CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers had made their wishes clear even before leaving for Houston and Super Bowl XXXVIII several days ago: No Super Bowl title, no celebration.
Several hundred fans broke the deal Monday, waiting patiently at Bank of America Stadium to cheer the team upon its return, even though the Panthers fell short of their goal of winning the Super Bowl.
Carolina lost to the New England Patriots, 32-29, Sunday night in Reliant Stadium in the franchise's first Super Bowl appearance.
Fans screamed and chanted Monday as five team buses rolled into the lot at mid-afternoon, even though most people were too far away to even catch a glimpse of the players. Police had put up barriers to keep the crowd confined to a grassy section of stadium property far away from the players' entrance.
Coach John Fox, receivers Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad, and running back Stephen Davis made their way over to the crowd on golf carts.
"We're real, real proud of this football team," Fox said into a microphone. "We're obviously disappointed, but we're not embarrassed or ashamed."
Muhammad worked the crowd into a frenzy, thanking the fans for their season-long support and encouraging them to look forward to next season.
Muhammad and Brentson Buckner each said the team was going back to the Super Bowl next year.
"You guys just get ready because we're going to rock and roll next season," Muhammad shouted. "Make your reservations now for Jacksonville because we'll be there in the Super Bowl next year."
Several other players eventually wandered over to the crowd, including receiver Ricky Proehl, running back DeShaun Foster, defensive end Julius Peppers and linebacker Mark Fields, who missed the entire season while battling cancer.
Buckner seconded Muhammad's promise.
"We came up short this year, but we guarantee you we'll be going to Jacksonville next year, and we're bringing back the trophy," he said.
The loudest cheer went to quarterback Jake Delhomme, who could barely be heard over the chants of "Jake! Jake! Jake!"
Cynthia Johnson showed up for the arrival in a Delhomme jersey and a Panthers cowboy hat, and her three young daughters all wore jerseys of their own favorite players.
"I think the Panthers rule, and it doesn't matter that they lost," said 8-year-old Sonny Johnson, wearing a Mike Minter jersey. "They are still champions to us."
Chad and Jennifer Melvin spent $2,800 each to go to the game in Houston, arriving back in Charlotte early Monday with just enough time to pick up their dog and head over to the stadium.
But before getting out of the car, Jennifer Melvin forced her dog, Skyler, into a matching Peppers jersey just like the ones she and her husband were wearing.
"We didn't even think we'd come over here," Chad Melvin said. "But we saw all the cars, and we had Skyler in his Super Bowl jersey, so we came on out to thank the Panthers for an amazing game and an amazing season."