CHARLOTTE, NC (Joe DePriest/The Charlotte Observer) - When embattled Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy showed up outside the team's practice field Saturday morning, several fans let him know how much they believed in the player, who was convicted in July of assaulting his ex-girlfriend and threatening to kill her.
They held signs with messages such as "Domestic violence goes both ways." Another sign had #supportthekraken, referring to Hardy's alter ego on the field.
They were more than 50 fans on hand for an annual gathering the day before the Panthers' first home game, wherein fans prepare a meal and invite the team to stop by after practice.
As Hardy walked by, he smiled and raised both arms in appreciation. No one apparently made a negative comment.
In July, a judge found Hardy guilty of assaulting a female and communicating threats in connection with a May 13 confrontation with his former girlfriend, Nicole Holder. She testified that Hardy threw her on a couch filled with guns and also put his hands around her neck.
Hardy said he never hurt Holder, that any wounds she received that night were self-inflicted and that she threatened to kill herself. He appealed the verdict, which means that despite the convictions he is considered not guilty. His jury trial is set for Nov. 17.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera has said Hardy will play Sunday against Detroit.
"I think they ought to keep him until the November jury trial and see what happens," said Charlene Clarke, 30, of Mooresville. "The biggest thing is a fair trial. We don't think he's guilty."
On Saturday, Panthers fans talked about how the NFL has been criticized for its handling of the case of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, shown in a video punching his then-fiancee in the face. Rice received an indefinite suspension from the NFL. Also, star Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was indicted Friday by a grand jury for using a branch to spank his 4-year-old son.
For Bryan Clarke, Hardy's case is different from the others. "Everything I hear it sounds like self-defense," he said. "It can't be compared to the Ray Rice thing."
But Clarke thinks the Rice case has been "badly mishandled" and that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell should go.
Clarke takes Panthers football very seriously.
"We go to every game," he said. "We live and die for the Panthers."
Danny Dickerson also thinks its wrong to compare Hardy with the Rice case. "Everybody's jumping on the bandwagon," said Dickerson, 50, of Jacksonville. "We need to wait and see if the man's guilty before we say he shouldn't be playing. Greg's a super guy."
Dickerson spoke with many of those at Saturday's event and said they all supported Hardy.
As the Panthers walked to the practice field, several eyed the meal prepared by fans, including Dickerson, who manned the grill. The fare included brats, corn on the cob, macaroni and cheese, pasta salad, sauteed onions and peppers, and cakes.
"Each player has got his own cupcake," Dickerson said.
Calling herself a "huge Panther fan," Loretta To also backed Hardy.
"Let the judicial system find out what the real things are," said To, 40, of Atlanta. "This shouldn't be compared to Rice. It's two different situations."
A native of Hong Kong, To came to the U.S. at age 15 knowing little about football except the Super Bowl highlights she'd seen on TV. As a student at UNC Charlotte, she became a die-hard Panthers fan.
She hopes team owner Jerry Richardson and coach Rivera will "do the right thing" and let Hardy play the entire season.
As for Goodell, she thinks he should get the ax for mishandling the Rice case.