ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- When the Carolina Panthers opened what was then known as Ericsson Stadium on Sept. 1, 1996, a junior at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington named Brandon Beane was in the crowd to witness Carolina's 29-6 win over the Atlanta Falcons.
That was the first NFL game Beane attended. More than 21 years later, Beane will be back in Bank of America Stadium this Sunday as the first-year general manager of the Buffalo Bills after being hired away from the Panthers' front office in May.
The meeting of the Panthers (1-0) and the Bills (1-0) not only marks Beane's homecoming to Charlotte, North Carolina, after almost two decades in the Panthers' organization, but it also will be a reunion for Bills first-year coach Sean McDermott and many of his former colleagues in Carolina. McDermott served as the Panthers' defensive coordinator from 2011 until being hired by the Bills in January.
Similar to his return trip to his native Philadelphia during the preseason, McDermott said he was not attaching added significance to his team's upcoming opponent.
"I acknowledge that they’re the next opponent, they’re certainly a good opponent," he said. "We respect the heck out of every opponent, and Carolina has a talented, talented football team. I really appreciate the time that I spent there, great people around that organization, and it’ll be a huge challenge for us to go down there -- it’s their home opener. But I also know the work we have to put in this week, so that’s where my focus really is right now."
In building the Bills' roster, McDermott and Beane have drawn, in part, from their familiarity with the Panthers. This offseason, before Beane joined Buffalo, the Bills signed three players who spent last season with the Panthers -- running back Mike Tolbert, cornerback Leonard Johnson and wide receiver Philly Brown. As part of Beane's roster cuts to 53 players earlier this month, he released Brown, traded for Panthers receiver Kaelin Clay and signed quarterback Joe Webb, after he was released by Carolina.
By contrast, the Bills have borrowed little from the Panthers' coaching staff or front office. None of McDermott's assistant coaches worked with him last season in Carolina, while the closest connection to the Panthers on Beane's personnel staff is assistant general manager Joe Schoen, who worked as a Panthers ticket office intern in 2000 before serving as a scout until 2007.
Beane, a native of Norwood, North Carolina, has similar roots to Schoen in the Panthers' organization. After completing a four-week public relations internship with Carolina during training camp in 1998, Beane faced a choice of accepting a full-time job as a writer with Sports Business Journal or joining the Panthers' football operations department in a minimum-wage position.
He chose the latter, beginning a 19-year career with the organization that morphed from a football operations role to something much bigger when he was called into owner Jerry Richardson's office for the first time shortly after 7 a.m. on Oct. 22, 2012.
Richardson had made the decision to fire general manager Marty Hurney, showing Beane -- then the director of football operations -- a piece of paper with the Panthers' record at the time, 1-5. Beane's heart sunk, knowing Hurney's impact on his career to that point.
"'You're [the general manager] for the season and you're going to help me find a new GM,'" Richardson told Beane.
The Panthers rallied to finish with a 7-9 record. Having meshed well with coach Ron Rivera, Beane believed he had a chance to be named the permanent general manager.
"I still felt like, you know, there was a lot of momentum in the building for me to get it and a little bit in the city," Beane told Buffalo-based reporters in June. "But you know how it goes, you guys are in that business. A lot of writers are looking for big names. And I wasn't a big name. And I think there was a lot of pressure on [Richardson] to bring in a name other than somebody from the same regime that he just fired from. It was fun for that three months. It was also a little bit gut-wrenching to have it taken away at the same time. You kind of get your hopes up, and I thought things were going well. And I know a lot of people went to him on my behalf in the building."
Instead of hiring Beane, Richardson opted for veteran scout Dave Gettleman.
"I knew who Dave was, but I didn't personally know him," Beane said. "But when he got there, I said, 'Dave, I know where all the bones are buried in this building. I'm a competitor. And I think you'll find I'll do whatever I can do to help you help us win.' And I think if you asked him that, I gave him 100 percent every day to make him look good. And obviously, we had some success. And part of the benefit is that I'm sitting here today due to our success."
Two months after Beane was hired by the Bills, Richardson's decisions came full circle. He abruptly fired Gettleman in July, replacing him on an interim basis with Hurney.
Although Beane was considered to be Gettleman's most likely successor in Carolina, the Bills' newest general manager did not rethink his decision to join Buffalo.
"Not with me," he told WGR 550 in July. "It's been with a lot of people down there thinking, 'Man, you left!' I'm like, 'I knew Dave wasn't going to be there forever.' I made this decision independent, just for me and my family to work with. I think a lot of people thought, 'Man, if you waited,' or 'you're probably disappointed.' I'm like, No! I'm where I want to be, I'm where I'm supposed to be. I'm excited to be here."