CHAPEL HILL — A strange dynamic in the UNC-ECU football series surfaced shortly before the Tar Heels' practice session Wednesday afternoon.
When discussing the Tar Heels' trip to Greenville for Saturday night's game against the Pirates, North Carolina linebacker Kevin Reddick and wide receiver Erik Highsmith both referred to it as a "home game." Neither one has ever played a game in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
But Reddick, a junior from New Bern, and Highsmith, a junior from Vanceboro, will never play a game closer to the high school friends and fans who helped launch their careers.
Reddick has rounded up about 30 tickets for his personal cheering section. Highsmith has 25 and is still trying to make swaps with teammates.
"Tickets are hard to find," Highsmith said. "There's a lot of eastern North Carolina guys on our team, a lot more than you think."
Among those UNC players are defensive ends Donte Paige-Moss (Jacksonville), Quinton Coples (Kinston) and Kareem Martin (Roanoke Rapids), defensive tackle Tydreke Powell (Ahoskie), kickers Trase Jones (Roanoke Rapids) and Casey Barth (Wilmington), offensive linemen Jonathan Cooper (Wilmington) and Travis Bond (Windsor).
And yet, North Carolina's players are reluctant to publicly place much emphasis on their games against the Pirates.
Reddick, like many older UNC folks, isn't so sure the series should even be played.
"It's all right every once in a while to play another team in the state of North Carolina, but it's not a rivalry," Reddick said. "We don't pay attention to how emotional the game will be, because right now, I don't know how emotional it'll be. It's just another game. Every game is a big game for us."
Highsmith, who burned the Pirates secondary as a freshman in 2009, is more in favor of the series. But he, too, is careful to watch his remarks.
"They're an in-state team, and I think we should play every D-I team in our state. We've been playing them for several years now, so I say, why not? I look forward to it every year," Highsmith said.
Saturday will mark only the 14th game in the series but the first in Greenville since the Pirates won 34-31 in 2007.
The Heels have dominated - 10 wins, two losses, one tie - but only a handful of the current players were involved in that '07 game. Even so, the nature of the rivalry is such that most of the team is entirely familiar with the festive Dowdy-Ficklen environment.
"We expect it be very, very rowdy in there - 8 o'clock game, everybody's going to be there, packed stadium, sold-out tickets," Highsmith said.
"But this isn't the loudest [place] we've played so far."
Reddick's take: "It's going to be fun - a lot of trash talking, but just another game."
The reality is that dating back to the first meeting in 1972, UNC's players quietly have placed huge emphasis on beating ECU. That's a big part of why they've only lost to the Pirates twice.