A Denver Broncos fan and a Carolina Panthers fan met at a bar in Baltimore last weekend — not to talk trash, but to talk about their fandom in a town that bleeds purple.
With Super Bowl 50 just days away, Broncos fan Rick Smith and Panthers fan Mark Driscoll had to get serious about planning a potential tailgate. This year, both of their teams are going to the championship.
Smith, 32, of Laurel and Driscoll, 34, of Crofton both run local fan clubs for the NFL teams. The two started their respective clubs this season after more than five years of membership with football fan clubs in Washington, D.C.
Once the Super Bowl contenders were announced, Driscoll reached out to Smith over Facebook, intrigued by the coincidence.
"Here we are at the Super Bowl — two teams from opposite ends of the country," Driscoll said.
In Baltimore, fans of both teams are easily outnumbered by Baltimore Ravens and even Washington Redskins fans. But the presence of Broncos and Panthers fans is steadily growing, according to the fan club leaders.
Smith, head of the Denver Broncos Fan Club-Baltimore Chapter, started game meet-ups in week two of the season, recruiting through Meetup.com and Facebook.
He grew up in North Carolina and said he became a Broncos fan before the Panthers became a team in 1995.
"I enjoyed the Panthers, too, but ever since I was little, Broncos had my heart," Smith said.
Within a month of creating his Facebook group, Smith said he had around 30 members. Today, the group has 116 members, though Smith counts 300-plus fans in and around the area. Most are from Colorado and the Midwest, but some are Maryland-bred fans, many who followed hall of famer John Elway, who was drafted to the Baltimore Colts in 1983 but didn't play until he was traded to the Broncos shortly after.
"Everybody is so excited and so exuberant and so passionate," he said of the Baltimore chapter. "I didn't think it would be this big in a year, but they bring the hype every weekend."
The Denver Broncos gave the club paraphernalia that was used for raffles and giveaways at viewings. MaGerk's Pub and Grill in Federal Hill offers them their own room on game days.
And though it's confusing to see a large group of Broncos fans in Baltimore, Smith said the response to the orange and navy has improved, particularly in light of their resounding win at the AFC Championship game Jan. 24.
"I think we're getting a lot more respect, especially after we beat the [New England] Patriots because the only people who like Patriots are Patriots fans," Smith said. "We also beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, so everybody's kind of been nicer to us, and has enjoyed our company a lot more."
The Broncos fans will also host their pregame and Super Bowl party, The Underdog Bowl, at MaGerk's starting at 5 p.m. Sunday with the top floor designated for the 60-plus Broncos fans planning to attend. They will prep with an open bar, food and a DJ, and will film their experience on a Dropcam, allowing them to share their reactions on the official Broncos website with other fans around the country.
"We are the underdogs," Smith said. "Our offense has been garbage all year and defense has been carrying the team. I'm confident that we can win this game. Carolina is going to be tough, but we did well against everybody we played."
While many members of the Broncos fan club will settle in Federal Hill for game day, some will, at Driscoll's invitation, head to Tin Roof at Power Plant Live to celebrate with Charm City Riot, the Baltimore chapter of Panthers fans.
Driscoll, who also oversees 42 Panthers fan clubs nationally, including the Baltimore chapter, grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, and first fell in love with the Panthers during their inaugural season in '95.
"I loved the fact that they went with the panther and [their uniforms] had pretty colors, and it was just a real fun experience throughout the season," said Driscoll, an emergency medical technician in Baltimore.
As a Panthers fan, Driscoll is often in the minority, but — given the team's previous disappointing seasons — an inconspicuous one.
"The response has often been, 'That's cute, you're a Panthers fans,' — so not a lot of heat. It's been pretty enjoyable," Driscoll said — even with the controversy surrounding Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
Newton has been criticized and called arrogant by football fans for his exuberant dance moves and animated behavior on the field. Some speculate that the negative attention he has received is because he is black.
Driscoll said he admires Newton's response and focus on the game despite the backlash.
"I think he's summed it up pretty well without getting into the racial aspect of it. No matter what race he is, he is something that the NFL has never seen before," Driscoll said.
"And at the end of the day, he'll be the one wearing the rings, right?"
Charm City Riot has around 30 members in the Baltimore area, most who relocated from North or South Carolina. They gather at Tin Roof to watch the Panthers play on a 10-foot HD screen.
"It's about getting like-minded people together to celebrate the good times," Driscoll said.
Charm City Riot will host its Super Bowl party at Tin Roof, starting with a tailgate at 3 p.m. with drink specials, cornhole, local musician Chris Diller and temporary tattoos for tiny fans. Driscoll expects more than 100 fans to attend.
And though most members of the opposing fan clubs will tailgate separately and "yell at each other from afar" during the Super Bowl showdown, Driscoll said he and Smith are happy to connect with fellow football fans.
"It's rewarding just getting together as a group and finding just a genuinely good group to cheer with in a respectful and positive manner and not just sit around and trash talk," said Driscoll.
But there's no harm in a little competition.
The Panthers' first and last appearance in the Super Bowl was in 2004 against the Patriots, which they lost, 29-32. The Broncos have played in seven Super Bowls, winning two consecutive games, in 1998 against the Green Bay Packers and in 1999 against the Atlanta Falcons. Most recently, the team was defeated by the Seattle Seahawks by 35 points in Super Bowl 48 in 2014.
"We got embarrassed in front of the whole world ... We don't have a pretty record. Hopefully, we win and Peyton Manning can go on with his life," Smith said, regarding the rumors swirling about Broncos quarterback Manning's possible retirement announcement. "I know Broncos can do this. I'm trying to stay positive"
Smith predicted that Broncos will beat the Panthers 24 to 21. Driscoll said he didn't even "know where to begin with a prediction."
"It's so overwhelming. I personally believe that the Panthers will win. I don't think it's going to be a close game," Driscoll said, before deciding on a 31 to 17 score, Panthers' win.