Jake Delhomme wandered, almost aimlessly, through a concrete hallway far from the celebration. Led by an NFL public-relations staffer, Delhomme was only minutes removed from the toughest loss of his career, still one of the toughest anyone has ever suffered in a Super Bowl.
And as he trudged through the bowels of what was then called Reliant Stadium, the Carolina Panthers quarterback could only repeat to himself, over and over again, how he just wanted the ball back one more time.
“I’m just frustrated we didn’t get another chance,” Delhomme said. “That’s the thing that’s the tough part.”
It was a sentiment, 12 years and a few months later, that Marcus Paige would share, in a locker room down the same hallway in the same building, now with a different name. The North Carolina guard had made an improbable, double-clutch 3-pointer to tie the national-championship game with 4.7 seconds to go, only for Villanova’s Kris Jenkins to do him one better at the buzzer.
And as the Wildcats celebrated their title, Paige could only wonder what he might have done with the ball back in his hands.
“We’ll never get that back, and the memory now we’ll have, it’s one half-step shorter than the memory we wanted to have,” Paige said. “We worked so hard for this goal. And it’s like someone just came up and took it from you at the last second.”
What is now called NRG Stadium, the Houston mega-stadium where the Patriots and Atlanta Falcons met in Super Bowl LI on Sunday, has not been kind to the state of North Carolina over the years. It has been downright cruel.
The Panthers’ loss in Super Bowl XXXVIII, after tying the score at 29 with 68 seconds to play before John Kasay booted a kickoff out of bounds, remains as chilling today as it did 13 years ago. That team, led by Delhomme and Stephen Davis and Julius Peppers and Mike Minter, was little more than a group of misfits who exceeded all expectations, upset the favored Philadelphia Eagles on the road in the NFC title game and came within a few plays of winning a Super Bowl.
That game also put the first stamp of authority on the Patriots’ dynasty under Bill Belichick; their second Super Bowl in three years, followed quickly by another the next season. And while that game is generally considered to be one of the most dramatic Super Bowls – and maybe the most dramatic at the time it was played – it’s probably remembered better for the coining of the phrase “wardrobe malfunction” after Justin Timberlake partially disrobed Janet Jackson during the halftime show.
The Panthers, who beat the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium in 2003, lost in their only other visit there, in 2011, when only Jordan Gross and Steve Smith were left from the Super Bowl disappointment.
The Tar Heels were in a different position, a preseason favorite to win the national title, a juggernaut from the ACC tournament right through March into April. Led by senior stars Paige and Brice Johnson, they swept the ACC regular-season and tournament titles, ripped through the NCAA tournament and easily dispatched conference foe Syracuse in the semifinals. The Tar Heels believed they were a team of destiny, and they looked like it.
That left Villanova, the only team in the country that could claim to be North Carolina’s equal, and while the Tar Heels led by 10 late in the second half, the Wildcats slowly whittled away at that margin and led by three late, before Paige’s desperation shot from in front of the North Carolina bench found its way in.
The rest is basketball history: Jenkins, trailing the play, took a pass from Ryan Arcidiacono and hit a 3-pointer from the right wing at the buzzer.
“That will probably haunt me for the rest of my life,” Paige said.
It hasn’t been all bad news for the state of North Carolina in this particular piece of Houston real estate. Duke is 4-0 at NRG, winning regionals there in 2010 (over Purdue and Baylor) and 2015 (over Utah and Gonzaga) on its way to national-championship victories in Indianapolis. But that’s not much of a counterbalance for two of the most difficult losses in the state’s sporting history, anywhere, anyplace, anytime.
Other than New England’s Joe Thuney and Jacoby Brissett (both N.C. State) and Atlanta’s Justin Hardy (East Carolina) and Deji Olatoye (N.C. A&T), the Old North State didn’t have a lot on the line Sunday, which is probably a good thing.
Previous visits to NRG haven’t merely been unsuccessful. They’re been memorably painful, to the point where more than a decade hasn’t dulled the sting of the Panthers’ loss, and it’ll take even longer than that for the Tar Heels’ anguish to fade.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock