Ten years ago, a very good Carolina Panthers team hosted Tampa Bay in a late-season game – something that happens again on Sunday.
But there’s one thing you can guarantee this time around. No Carolina fan will grab a stadium microphone, trash-talk the Buccaneers over the loudspeakers and ultimately provide one of the strangest – and best – fan-centric memories in the team’s history.
You can guarantee this because the Panthers don’t give up the microphone to random fans in the stands anymore. There’s just too much potential for, well, randomness.
But during the Panthers’ 2003 Super Bowl season, it used to happen at every home game, which is how Joe Muscarello did something 10 years ago that still makes me laugh.
“I still look back on it as a fond memory,” said Muscarello, who is now 62, retired and living in Indian Trail just outside of Charlotte. “I guess I’m the answer to the trivia question of ‘Who stopped interviews with fans in football stadiums?’”
Maybe you don’t remember this. Maybe you do. But on the 10-year anniversary of the moment, it’s worth another look.
Muscarello has given up his season tickets now and only goes to about one Panthers game a year, although he still considers himself a fan of the team. But back then he billed himself as the “Carolina Prowler” and went to every home game. He liked to wear a furry black outfit to games. His homemade getup included huge black paws and sometimes a miniature panther perched on each shoulder like a parrot.
The Panthers used to select a “Fan of the Game.” During a timeout, they would let the fan say something very briefly on a microphone held by a Panthers staff member.
With Carolina up 20-14 in the fourth quarter and possession of the ball, Muscarello was selected as the “Fan of the Game.” Muscarello was well aware that Tampa Bay defensive end Simeon Rice had publicly guaranteed a Buccaneers win earlier in the week.
Usually the Panther fan with the microphone would just say “Go Panthers!” and give it back. Not Muscarello. He yelled: “Let me tell you something, Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice. You guaranteed a win. We guarantee we’re going to kick your butt.”
Panthers fans roared supportively. But the taunt – heard by everyone in the stadium – was a shot of caffeine to the Bucs’ defense. Both Sapp and Rice gleefully pointed to the scoreboard, where Muscarello’s picture had just been shown, and started hopping around. Then Rice sacked Jake Delhomme twice in the next three plays.
“Everyone started pointing at me and saying, ‘There’s the guy who said it!’” Muscarello said. “It wasn’t good.”
Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner would say later of Muscarello’s comments: “It was good that he thought that, but he needed to say it with 30 seconds on the clock when we’re up by 10!”
Before long, Carolina had fallen behind, 24-20. And Muscarello – a banking loan specialist during the week – had left his seat. Although he hadn’t been seriously threatened, he had heard some grumbling about “firing up the other team” and feared for his own safety and that of his 9-year-old son Stephen, who was with him, if the Panthers lost.
It all ended well, and Muscarello narrowly escaped being the Panthers’ version of Steve Bartman. Delhomme threw a TD pass to Steve Smith with 1 minute, 6 seconds left and the Panthers won, 27-24. As Delhomme joked of Muscarello later: “I don’t know who he is, but my God! We have racehorses back home. Maybe I can order a muzzle.”
Muscarello said he only did what a lot of fans would at least think about doing in the same situation. “Tampa Bay had disrespected us with the guarantee,” he said. “And I was like, ‘No, you’re not going to come into our house and act like that.’”
After a couple more years, Muscarello mostly stopped dressing up as the Carolina Prowler. At one point in the 1990s he attended the Dom Capers show every week when it was taped before an audience. But he had a falling out with the Panthers over a ticket issue and gave up his PSLs.
Now Muscarello keeps busy helping his wife with her daycare business and also hosts an online talk radio show about Union County high school football. His son Stephen is 19 and a backup kicker for the Charlotte 49ers.
And no Panthers fan ever gets interviewed live on-camera in Bank of America Stadium anymore.
Fowler: email@example.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler