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Rivera Helps Spark Passion for Panthers Among Charlotte Latinos

rivera_exhibit_at_levine.jpg
Michael Tomsic
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This Sunday when the Carolina Panthers play the Denver Broncos, Panthers' coach Ron Rivera will become the second Latino head coach in Super Bowl history. It's one reason many in Charlotte's Latino community are all about American football right now.

J.C. Alvarado has a story he loves to tell about Ron Rivera.

Alvarado was born in Ecuador. He still has family there, and when a nephew came to Charlotte to visit in 2014, they went to Panthers practice.

“Ron Rivera came out, and I just shouted, 'Hey Ron! I have an international visitor here for you!'” Alvarado says. “He actually stopped and came to us. We were shocked. I didn't know what to say!”

Star-struck, Alvarado explained where he’s from and that his nephew is a big fan.

“They started talking a little bit of Spanglish here and there, and he was very down to Earth,” Alvarado says. “I was just amazed how nice he was.”

Alvarado says there are several reasons the Panthers are popular among Latinos, but Rivera is a key one.

Right now, you can hear him hype up his team in a museum.

At the Levine Museum of the New South, Rivera is part of an exhibit on how Latinos are changing the South, and vice versa. Rivera’s dad is Puerto Rican and his mom is Mexican.

“Growing up, one of my role models was my uncle, who’s half Mexican and half Filipino,” Rivera says in a museum video. “Culturally, to be accepted, my uncles all grew up playing football and baseball and basketball.”

Rivera says he loved football. He played in college and the pros, including for the Chicago Bears’ iconic 1985 championship team. In 2011, the Carolina Panthers made him the third Latino head coach in NFL history.

The museum’s Oliver Merino says Rivera’s story shows how the country is changing.

"You have people who are coming from very different places and finding themselves here in the U.S. and incorporating their culture and their traditions and also embracing new ones," he says.

You can hear that playing out on Charlotte’s Hispanic radio stations. Recently on his sports show, Louis Moreno Sr., better known as El Capitan, talked to callers about how Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly are the pillars of the Panthers' future.

el_capitan_talking_football.jpg
Credit Michael Tomsic
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Luis Moreno Sr. talks to callers on his daily sports radio show.

In years past, most callers wanted to talk soccer. But with the Panthers’ success this season, so many are calling about football that Moreno hears complaints. 

"There's some people that they just like soccer, say you talk too much about football," he says. "I said, well, football is what it is right now. And the people now (are) following football big time."

A local Hispanic paper, Hola Noticias, has also stepped up coverage of the Panthers and their coach in recent years.

Journalist Cesar Hurtado says as the team piles up wins, "our community starts to understand the game, understand the players and starts to love them."

"It's growing," he continues. "You have no idea man. Really, you have no idea. They call us all the time. They want us to publish about the game, about how Cam Newton did. Everything."

And there’s a particular Latino voice that’s become legendary in Charlotte:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PIX2ijRr8lo

That’s the play-by-play announcer from the Panthers’ Spanish broadcast crew, Jaime Moreno. He’s Luis’ brother, and Luis’ son is the color commentator. 

The Morenos call games with colorful language, clever nicknames and the near-heart attack passion of World Cup soccer. When Panthers kicker Graham Gano beat the Indianapolis Colts in overtime this season, their call was euphoric pandemonium.

In Ecuador, their broadcasts are how J.C. Alvarado’s nephew follows the team. Alvarado says all the coverage has helped link the community with the Panthers - and with Coach Rivera. 

"I think he's a role model not only for the Hispanic community but for pretty much every person that wants to aspire to be somebody," Alvarado says. "When he came to the Panthers, the Panthers were an OK team, and he turned it around. Look where they are now, so he's somebody that we're all proud of."

The way Rivera puts it, he’s happy to let people know who he is and where he comes from.  

"I see myself as Latino," he says in the Levine museum video. "I’m very proud of that fact. And it’s funny because people say you’re a minority, you’ve gotten opportunities because you’re a minority. I don’t believe that for one second. I don’t that believe you hire people because of their ethnicity. You hire people because they’re the best."

On Sunday, Rivera and the Panthers will try to become the NFL’s best.