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The only Carolina Panther to get a Madden cover is some guy you've never heard of
Cam Newton once had a shot to be featured on the front of the biggest NFL video game. But the first Panther to get the honor never actually made the regular season roster.
We’ll get to the small piece of Panthers trivia in a moment. But first, here is a depiction of my emotions on Sunday.
When I heard the news that Carolina was re-signing the best quarterback in its history, I thought: Okay! Sure! Why the hell not. I had low, rational expectations. After all, Newton is 32 now. This is a different Panthers team. It’ll be fun, but don’t tie your hopes and dreams to this.
Then I watched Panthers stomp the Arizona Cardinals 34-10 in game where Cam Newton played a small but crucial role, and I’m like SQUEEEEEEEE WE’RE GOING TO THE SUPER BOWL!!!
Yes, Cam Newton is back. No, you can’t dab again.
I am not in the right state of mind to write a smart, nuanced Cam Newton take—currently, any insight would just be “YAAAAAAY” repeated many, many times. However! This being the Rabbit Hole, I do want to go off on a slightly Cam-related historical tangent and push an old story back out on the internet.
In June 2014, when Newton was near the peak of his powers, he was in the running to grace the cover of Madden, the legendary NFL video game franchise. He ended up losing out to then-Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman. But, when I researched it a little more, I discovered that even if Cam had won the honor, he wouldn’t have been the first Panther to make the cover. Nope, the first was… whoever this guy is:
Seriously, you look at that picture and try to figure it out.
Well, I guess I’m bragging here: I figured it out fairly quickly, given the surprisingly high degree of difficulty. Madden 96 was released on November 30, 1995. The only time the Panthers and Jaguars played before that date was, well, the first time both teams had played anybody. Both were brand new expansion teams, and both played in the preseason Hall of Fame Game in July 1995. It made sense that EA Sports might want to feature them on the cover of its upcoming video game.
But, as you can see, all you have to go on is the jersey number: 40. In 1995, a cornerback named Pat Terrell wore number 40 for the Panthers. But it’s not him on the cover because, to be blunt, Terrell is Black, and the man on the cover is white. Plus, if you REALLY squint, you can see three letters from the nameplate: “HAM.”
I enlisted Darin Gantt to help. Gantt, an amateur Charlotte Olympics enthusiast, has covered the Panthers for a very long time, and we both tried to find some piece of media flotsam from that game that might have roster numbers on it. That was surprisingly hard—Regular season statistics and box scores are easy to find, but there’s practically nothing online from the 1995 preseason. We batted ideas and names back and forth (Frank Stams! Steve Hawkins!) before, somehow, I got a flip card from the 1995 Hall of Fame Game, played on July 29, 1995. That’s when I we saw a name and number that lined up: Cary Brabham.
It took about an hour-and-a-half to figure it out. Ten minutes after Darin and I cracked the case, I tracked down Brabham in Texas and had him on the phone. “Yeah, that’s me,” he said:
“I wore number 40, and someone from the Jacksonville Jaguars (RB Gordon Laro) wore number 40,” Brabham says, “and obviously there was a picture taken where both of the numbers were in a play together.” Brabham played safety at Southern Methodist, but thinks he might have been playing special teams that day. “Typically, I was probably a second or third string guy,” Braham said. He doesn’t remember much of the game, but thinks the picture came from a running play in the second half.
That picture ended up on the cover of Madden 96.
Less than a month after that picture was taken, the Panthers cut Brabham. He’d played 7 games for the Raiders the season before, and ended up signing with the Packers after the Panthers released him. But Brabham injured his groin, took an injury settlement, and decided he was done with football. Brabham moved back to Dallas and ended up running a wholesale company that sold kids’ lighting fixtures to big retailers. He had no idea that the picture on the cover of Madden was him until after the game came out.
“I didn’t even know it at the time,” Brabham says. “It was probably a year later, and I was in a store, and go, ‘Wow. Look, there I am.” Maybe it was a few years later, he says. Maybe his kids pointed it out to him. “It was a surprise to me at the time,” he says, laughing. “I didn’t play many video games.”
It’s really not fair to compare Brabham to the modern crop of athletes who grace the Madden cover, or the hype that goes along with it. Until 2000, John Madden himself graced the cover before athletes themselves got the real estate exclusively. But he was proud of it, even though nobody ever recognizes him for it. Brabham has passed on the football gene: His son committed to play tight end at Harvard (although it looks like he never made the team and instead graduated and went on to Harvard Medical School). And in a small but unexpected plot twist: Cary Brabham became a ref!
Funny thing is, a lot of players don’t want to be on the cover of that video game. They call it the Madden Curse, and it so holds that whoever ends up having their picture on that year’s edition will go on to have a crappy year. I asked Brabham if he believed in the curse. “What is it?” he said.
That’s all for today. Thanks for your support of the Rabbit Hole and, please, feel free to leave your most irrational and unhinged Panthers takes in the comments.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that the 1995 Hall of Fame Game took place on August 12. Thanks to Ed Lawing for pointing that out and claiming this week’s Typo Bounty.