Patrick Collins grew up in Alabama and has never set foot inside Bank of America Stadium, but he can recite the history and statistics of the Carolina Panthers as well as anyone.
He has been a devout fan since the team's first day.
He was 11 then. Collins is 23 now and in the Army, having joined after he graduated from high school in Hartselle, Ala. Before shipping out for Afghanistan in 2004, he gave his mother, Heather, a cat he named "Sir Purr."
When deployed, he tracked the Panthers online.
Yet the closest he had gotten to a live Panther was in the bleachers at a Pro Bowl in Hawaii, where he's stationed.
Now, two months before deploying for a second overseas stint in Iraq, Collins is training at Fort Jackson in Columbia — a mere 90 miles from his team's training camp at Wofford College.
And Saturday, he drove up to Spartanburg, S.C., and was in Panthers heaven.
"This is awesome. I never thought I'd be so close to my team," Collins said, standing in a persistent drizzle as the team went through drills. "I was always content seeing them on TV, or tracking them online. I thought I'd have to get out of the Army — or get stationed in North Carolina — and make a special trip before I saw them."
He and an Army buddy took a couple of wrong turns Saturday and arrived late, missing a few drills. But once there, they began reeling off names as Collins got his first close-up view of the newest version of the Panthers.
One Panther, Taye Biddle, is from Collins' home county (Morgan County), and he carried a sign with Biddle's name hoping to catch the receiver's attention.
He stood along a fence with throngs of other fans to get Panthers autographs.
"With the rain, I can't believe there are so many fans here," he said. "A lot of other teams wouldn't have so many faithful fans."
His allegiance came out of nowhere.
As a boy, his mother cheered for the Buffalo Bills. He did, too, but wanted his own team.
Young Patrick liked the panther, the animal. Then the Panthers acquired Frank Reich, the team's first starting quarterback and a longtime backup for the Bills.
During the Panthers' first season, the Collins family took a vacation to Walt Disney World.
"Of all the things we could have bought him there, he wanted a Panthers cap," said father Don Collins. "He's been crazy about them ever since."
In fifth grade, he wore a Kerry Collins jersey, and watched the team on television.
In Hawaii, he has watched games with other Panthers fans and went to a Pro Bowl in hopes of getting autographs from Panthers. But by the time he made it out of the stands, the Panthers players were gone. He did get his photo snapped with the real Sir Purr, the team's mascot.
Collins served as a paralegal in a Judge Advocate General unit in Afghanistan. When he was ordered to Fort Jackson to train as a human resources specialist, he looked at the Panthers Web site for the training camp schedule and realized he could see them up close.
On his first furlough, he and a friend drove to Myrtle Beach, S.C., but took an odd route through Charlotte so he could see the stadium. His friend snapped a photo of him with one of the panther sculptures.
He ships out in the fall for 15 months in Iraq.
"It's a dream come true being around these guys," he said. "It will ease my time in Iraq. We won't deploy until midway during the season — but I'll be tracking them from over there."
And Sunday, he and his pal plan to be back at Wofford and close to his team.
(c) 2007, The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.).
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