It used to be one of my go-to conversation starters, whether I was holding my carry-on in a Midwestern airport or waiting for a lunch order at a West Coast taco truck. If I saw someone wearing a Carolina Panthers t-shirt, I'd always ask "So what part of North Carolina are you from?" The answer was typically a town that was, like, three Cracker Barrels from my own.
Well, it was until Cam Newton changed all of that. Lately, when I see teal-tipped jerseys, they're on the backs of newly-minted Panthers fans or - even more likely - new fans of Newton himself. And we're probably not neighbors.
Newton heads into his second season surprisingly close to superstar status, if he isn't there already. According to Forbes, Newton's is the No. 9 best-selling NFL jersey, right between Tom Brady and Troy Polamalu. He shows up during commercial breaks, sweating through his Under Armour and pounding cartons of Gatorade afterward. He's flashed an orthodontically perfect smile on magazine covers and has scored a GQ photo spread (and only the finest quarterbacks are photographed in the season's softest cable knits, so don't even stretch that over your big dumb head, Kevin Kolb).
He's also the first legit leading man to come out of one of the mid-'90s expansion franchises, Carolina and Jacksonville. (I don't count that team that Art Modell boxed up and shipped 375 miles to Baltimore as an expansion team. Since joining the league in 1995, the Panthers have one Super Bowl appearance but have had zero back-to-back winning seasons. They've been around the same amount of time as the Backstreet Boys, but have significantly less hardware to show for it.
Until Nike put "Newton" above a No. 1, the word seen most frequently on the back of a Carolina jersey was a bright orange "CLEARANCE" sticker. With some exceptions (cover your ears, Julius Peppers and Steve Smith) the Panthers' roster has been stocked with prospects who didn't pan out or last-gasp veterans who showed up in Charlotte to see if they still had anything to offer, like moving a worn piece of furniture to a different room in your house before you eventually dump it off at Goodwill. Rodney Peete and Vinny Testeverde are your old sofas.
The biggest of big names to come out of a small market has to be Peyton Manning, whose rookie records now have Newton's Under Armour-sponsored cleat marks all over them.
He bettered Manning in completion percentage, total yards, yards per game and total touchdowns, setting all-time rookie marks for yards (4,051), combined TDs (21 passing, 14 rushing) and earning a trip to the Pro Bowl. He also pushed Carolina's offense from last place in total offense in 2010 to seventh in the league last year, a difference worth 2,102 yards, 201 points and four more wins.
So if Newton becomes the NFL's next big man on Cam-pus, it's largely through his own abilities, appeal and charisma (and his cheese-grater sharp cheekbones don't hurt either.) After being drafted, he didn't walk off the Radio City stage and into the arms of a built-in fan base, one that covers the country like a 3G coverage map. Charlotte has been known for NASCAR than its football, although "guys going around in circles all afternoon" could describe either the Coca-Cola 600 or Carolina's pre-Newton offense.
But still: Manning had his daddy's legacy and last name to work with.
Drew Brees unpacked his U-Haul in New Orleans - the NFL's second smallest market - when the country was focusing its attention on the hurricane-ravaged city in the hopes that he could help it heal. (He could. He did.)
And Green Bay might be the NFL's smallest stop, but players from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers have gotten a boost from standing on Vince Lombardi's shoulders. There's more than 80 years of history stacked on top of that frozen tundra.
Carolina will be playing beneath a new logo this year, but the real face of that franchise wasn't tweaked by a team of graphic designers. The Panthers' front office knows it, the players know it and the Associated Press knows it.
Newton is building an identity by giving the Panthers one, and what he's capable of doing on the field will only give him more opportunities off of it, whether that's slamming sports drinks in computer-generated fog, wrapping himself in cashmere on a magazine cover or out-Manning-ing Peyton Manning.
But whatever he does, we'll be watching.
Jelisa Castrodale has learned a lot about life by making a mess of her own. Read more at jelisacastrodale.com, follow her on twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/gordonshumway, or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org