a regional salesman for a pharmaceutical company. “When the Panthers came to Charlotte and started coming to Spartanburg I kind of changed allegiances. I still cheer for the Cowboys, but the Panthers are my team. The players are great about signing stuff and talking to everyone. We love coming here and getting this close to the players.”
That tradition could be coming to an end as the Panthers are in the final year of their contract to hold training camp at Wofford. For the past 25 years, the Panthers have gathered at the small private college, the alma mater of former team owner Jerry Richardson.
When hedge fund manager Dave Tepper bought the Panthers for $2.2 billion in May 2018, the ties that bound the Panthers to Spartanburg ended. Tepper is in the process of building a new practice facility in Rock Hill, closer to the team’s fan base in Charlotte.
Bryan Florry, who lives near Charlotte and has shared season tickets with his family for the past two decades, hopes the team will move training camp closer to Charlotte. Like the Atkins, Florry has made the trip to Wofford nearly every year but is hoping in the future he won’t have so far to travel.
Carolina Panthers rookie quarterback Will Grier, the son of Oceanside Collegiate football coach Chad Grier, has been a life-long Panthers fan.
“I like Wofford and I enjoy coming here, but it would be easier on us if we didn’t have to drive so far to see them in training camp,” said Florry, 61, an accountant. “We have to get a hotel at least one night and if they train in Rock Hill we won’t have to do that. Hotels around here can be pretty expensive because you don’t have a lot of choices to pick from and the hotels know that.”
Spartanburg's Visitors Bureau estimates the Panthers have a $15 million economic impact on the area during training camp.
“We’re an hour away from Charlotte and we’d love to have them here,” said Chris Jennings, the executive vice president of Visit Spartanburg. “I’m not sure the experience that fans and players get by coming here is going to be duplicated anywhere else. Mr. Tepper has said that Spartanburg will always be a part of the Panthers franchise.”
The new facility in Rock Hill, just 25 miles south of Charlotte, is not expected to open until 2021 or even 2022. So the return to Spartanburg and Wofford next summer is likely and that’s just fine with Kuechly. He said getting away from Charlotte and the distractions players have at home help build team chemistry.
“I love coming down here. It’s kind of fun to come down here with all the guys,” Kuechly said. “They’ve done a lot of stuff for us since we’ve been here. The fields are always beautiful. The people take such good care of us. This is where I started my first training camp."
Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, who has three children, said players with families would prefer to be near Charlotte for training camp.
“The hardest thing for the older guys is being away from their families,” said Olsen, 34. “Saying goodbye to your kids and being away for almost three weeks isn’t ideal. But as far as the facilities and the way they treat us and take care of us, they do a great job.”
The final decision, Tepper said, will be made with the players in mind.
“We’re still determining that,” Tepper said. "There is a bubble there (in Charlotte), and I hear it rains sometimes and I hear it’s 100 degrees here sometimes. So it’s a question of football. And I’ve said a million times it’s about football and making sure we’re the best we can be.
"So whether we come here (to Wofford) or whether we go there (to Charlotte) — and eventually we’ll be down in Rock Hill — it will be about being the best we can be. That’s what will drive that decision — it’s going to be a football decision.”