Over at Parker’s off South Memorial the politicians sat at a table in a corner near an older man by himself, near a woman with two small children, all surrounded by black-and-white pictures – an East Carolina football team, men in a tobacco barn – and the smell of pulled pork.
It was lunchtime on Thursday, around 12:30, and only half full. The quiet before the storm.
What would this place be like on Saturday, in the hours before the North Carolina versus East Carolina football game? How long would the lines be, how large the crowds, at the old barbecue restaurant about four miles from Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium?
“A sea of purple,” Alex Lorentz said.
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He’s a waiter, a younger guy, glasses, who makes sure to check on his tables often, makes sure the pitchers of sweet tea stay full. The Parker’s way. He went on about the sea of purple that was coming.
“Wall to wall,” he said. “And everyone throwing down money.”
He smiled at that and said, “Game days are the best days.”
They’ve always been so here, but Saturday could be something different – something rarely seen in Greenville or anywhere else in the state. ECU won 10 games last season. The Pirates entered this one, their first in the American Athletic Conference, with the kind of expectations that are often dreamed about but not always realistic.
Maybe they are now after that victory at Virginia Tech last weekend. And now here come the Tar Heels.
In the back corner of the restaurant, Allen Thomas, the mayor of Greenville, sat at a table with Roy Cooper, the state attorney general, and a few others. They were midway through their lunches when the purple-shirted Troy Dreyfus, the owner of the “Pirate Radio” station – and the purple, decked-out pick-up out front – came up and started talking about the game.
Saturday, and the ECU-UNC game, is “all they’re talking about,” said Billy Parker, the owner.
His family has been in the North Carolina barbecue business for decades. It started with the Parker’s in Wilson in the 1930s, and this location, in Greenville, has been open since 1971.
Parker isn’t sure he can remember more build-up for a game than this one.
“They’re like, ‘Are you going to the Carolina game? Anybody got tickets?’ ” Parker said. “I have people coming in here all the time saying, ‘Hey, you know where I can get some tickets?’ It’s big for Greenville.
“I mean, we’re not as big as Raleigh. We’re not as big as the Triangle. For here, yeah, it’s huge.”
Thomas and Cooper and the others finished their lunches and were on their way out. They stopped at a table where Parker was sitting, and Thomas introduced him as “the unofficial mayor” of Greenville.
This, then, might as well have been the unofficial town hall. People with purple shirts dotted the inside of the place, waiting for their plates of pork and hush puppies and Brunswick stew, some of them talking about what’s coming on Saturday.
An ECU victory would likely vault the Pirates into the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2008. It’d also represent their first winning streak against UNC, which ECU beat by 24 points in Chapel Hill last season.
People here remember that. Combine those memories with what happened last weekend in Blacksburg, Va., and you get the atmosphere that’s existed in town this week.
“This is more of an SEC environment in Greenville,” Thomas said after making his way to the front door. “It’s always been that way when it comes to football. But the atmosphere since last Saturday – it’s just been a deafening amount of noise.”
What does the mayor see happening on Saturday? He thought about it for less than a second.
“I think if anybody is somebody (they) will be in Greenville, North Carolina,” he said.
‘Hottest ticket’ they can remember
This isn’t completely new for ECU and this community. There have been important games at Dowdy-Ficklen – games against high-profile opponents, even a few of them against in-state rivals who usually manage to avoid traveling Down East.
But this one, on Saturday?
“In all the years I’ve been here,” Jeff Charles said, “this is the hottest ticket I can ever remember.”
Charles is the voice of ECU football. He’s in his 27th season of calling play-by-play for the Pirates, and even the message for his voice mail makes him sound enthusiastic, as if he’s about to call a Jeff Blake touchdown pass. It ends with a hearty, “Go Pirates!”
Yes, people have been asking Charles for tickets, he said, just like they’ve been asking Parker. But the game sold out and there are no tickets to be had, unless you want to go to StubHub and pay $90 for a seat in the lower corner, row DDD. Those are the cheapest.
Charles remembers well the 1991 game against Pittsburgh at Dowdy-Ficklen, where Blake’s two-point conversion in the final minute won it and ECU went on to the Peach Bowl. There was no upper deck then, no seats behind the end zone, and people just lined up and stood around the fence.
There was the game in ’99 when the Pirates beat N.C. State in front of the first crowd of 50,000 in Greenville. And a Thursday night, nationally-televised game against Virginia Tech in 2000. Those are the three best atmospheres Charles can remember.
“But like I say, with everything lining up the way it is for Saturday, I might have to put this one close to top,” he said.
Greenville pride: ‘Us vs. Them’
Some people will show up to the stadium on Saturday just thinking about a football game. Some will show up with fraternity brothers and sorority sisters, not really paying attention, or, perhaps, unable to pay attention.
Some will be more emotionally invested than others. Some will take deeper meaning in what they’re seeing, in watching a team representing ECU, and the eastern part of the state, playing against team from an ACC school with all the history and tradition and advantages.
Don Edwards will see some of that. He owns the University Book Exchange in downtown Greenville – known simply as U.B.E. – and even though he graduated from UNC, he considers himself “a Pirate true and true,” he said.
When Edwards, 61, was growing up, he said there just wasn’t much difference among places like Greenville and Raleigh and Kinston and Rocky Mount. Raleigh was bigger then, sure, but little Eastern North Carolina towns thrived in their own ways, too.
He returned to this part of the state after graduating from UNC. He eventually took over his father’s business and over the years he has witnessed Eastern North Carolina deteriorate.
“Goodness gracious, Eastern North Carolina’s got a lot of challenges,” Edwards said. “God, poor Rocky Mount. What a challenge. Because all the young, smart people move to Raleigh.
“And so Greenville’s kind of not that way, but we have our challenges. So you get caught up in the Pirate Nation – it’s a little bit of an us versus them.”
Edwards is a high-ranking member of the Pirate Club – the ECU booster club – and Charles does a pregame radio show from Edwards’ store, which is a Greenville landmark. Inside, little signs hang on the walls, and between stairs, with names and numbers of prolific ECU football players.
Purple “Beat Carolina” t-shirts were selling for $12.95 – a few people stood in line with them – and down the street and around a corner, at another store Edwards owns, college girls flipped through racks and racks of purple dresses. It’s a sight Edwards doesn’t take for granted – people shopping downtown.
The area used to be “downtrodden,” he said, but it has picked up. A $40 million mixed use project is going up down the street from U.B.E. Storefronts have been renovated. On the windows of one is an ode to ECU, in Pirate talk: “This is aarrrgh state.”
“This is a tough area down here,” Edwards said, walking with some pride through downtown. “And East Carolina is just the crown jewel of the area, and it’s the best thing we’ve got going for us. We fought to get a dental school, we fought to get a medical school.”
Fighting for things – for respect, for chances – is “just part of the culture” in Greenville, Edwards said. And so the Pirates will fight again on Saturday, on the field.
Edwards estimates that about 5,000 people will walk through U.B.E. before the game. At Parker’s, it will be “a zoo,” Parker, the owner, said.
And at the stadium, a crowd in excess of the official capacity of 50,000 will gather. They will come from places like Raleigh and Chapel Hill and Charlotte, but also from places down east and around Greenville, from little towns like Farmville and bigger ones, like Rocky Mount, that are fading.
Most will come wearing purple. They’ll cheer on a football team representing a school that represents a region.
Down at Parker’s the lunch crowd had picked up and Parker went out to help work the register. A line began to form, a small version of what is coming Saturday.
“Everybody in this town needs to thank God for East Carolina,” said Parker, whose restaurant had already booked six catering events at the stadium on Saturday. “I mean, really. For the hospital and for East Carolina.
“(Without) those two things – well, Greenville would be Kinston.”