At 8 p.m. on Saturday the bell tower at North Carolina rang out eight times while what could only be described as weird carnival music – happy-sounding but a bit possessed and dark, like a twisted clown – blared from the speakers at Kenan Stadium.
The words “freak show” shined brightly on the scoreboard, at times, while Tar Heels football highlights from long ago played on a loop. It wasn't long before the “freaks” themselves came out, all with their nicknames of the night written down their arms.
There was “Money” and “Freak” and “Freaky Time” and “Showtime” and “Big Juicy.” There was “Bonesaw and “Sexy T” and “Big Hoss” and “Freaky Cam” and “T-Monsta,” and on it went, a bunch of future college football players wearing names that could have been pulled out of a monster truck show.
They jogged onto the field from the tunnel wearing “Freak Show” shirts while a song called “Freak” played loudly enough to be heard on Franklin Street. And that's how Fedora's Freak Show – a UNC football camp meant to attract some of the top high school prospects in the country – began.
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It ended about two and a half hours later, after a lot of running and drills and after, finally, a dodge ball game. And when it was over Larry Fedora, preparing for his fourth season as UNC's head coach, stood before 60 campers, give or take, and asked those who'd committed to UNC to stand beside him.
Then he asked, “Who's next,” and two more who'd committed that night jogged to the front. He greeted both – Tomon Fox, a Georgia linebacker, and Luke Elder, an offensive lineman also from Georgia – with enthusiastic, welcome-to-the-family hugs while others whooped and hollered.
No others joined Fox and Elder – at least not any with pending scholarship offers – but for Fedora and his staff, which has been besieged lately by a familiar cloud of uncertainty, it had been a good night, a productive night. The Freak Show, as they call it, had come through again – another victory for a well-oiled and well-executed promotional machine designed to sell UNC football to prospects and parents.
“Everything,” Fedora said later, “has to be spot on for that night.”
Freak Show key for recruiting
He was talking about the football side of the camp – the drills and instruction – but also the aesthetics of it all: the music and the constant stream of highlights on the video board, and the “feel” of the whole thing, the vibe that Fedora and his staff hope to establish with UNC's signature high school camp.
Football camps for high schoolers -- and younger -- have become a standard part of college football programs. Those like the Freak Show are something of a rarity, though, at least in the ACC, where Duke and Wake Forest are the only other schools with branded, night-time camps.
And when it comes to hype, well, the Freak Show might be in a class of its own. UNC produced no less than 11 promotional videos associated with the Freak Show that can be found on YouTube, all of them designed to build mystique around the event. In one of the videos, a voice that sounds like it belongs on a state fair midway goes on about the “strangest creatures on earth” and the “living wonders of the world.”
“What you thought was a myth, you will see with your own eyes,” the voice says at the end of the video. “Welcome to the Freak Show.”
It’s different, which is part of the point.
“We're always trying to do things outside the box,” Fedora said. “We're always trying to do things that other people don't do, because we are different at Carolina. So we're going to always think a different way. So I think it probably helps that there aren't a lot of people that do things like that.
“Because I think that's part of the mystique that the kids really enjoy. They want to find out about it.”
A year ago, UNC received four commitments at the Freak Show. This year two more followed, which added to the two commitments Fedora received during one of his less-freaky camps earlier in the week.
Easing NCAA concerns
This was the third Freak Show that Fedora had hosted – UNC has done it every summer since he arrived – and this one was especially important given the specter of an NCAA investigation that's not yet complete. Fedora, at least, is used to recruiting amid these circumstances.
He and his assistant coaches fended off rumors and negative recruiting while they put together the class that signed with UNC in February. Now it's more of the same, except Fedora has found optimism in what the NCAA's Notice of Allegations contained. Or, rather, what it didn't.
“As soon as something new comes out, like the Notice of Allegations was the last thing, it just reinforces what we're telling all of these parents and recruits,” Fedora said. “So it really has kind of helped us as it's gone along, because the things that we've been telling in advance, the things happen.
“So they know that they can trust us, because the things that we've said are happening.”
Before UNC received the NOA, Fedora and his staff had been telling recruits and their parents that the football program would not be charged with committing any violations. And it wasn't.
Fox, the linebacker who had “T-Monsta” written on his arm, committed Saturday night after his fears of possible sanctions had been quelled, he said, thanks to discussions with Fedora and Bubba Cunningham, the UNC athletic director. Elder, the offensive lineman, said he had questions, too, that had been answered.
“The more I talk to coach about it and the more he says the same thing, (which) I 100 percent am with him on, and it's that the NCAA, in the (NOA), they never named football specifically,” Elder said. “So I just trusted him and I knew he wouldn't lie to me or anything like that. I know they'll be OK.”
Elder and Fox said other schools have brought up the possibility of sanctions at UNC. Fox said reporters who work for websites that cover other schools have reminded, him, too, that UNC is awaiting the results of an NCAA investigation.
“I see it on Twitter, too,” Fox said. “Every time I post something about UNC, they're telling me about the sanctions, something that might happen. But it's not going to happen now, so we're good.”
The Freak Show – Fedora can't exactly recall the story behind the name but he thinks Walt Bell, the former tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator, came up with it – comes at the end of a long stretch of camps that UNC hosts. The others are during the day and they're heavy on instruction.
Hype, but instruction too
The Freak Show includes instruction, too, but it also includes no shortage of hype. At one point during drills on Saturday night, Charlie Justice streaked down the field in black and white on the video boards above. Lawrence Taylor made a sack. Giovani Bernard sprinted into the end zone.
Current UNC players, and some former ones now in the NFL, mingled with campers, teaching and talking. Bug Howard, the UNC junior receiver, cheered on the high school receivers while Dre Bly, one of the best cornerbacks in school history, worked with some of the defensive backs.
There was pride on the line there. After the defensive backs got the better of the receivers, Howard said that the “rude boys” – the UNC team nickname for the secondary – had had themselves a night. Already some UNC players were talking about some of the prospects as if they were part of the team.
Meanwhile, across the field, former UNC quarterback Bryn Renner worked with some of the passers while Sylvester Williams and Kareem Martin, recent UNC defensive linemen who are in the NFL, worked with prospects at their position.
“Being able to be close with these coaches and these NFL stars, being able to be taught by them and learn lessons from them was a good deal,” Kyree Campbell, a Woodbridge, Va., defensive tackle who was one of the most heralded prospects to attend the Freak Show, said after it had ended.
Like a lot of college football prospects, Campbell, who is 6-foot-5 and weighs nearly 300 pounds, has spent plenty of time of late on various college campuses, going to camps. It can be an exhausting time, traveling from school to school, doing the same things over and over.
The Freak Show stood out because of its uniqueness, Campbell said. It wasn't all sweat and instruction.
“I mean, I just had fun,” he said. “Other camps, you're not playing dodge ball against the coaches. It was just a great, fun night. It wasn't just about drills, one-on-ones. I mean, I loved it.”
Better than ’Bama’s camp
The dodge ball game came toward the end. Before it started, a clip from the movie “DodgeBall” played on the video board, the volume turned up. It was the part of the movie when the fictional dodge ball legend Patches O'Houlihan breaks down the five Ds of the sport: dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge.
The campers broke up into teams and then the coaches and NFL guys joined in. Fedora went out early.
By then Fox had long committed to play at UNC. He'd made up his mind early in the Freak Show, before a sprint. He turned to one of the trainers and told him that he was ready.
The trainer brought Fedora over and Fox told him right then that he was ready to commit. Then word spread to Gene Chizik, the defensive coordinator Fedora hired in January.
“Man, he jumped up and hugged me and everything,” Fox said of Fedora. “I hugged him back. Hugged Gene Chizik, everybody.”
At the end of the Freak Show, after Fedora had told the campers that he hoped to see them at a game at Kenan Stadium this fall and after he'd called for the current commitments to join him he looked out at the faces before him and yelled “Who's next.” He called for Fox to come up.
Elder followed and Campbell said he had the briefest of thoughts – “a little feeling,” he said – to run up there, too. It was tempting, he said.
“I've never had a camp like this,” Campbell said. “Not even Alabama's camp was like this.”
He decided to wait, though. Fedora paused for a few moments, waiting for other commitments that didn't come – at least not then. He huddled with the players – they all shouted “Tar Heels” – and the Freak Show ended, Fedora hoped, having left prospects with more interest in UNC than they'd had before.