CHARLOTTE -- Following the Carolina Panthers, for most fans, is as easy as turning on the living room TV.
But for those in the military, keeping up with the team takes will and determination.
They stand in long lines to check Internet scores, listen to radio broadcasts in the wee hours of the morning and even brave dangerous territory for the chance to catch a game on satellite.
In return, they say, the Panthers -- who host the third home playoff game in team history Saturday -- give them a sense of identity, a connection to home and family that helps deal with the rigors of military life.
"When you are over there, you strive to maintain a connection to back home," said Army Maj. Dave Jones. "Part of my identity is the Carolina Panthers. They gave me a sense of comfort and made me forget a little about where I was."
Jones, 39, of Morganton, is stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga. He served in Iraq from January 2007 to April 2008, and he remembers doing everything he could to keep up with the team.
As a member of the 3rd Infantry Division, he was stationed in Ramadi, the capital of the Anbar Province. It was a hotbed of al-Qaida activity, which at its worst suffered as many as 35 attacks a day.
He scheduled a meeting at headquarters in Baghdad to coincide with Vinny Testerverde's first start as a Panther on Oct. 14, 2007. It took two flights, forcing him to stay up all night, but Jones was able to watch the game on TV at Camp Victory.
He sat in an 8-by-10 metal conex building with a buddy and watched the game at 9 p.m. The room contained little more than the small TV, a bunk and a locker. Still, it was heaven.
"The Panthers won that game," he said. "It was so worth it."
When service members can't catch the games, a common occurrence given their circumstances, they rely on Internet updates and communication with family and friends back home.
"I don't have the Internet, so I have to stand in line (at a military computer)," said Army Staff Sgt. Michael Looper, a Monroe native in Iraq. "But it's all good. I have to know how they are doing."
Air Force Master Sgt. Beth Epperson is stationed at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, where she tries to catch games on the Armed Forces Network, which uses satellite to broadcast some games to service members.
Epperson became a Panthers fan thanks to her husband, Tim, who is from Charlotte. The family, which includes twin 8-year-old sons William and Curtis, live in Germany.
"When I am not able to view the game, my husband and sons watch the game on NFL.com in Germany and send me updates via e-mail or instant message," she said. "(Tim) also puts the Panthers helmet picture on the address labels of all of my care packages."
Panthers' officials say they are well aware of the bond they share with the team's military fans.
The team visits area military bases, offers preseason tickets to service members and their children and hosts an annual military recognition program called Operation Welcome Home, which provides nine returning service members with a day behind the scenes at Bank of America Stadium.
Participants return for the Panthers Veterans Day tribute game in November and lead the team out of the tunnel into the stadium.
In the past 18 months, three Panthers players visited troops overseas. Punter Jason Baker and safety Chris Harris went to Iraq. Defensive end Mike Rucker visited Afghanistan before he retired in April.
Rucker said the trip opened his eyes to what the team, and the sport of football, means to its fans.
"They could be out on a mission and they might be out there in combat, and when they get some downtime, they will radio back to find out the scores of the games," he said. "All they have is each other over there, and when they are sitting there listening to the games, it might be the thing that helps them make it through the day."
So come Saturday, when the Panthers square off against their first opponent in the 2008 playoffs, Will Perlik will be watching and taking notes.
Perlik, 17, serves as his father's conduit to Panthers news. Army Lt. Col. Paul Perlik, 57, is a Charlotte-area surgeon. As a member of the Army Reserves, he has been deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq, where he is currently based.
The family has been Panther PSL owners since the team's founding and to say Paul Perlik is a fan is an understatement.
In Afghanistan, his radio call sign was "Panther." And these days, he sports a black and electric blue surgical cap with a Panthers logo on it.
"It kills him that he won't be able to see them in the playoffs, especially since we have a home game," Will Perlik said, "but you can be sure he will be checking on them from over there."