More than 2,000 people joined spur-of-the-moment downtown parade to party with football team
By Calvin Nuttall
Brimming with elation, Bay Area Panthers fans lined the sides of Depot Street for a spur-of-the-moment jubilant parade. More than 2,000 people cheered on the Morgan Hill-based team basking in victory as Indoor Football League national champions.
Fans young and old thronged the downtown area Friday, Aug. 11, in a display of loud adoration for the team’s players, coaches, and staff who rode in classic cars and souped-up trucks toward the Morgan Hill Community Center’s plaza. The Panthers won the championship title after an electrifying 51-41 win against the Sioux Falls Storm Aug. 5 in Henderson, Nev.
Diehard fan James “Fletch” Fletcher stood with his family outside MOHI Farm cheering on the team while holding a hand-made “Panthers Power” sign showing photos of the players and coaches. The four Fletchers, including Vivian, Donna and Roman, were bedecked in Panthers-branded jerseys and sported foam fingers with the big cat’s shape.
Fletcher said they could not be more excited to have a professional football team representing the South Valley. They had supported the San Jose Sabercats until that Arena Football League team closed in 2015.
“After the Sabercats folded, we went through a long period of having no team,” he said. “When we heard Marshawn Lynch bought the team we went to their first game, and we were hooked. Even losing those first games, it still didn’t deter us. Compared to last year, this season was night and day. They’re right up there with the elite now.”
Gilroy resident Bill Alger followed the team since its inception. He’s recognizable at Panthers games for the colorful red-and-blue Viking felt hat he wears religiously. He has even been seen at non-Panthers related events and by the players themselves, with or without the hat.
“I think the Panthers being here means a lot for the South Valley,” Alger said. “How many teams do you know where a fan can walk up to the players and they’ll say, ‘Hey Bill!’? They have a fan-base here. If you were at their games last year, there were maybe two or three thousand people. This year, I would guess six or seven thousand. It’s catching on, and they’re winning!”
Since the team moved to Morgan Hill in March and began practice at the Outdoor Sports Center, the people of South Valley have rallied around their champions, welcoming them into the community. The feeling of friendship is mutual from the players. The team has engaged actively with the community and local students, building relationships with businesses and thriving with the support of organizations.
The path to triumph wasn’t without its hurdles. The Panthers won 13 games and had five losses. Home games were played at SAP Center in San Jose.
“The community’s support is unreal,” said quarterback Dalton Sneed, selected Most Valuable Player. He pointed at the raucous festivities at the community center following the parade. “Morgan Hill really comes out and supports its athletes. It has been a long road since March, but after a lot of work put in, it’s so rewarding.”
The Downtown Amphitheater stage was crowded with players, coaches and local dignitaries such as city council members dancing and posing for photos during the celebration. Around the stage, people danced to the music while enjoying the moment.
“We’ve really tried to develop those relationships in the community,” Sneed said. “For them to come out and support us on game nights, and especially with the parade, is super cool. We’re celebrating the successes of not just the team, but the community.”
Other players shared his sentiment.
“I love it out here,” said defensive back William Atkins, originally from Minneapolis. “It’s been a blessing that the city of Morgan Hill brought us in and allowed us to be ourselves and play the game we love. It’s a beautiful city.”
Among the community leaders who rallied to support the Panthers is Morgan Hill Downtown Association President David Dindak. He sang the team’s praises among the revelers.
“This is a community that has come together to support this team, and it just rocks,” he said. “They would not get this in another city. We have all come together in support of these guys. They love being here. They walk the streets. They come to our restaurants. They put us on the map. We are now nationally known in the IFL thanks to them. And they’re champions!”
After its unsuccessful inauguration season last year, the Panthers have quickly built up a following since moving to Morgan Hill. Returning fans were joined by fresh faces as the Panthers began stacking wins and gaining notoriety, building to a crescendo with their championship victory.
Despite the outpouring of love from the community for their team, the Panthers’ future in South Valley remains uncertain. A month before they became national champions, owners Roy Choi and Marshawn Lynch announced a joint strategic venture with the PIVOT Agency to lead a request for proposals seeking a new home for the team. Possible sites include Oakland, Sacramento, San Jose, and Stockton.
“It’s no secret that we have an RFP (request for proposal) out there,” Choi said. “But it’s also no secret that I want to stay. Ultimately, we’re just one big sponsor away from staying in Morgan Hill. If we could get a big title sponsor to say, ‘Hey, this is our team and we’re keeping them here,’ that’s what we need. The mayor and city have been very supportive, making introductions and doing their best to keep us here.”
In a July 10 press release, PIVOT Agency CEO Ben Shapiro said he expects the RFP will be successful in finding another home for the Panthers.
“In order to ensure the long-term success of this organization, we need to find the right community, the right local business support, and compile data that illustrates the potential for sustained success,” Shapiro said. “I’m confident PIVOT will make this happen.”
Fans at the celebration remained hopeful the city’s hospitality coupled with their championship win will convince the team to stay. Mayor Mark Turner took to the stage during the celebrations to plead the case in favor of the Panthers remaining.
“These players came from all over the country, but their home is Morgan Hill,” he said. “This is where we want them to stay. While they may leave after the season, we’re looking forward to them coming back and winning us another championship next year.”
The Fletcher family expressed disbelief at the possibility of the team leaving Morgan Hill, holding faith the love of the community and strength of its support would win out over the interests of business.
“Roy Choi has a good heart, and we’re hoping he’ll keep them here. He’s a stand-up guy,” Fletcher said. “This is already a basis and a foundation that, to start from scratch again somewhere else, is not going to be there. With this championship, they’ve proved to everyone it is a winning combination.”
Regardless if the Panthers remain in Morgan Hill, Choi said he believes the 2023 season’s experience proved beneficial for the team and the community. He expressed gratitude for the amount of attention, support, and appreciation his team received for residents.
“I think it has been an amazing partnership,” he said. “I know that, for us, we got more than we expected out of it. I hope Morgan Hill feels the same way. The city has been really warm. I couldn’t have imagined this at the beginning of the season. Our players are just ecstatic right now, and I’m so proud of them.”
Calvin Nuttall is a Morgan Hill-based freelance writer.