For five Saturdays the members of North Carolina’s senior class had walked off the field at Kenan Stadium, and for five Saturdays, and almost all days in between, they’d tried to hold a team together after a defeat.
Their message, and what they’d told their teammates, especially the younger players, was usually the same: keep trying, remain united, believe, stick together, trust that good things will happen. For weeks, if not months, that had been the mantra from the Tar Heels’ seniors, who’d all seen better days.
On Saturday they walked onto the field for a game for the sixth and final time. Senior day against Western Carolina. The stands at Kenan Stadium included large splotches of empty seats. UNC’s record, with eight losses and no possibility of the postseason, indicated there was little to play for.
And yet, UNC coach Larry Fedora said later, after the Tar Heels’ 65-10 victory, “these guys love each other and they play hard for each other.” And, at last, they walked off the field victorious together, the seniors doing so in their final home game.
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During more somber times, it was the seniors who tried to lift UNC’s spirits. Now, amid the happiest postgame scene following a home game this season, some of them tried to contain themselves. Indeed, “some of them got a little emotional, but that’s how it is,” said Jonathan Smith, a sophomore linebacker.
Some of the seniors, but not all, addressed their teammates afterward.
“We just wanted to thank everybody for playing for us, you know what I mean?” said M.J. Stewart, a senior cornerback. “(For) letting us go out the right way.”
Stewart isn’t much of a talker, and so he saved his remarks for a smaller gathering with his fellow defensive backs. Of those teammates, he said, “I love ’em. We’re a brotherhood … that’s something that we carry for life.”
UNC’s victory against Western Carolina was one that meant nothing, in the grand scheme. It came against an over-matched lower-division opponent, and came easily after the Tar Heels scored three touchdowns in less than three minutes early in the second quarter.
UNC’s 611 yards represented a season high. The Tar Heels met little resistance after Western Carolina built an early 7-0 lead, one that had its purple-clad supporters cheering, loudly, in various pockets of Kenan Stadium. But then reality hit. The final margin may have been surprising, slightly, but UNC’s dominance wasn’t.
And yet it was a victory that meant everything, too, given how rare triumphs have been for UNC. The Tar Heels, once losers of six consecutive games, now have their first winning streak of the season approaching their finale next week at N.C. State. Their 65 points on Saturday were just nine fewer than they’d scored, combined, during those six consecutive defeats.
Indeed, UNC could have “folded,” as Fedora has often put it, a while ago. They lost games by close margins, and in agonizing fashion, early in the season. In the middle of it, they at times endured embarrassments – none greater than a 59-7 loss at Virginia Tech.
Since then, though, the Tar Heels pushed Miami in a close loss, went on the road and persevered in a difficult victory at Pittsburgh and then defeated the Catamounts on Saturday with the kind of style points that more successful UNC teams often earned with regularity in similarly one-sided affairs.
“We’ve been talking about, ‘They’re going to remember November,’ ” said Nathan Elliott, the third-year sophomore quarterback who passed for 240 yards and four touchdowns. “That’s kind of been our saying this past month.”
One of the team’s seniors, Donnie Miles, created that approach before the victory at Pitt. Miles, a safety who was one of 17 UNC players lost to the season because of injury, spoke with his teammates in the locker room before that game, and encouraged them to try to move on from the recent pass. November was a new season.
So far, the Tar Heels are undefeated in it. Elliott, who made his second college start on Saturday, has clearly provided an energy that the offense missed earlier this season. His teammates have seemed to respond to him. The Tar Heels received another jolt on Saturday with the return of Austin Proehl, the senior receiver.
Proehl entered his final college season as UNC’s leading returning receiver. He suffered a broken collarbone in UNC’s fourth game, a defeat against Duke, and was thought to have been lost for the season. All along, though, he kept hope alive that he’d be able to return. He put himself in position.
“I wanted to show people that I’m not going to just hang it up because of our record,” he said. “It’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than me.”
In many ways, that served as UNC’s motivation on Saturday. The Tar Heels’ victory was their first at Kenan Stadium this season, and first here in almost exactly one year. They’d last won a game at home on Nov. 19, 2016, against The Citadel.
Back then, the Tar Heels were on their way to a bowl game. They still had the possibility of a double-digit win season to play for. They had all the inspiration that they lacked, one year later, and yet discovered on Saturday, nonetheless.
“A lot of people outside on the exterior don’t really understand that,” Fedora said. “They think, ‘What do you have to play for?’ And these guys, if you’ve watched them all year, the record hasn’t been what we wanted, but they’ve been fighting.”
And so they fought at home for one last time. After every game, UNC’s players and coaches line up in front of the home team tunnel. They face the UNC band while it plays the alma mater, before heading toward their locker room. For UNC, it had made for some sad scenes during the past two and a half months.
At last there was happiness on Saturday. UNC’s seniors could smile. Instead of walking off that field warning of the perils of splintering apart, together at last they could embrace victory on their home field.