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They're crazy about the Panthers in Denver — Denver, North Carolina, that is

They're crazy about the Panthers in Denver — Denver, North Carolina, that is
Welcome sign in the city of Denver, North Carolina. (Sam Farmer / Los Angeles Times)

Just about everyone in Denver is a huge Carolina Panthers fan.

In fact, if their beloved team stomps its way to victory in Super Bowl 50, this place will be a mile high.

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The actual elevation of this North Carolina town is 902 feet above sea level, and it's 26 miles north of Charlotte, a bedroom community of 13,030 people, the vast majority of whom will spend Sunday rooting hard for their Panthers against Peyton Manning and that team from out west.

"I don't think you're going to find too many Denver Broncos fans out here," said Mark Shanklin, who teaches government and civics classes at East Lincoln High. "We're pretty Panthers crazy."

Funny, though, because the East Lincoln mascot is the Mustangs, and the school's logo is almost identical to the Broncos' sleek horse head, except the school's colors are green and orange instead of blue and orange. Schools are allowed to use those logos without violating copyright laws.

"Obviously, you get comparisons when your logo's a little bit like the Broncos'," said East Lincoln football Coach Mike Byus, understating the similarity by using "little bit."

"In this community, everybody knows what our logo is. But when you get outside the community, then you get the questions: 'Oh, are you a Broncos fan?' We might be in Denver, but it's Denver of the East. You're going to find 99% whipped-up, crazy Panthers fans."

This town might be in the heart of Tobacco Road basketball country, but football is huge here. The Mustangs have won 127 games and two state championships in 11 seasons under Byus, and they have the Gatorade and Associated Press state player of the year in Chazz Surratt, a 6-foot-3, dual-threat quarterback who will play at North Carolina, having turned down offers from Duke, Boston College, Clemson, Tennessee and several others.

"We've had a good run of kids," Byus said.

Until the late 1800s, the area now known as Denver used to be called Dry Pond, a reference to the small pond near the corner of Highway 16 and Campground Road that would evaporate into a muddy marsh each summer. In 1873, the headmaster of the local Rock Springs Academy led an effort to rename the town Denver to make it sound more cosmopolitan to attract a railroad spur. The railroad never came, but the name stuck.

On the edge of town, there's an elaborately carved wooden sign that reads Denver "of the East" and features a sailboat on a lake and two towering pine trees. Denver's most famous resident is NASCAR driver Kyle Busch, but there are lots of Panthers season-ticket holders who make the half-hour drive south for eight Sundays each fall.

At East Lincoln, Principal Samantha Campbell has scheduled a spirit day Friday, when students can wear their Panthers hats, jerseys and face paint to school. Some girls will wear blue tutus over leggings to show their support.

"I said we should go ahead and plan a spirit day for Monday after the Super Bowl too," said Campbell, showing unflinching confidence in her team, which is favored by six points over the Broncos.

Michael Bryant, who owns Sports Page Food & Spirits in Denver, is among the lucky ones making the cross-country trip to Santa Clara to see Super Bowl 50 in person. He was there in Houston 12 years ago and witnessed the Panthers' 32-29 defeat by New England in Super Bowl XXXVIII. His bar is filled with Panthers memorabilia — except for the prominently displayed Mustangs helmet that makes out-of-towners do a double-take.

"This town is 99% Panthers fans," Byus said.

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But there's a nasty rumor making the rounds. There are rumblings that Byus might like the Broncos.

"I think everybody has respect and appreciation for Peyton Manning," the coach conceded, before quickly adding: "Cam Newton is gaining that same respect year after year as he plays."

Truth be told, for Byus, the jury is still out.

"I told somebody, I'm going to turn it on and the first team that starts talking trash, I'm going to root for the other team,'" he said. "First five minutes you'll be able to tell."

Peyton or Cam?

This town's not big enough for both of them.

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer

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