Gio’s Run

“Bernard fields it at the twenty-six.”

Number twenty-six, the redshirt sophomore running back out of Florida, has been electrifying North Carolina fans for the past two years. He was expected to contribute as a true freshman in 2010, but tore the ACL in his right knee early in training camp and was forced to sit out a year. Nothing has been able to stop him since. Last year, Bernard became the first Tar Heel to rush for 1,000 yards in a season since Jonathan Linton in 1997, racking up 1,253 yards on the ground. With 930 yards to his credit this season, Bernard is close to becoming the first back-to-back 1,000 yard rusher in school history since Natrone Means in 1991-92.

“Heading to the far side. Gio at the thirty-five!”

It was along the far sideline where Bernard went down early in the third quarter, holding his right ankle after a 36-yard screen pass. He had already received attention on the field once after a helmet-to-helmet collision with 4:01 left in the first quarter. There was the injury to his left knee against Elon that sidelined him for two weeks. None of this would keep Bernard off the field. He only missed one offensive possession, and waved off Roy Smith, a walk-on to the football team attending UNC on a track scholarship, who had assumed special teams duties, for the final punt return.

“Gio! He’s at the fifty!”

Saturday’s game against NC State was the first time this season North Carolina has won after trailing at halftime. After leading by as much as 25-7 at one point in the first quarter, the Tar Heels giving up three straight touchdowns had a, shall we say, deflating feeling to it. An NC State touchdown late in the third quarter to give the Wolfpack a 35-25 advantage added to the internal turmoil. Yes, this team had been resilient in comebacks against Louisville and Duke, but they hadn’t finished one, not yet. They also hadn’t beaten NC State since 2006, in case you hadn’t heard.

“No, he’s not! Yes, he is!”

Yet here the Tar Heels came one more time. A nine play, 74-yard drive ended in a Bryn Renner touchdown pass to Sean Tapley with 10:23 remaining, bringing the Tar Heels within three. Now they just needed a stop and a score. The stop came relatively easily: NC State did get a first down on their next drive, but stalled out thereafter with a false start and a sack on first down. The Tar Heels answered with … three incomplete passes following a Gio 11-yarder. Again, it was up to the North Carolina defense. After three Wolfpack runs culminated in a first down, NC threw three incomplete passes (much to the chagrin of Wolfpack fans), giving North Carolina another chance with 4:31 remaining.

The Tar Heels drove into goal-to-go range. Eric Ebron dropped a pass on second down. Darryl Cato-Bishop dropped Bryn Renner on third down. North Carolina would have to settle for a game-tying field goal with 1:24 left for the Wolfpack to answer. Looking to burn clock and force North Carolina to burn their remaining two timeouts, NC State kept the ball on the ground and punted with 30 seconds on the clock. Then, the unthinkable happened.

Giovani Bernard takes it to the house (photo and home page image by Erin Hull of The Daily Tar Heel)

“Gio is gonna take it for a touchdown!”

Bernard fields the punt. A group of teammates, their chrome helmets shining like beacons, form a wall to protect him and guide him to the promised land. All he has to do is find that explosive speed one more time and get to a hole before anybody wearing red does.

From the student section in the west end zone, it looks far more chaotic. Bernard fields the punt, then darts to the visitor’s sideline. A good return gives North Carolina a chance to win this in regulation with a field goal. Out of the mass of humanity, however, comes #26 with the football … growing larger and larger as he rushes towards us. Nothing will stop him. No knee. No ankle. Certainly nobody from NC State. Not a pesky losing streak to these in-state rivals. Not even the end zone, as he runs along the wall and starts celebrating with students.

Touchdown, Carolina.

“Are you kidding me?!?!”

As far as I am aware, Jones Angell, the voice of the Tar Heels, has uttered this phrase during three moments in North Carolina athletics. The first is not as well-known: In an elimination game at the 2008 College World Series against LSU, Tim Federowicz blasted a grand slam to the left field bleachers at old Rosenblatt Stadium in the top of the ninth inning, leading the Tar Heels to a 7-3 victory and another day in the Omaha sun. The second came this past February, when Austin Rivers nailed a three-pointer at the buzzer over Tyler Zeller to erase a late double-digit Tar Heel lead and silence the Smith Center crowd. And then, of course, Saturday, as Giovani Bernard sprinted down the sideline for the game-winning punt return touchdown against NC State.

It’s these moments that remind you why you watch sports. Sure, Tar Heel fans couldn’t have been more upset about the second of those three. But all three were those kinds of moments that send even the most mild-mannered sports fans into a frenzy and bring silence to the most fanatical.

They are the moments where you have to pinch yourself and ask “Did that just happen?” They feel that way because they transcend expectation, even of the most optimistic fan. So often, athletes are criticized for failing “in the moment,” and so often we are willing to take the seeing-eye single with the bases loaded in the top of the ninth or the decent punt return that puts the team in field goal range. So when the extraordinary happens, it’s almost too good to be true.

Yes, it happened. No, I’m not kidding. And yes, it was everything we love about these silly games.

Zach Evans is brilliantZach Evans is a student at the University of North Carolina and a lifelong fan of the Tar Heels and follower of the ACC. Outside of the ACC, Zach is also a fan of the Atlanta Braves, the Carolina Hurricanes, the Carolina Panthers, and bad puns. He includes nailing the Final Four in his 2009 NCAA Tournament group and batting .000 during the 2011 intramural softball season among his crowning achievements. For more commentary, follow Zach on Twitter at @ztevans.

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