CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- During the early days of Carolina Panthers football, players argued over what movies to watch on the long game-day bus rides to Clemson University.
That was 1995, when the focus was on football, fun and friendships.
Nothing has been the same since.
"The 1995 season was so much fun, it was almost out of a movie," said kicker John Kasay, the only original Panther still on the roster. "We had beer truck drivers on the team, guys who had been teaching school, just a whole mix of players wanting a chance to play in the NFL.
"It was a great group of guys and all the different personalities made some special memories. It was a long time ago."
It sure seems like a lifetime ago.
In the seven years since the Panthers debut, they've been to both the top and the bottom of the NFL. They reached the NFC Championship game in just their second season of existence, then suffered the humiliation of a series of off-field problems and seasons of losing - they set an NFL record last season by losing 15-straight games.
Kerry Collins, the franchise's first-ever draft pick and a celebrity in small-town Charlotte, went into the office of then-coach Dom Capers and basically quit, saying his heart wasn't into football anymore.
Rae Carruth, another first-round draft pick, was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder after hit men shot and killed his pregnant girlfriend.
Fred Lane, the franchise's all-time leading rusher, was shot to death by his wife in his Charlotte home. She is awaiting trial on murder charges, as well as separate charges of bank robbery.
Lane had been traded to Indianapolis weeks before his murder, partly because he'd been arrested on gun charges. After the Carruth case, the Panthers were desperate to clean up their image.
"I think any time there is an off-the-field conduct issue, it hurts the NFL and, of course, it hurts the individual team," said owner Jerry Richardson. "In our case, we have so many outstanding players that do such a great job, it is just unfortunate that some things happened to reflect poorly on the organization or the NFL."
Of the nine first-round draft picks they've selected over the years, only two are still on the roster. Linebacker Dan Morgan, taken last season, and defensive end Julius Peppers, picked in April, will both start this year. Rashard Anderson, taken in the first round of the 2000 draft, is suspended by the NFL this season for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
"Wow, just two picks left on the roster, now that's a stat," said Sam Mills, who played on Carolina's first three teams and coaches their linebackers. "I guess that says a lot about what's gone wrong here."
Richardson recognizes that.
During that inaugural season, the Panthers had nothing to call their own. They practiced at Winthrop College in South Carolina and traveled by bus for more than two hours to Clemson to play their home games.
The biggest dilemmas facing the players that year was picking what bus to ride on based on whether or not they wanted to eat pizza or chicken, or watch a comedy or a drama.
But Richardson was working hard behind the scenes to field a winner.
Doing that required signing veterans with little left in their playing careers. It helped them get into the NFC title game that second season, but backfired when their playing days ended and the Panthers were left with little talent.
In hindsight, Richardson might have taken a slower route.
"We were under some tough circumstances our first season," he said. "We were approximately 150 miles away from the center of our market when we played in Clemson. As a result, we had a different set of circumstances than Houston, Cleveland, or Jacksonville because they were playing in their markets.
"That set of circumstances probably drove us to be competitive as quickly as we could."
So the Panthers quickly went downhill, finally reaching the bottom last season when they went 1-15 under coach George Seifert. Fans turned away - the rainy season-finale against New England was packed with Patriots fans. Carolina's supporters had been staying home for weeks.
Seifert, who fans complained was too aloof and players said was unapproachable, was fired at the end of the year.
The Panthers hired John Fox, a fiery defensive coordinator who had helped the New York Giants to the Super Bowl in 2001 and is known as a players coach.
The impact was immediate.
Fans lined up along the fence during training camp, waiting patiently for Fox to stop to chat and sign autographs. Every time, he promised to turn things around.
And the players have taken to him, absorbing his tough-guy philosophy. After years of Seifert limiting contact during camp, the Panthers were pleasantly surprised to suit up in full pads on the first day.
It has renewed everyone's energy.
"That 1996 season was something special, I get chill bumps even thinking about it now," said tight end Wesley Walls. "What we're doing now, what we're building, it has the makings of being like that. We're on our way here, I can feel it."
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