CHARLOTTE, N.C. (CHARLOTTE SPORTS LIVE) — Wesley Walls can only smile when he hears that the Panthers are the heavy underdogs this week against the Dallas Cowboys. It’s a storyline the former Carolina tight end has heard before.
“You look back at the history,” Walls said. “We’ve had some big games against [the] Cowboys.”
But arguably none were bigger than the one Walls played in on January 5, 1997, here in Charlotte. It was the Panthers’ first-ever playoff game, and standing in their way in an NFC Divisional showdown was the team of the 90s, a team just a year removed from their third Super Bowl Championship that decade.
“You just felt how important [it was]. How big this game was for us,” Walls said.
Walls admits he and some of his teammates were intimidated by guys like Emmitt Smith and Troy Aikman. Fortunately, though, on Carolina’s roster was one future hall-of-fame linebacker who was not.
“I can remember during the week. [Teammate] Kevin Greene had that wrestling voice. He was a part-time wrestler. [He would yell] ‘It’s mano vs mano. I’m going to take my man and whip my man’s [censored]!’”
That was the tone Carolina took into battle. That and a belief that they could overcome anything, even an early turnover against America’s team.
“We got the ball back, then went down the field and got that touchdown,” Walls said. “I think we started believing in ourselves even more.”
Before long, including a touchdown catch from Walls, the Panthers were up 14-3 and it felt like they were getting all the breaks. But even with Michael Irvin and Deon Sanders suffering injuries, Dallas refused to go down without a fight and, by third, trailed only by 3, 17-14.
However, late in the fourth quarter, after a couple of field goals, Carolina had regained control again. A victory was now within reach, and fittingly, it was the defense that went out and grabbed it.
“The whole year, our defense, they were our team. We won when they won,” Walls says, reflecting on the Sam Mills interception that sealed it.
Never mind the fact that the Panthers were technically the higher seed; by winning 26-17, it still felt like they had done the impossible. This little franchise, only in its second year, had defied the odds.
“I think we went into the locker room after [the] game and we came back out onto the field and not a single fan had left. We did a lap around the stadium and just high-fived everybody. I’m getting chill bumps talking about it now.”
It was a total team effort. Something Walls says the Panthers will need again for an upset to happen this year. Don’t think they can do it?
Just remember, they said the same thing almost 27 years ago.
“This team reminds me a little bit of the Panthers back in 96,” Walls said.