Photo Courtesy of Carolina Football.
This past Saturday night a sellout crowd at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill witnessed the North Carolina Tar Heels upset the Miami Hurricanes 28-25 in their first home game under head coach Mack Brown. After the game Brown said, “This was the best atmosphere I’ve ever seen here. It was unbelievable.”
Two of those fans in attendance were country music singer, Eric Church, and his wife, Catherine. They weren’t just there to shake hands and “make an appearance.” They were there to cheer the Tar Heels on to victory. It was time to go to church.
The bells in the Bell Tower, Kenan Stadium’s “steeple”, rang aloud and soon after, Brown’s team stepped off the buses and had a procession around that steeple and down through the lines of Tar Heel parishioners before entering the sanctuary called Kenan. The buzz in the air was palpable.
As Brown had hoped, the Carolina-blue church pews in Kenan were filled to capacity by the time his team ran out of the tunnel and onto the field. The congregation was ready for the service to begin.
Eric looked at me and said, “I’ve seen a ton of huge crowds. I know crowds. And I’ve been everywhere in football across the country. This crowd tonight, this atmosphere, is as good as I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Here’s the thing about Eric and Catherine that may surprise some people. Neither one was there to just take in a football game. They were Tar Heel Football fans. Eric knew every player, their name, and their position. He also knew the Hurricanes’ primary playmakers. Catherine followed every single play and went through the up and down emotional roller coaster of the game. They were part of Saturday night’s congregation.
The part I didn’t expect as I watched the game with Eric; he was the Tony Romo-esque color analyst for me as the game went on. He knew what he was talking about when it came to this Tar Heel Football team.
Right out of the gates Eric predicted they’d open-up the offense right away for Sam Howell, North Carolina’s true freshman quarterback who has become Mack Brown’s “Chosen One” at the position.
Two quick plays picked up a first down to start the Tar Heels’ drive.
Eric turned and said, “I’d open it up right now and catch them off-guard. Sam’s going to take a shot here and Miami isn’t ready for it.”
Right on cue, Howell hit Antoine Green on a 39-yard pass down the sideline and the congregation erupted; and wouldn’t sit back down until the first quarter ended.
After settling for a field goal, North Carolina’s defense forced a quick three-and-out and Miami punted the football.
Once again, my color analyst turned to me and said, “Watch. First play of this next drive Sam just needs to take a long shot downfield and make a statement play.”
Well, on first down, the ball was hiked, and Howell uncorked a 62-yard touchdown strike to Dyami Brown, who blazed past the helpless Miami defender. Eric held his arms up in excitement and high-fived Catherine.
“Man, right now the field looks wide open for Carolina’s offense and everything Miami’s offense is getting is hard,” Eric remarked after the Hurricanes answered with a field goal.
He was right. After the field goal, North Carolina marched right back down the field and saw Javonte Williams run it in for the touchdown. Unfortunately, during the drive, starting center Nick Polino went down with what appeared to be a significant lower-leg injury.
Eric commented, “Ok, if they go up by three scores, Miami may lay down and quit. However, Polino going down isn’t good news. Miami is going to exploit that loss.”
Once again, my color analyst was right. Miami started to change their schemes and bring more pressure up front on defense. As a result, the Hurricanes held the Tar Heels scoreless in the second quarter. They managed to tack on a field goal and a touchdown to close the gap heading into the locker room at half time. The Hurricanes were in no mood to lay down.
As the church choir started to march onto the field, Eric and Catherine headed into the Kenan Football Center. I told them, ‘Goodbye,’ to which Eric replied, “Oh don’t worry, we’ll be back.”
The second half of this church service resumed with a big fourth-down stand by the Tar Heel defense. Howell led the Tar Heel offense back down the field for another field goal to extend the lead to seven. As I looked around, still no signs of Eric and Catherine.
Miami’s offense drove right down the field for a touchdown as their own freshman quarterback, Jarren Williams, seemed to be settling in and getting more comfortable as his offensive line did a better job against North Carolina’s pass rush. After the touchdown though, North Carolina’s Jason Strowbridge broke right through the line to block the extra point.
At that moment, Eric and Catherine returned to where they were for the first half. Eric, who apparently is somewhat superstitious claimed, “That’s it. We’re not leaving again. We’re staying in this spot until they win this game.”
Immediately, his analysis resumed as he recapped, “The Polino loss was hurting us but Brian Anderson seems to be settling in even though they’re putting more pressure on Sam now. And their offensive line is doing better against our pass rush, so their quarterback looks more comfortable now. We need to put some points up on the board before they do.”
After that comment the whistle blew, marking the end of the third quarter. What followed next was just one of those moments during a great sermon in church that hits you deep.
Eric was born in Granite Falls, North Carolina and has cheered for the Tar Heels since he was young. He may live in Nashville now, but he’s a ‘Carolina Boy’ at heart.
One of the new fourth quarter traditions in Kenan Stadium starts with a video of iconic North Carolina images showing on the big video screens as Eric’s song, ‘Carolina,’ plays in the background. North Carolina’s operations’ team had the congregation’s cell phone lights flashing in synchronization to the song. As the players walked down the field towards the student section, we noticed that many of them were singing the words to the song.
Eric paused, clearly overwhelmed with the scene, and remarked, “Man, I’ve experienced many awesome moments in my career. This is really cool. Wow.”
After trading punts, North Carolina drove down the field again, seeming to gain some momentum on the ground with Williams and Michael Carter that they hadn’t had since the first quarter. The Hurricanes managed to tighten up and force the Tar Heels into a fourth-and-3 situation.
Eric leaned over and said, “Man, I’d go for this right now and knock the air out of Miami.”
The Tar Heels elected to try a field goal instead, but placekicker Noah Ruggles pushed the 49-yard attempt wide.
Eric mentioned, “Next time they need to go for it.”
— Ross Martin (@RossMartin_IC) August 31, 2019
Instead of having the air knocked out them, the Hurricanes put together an impressive drive all the way down the field, capped off by an 11-yard touchdown pass by Williams. Miami had their first lead of the game, 25-20.
One voice behind us responded, “Well, can you write a better story than a true freshman quarterback leading a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter in front of a sell-out crowd in the first home game of his Tar Heel career?”
North Carolina got a burst of 22 yards from Williams before Howell was sacked on consecutive plays, leaving the Tar Heels staring at fourth-and-17 and having just used their final timeout. Initially it appeared as though North Carolina would punt the ball in hopes that their defense stopped Miami and left some time on the clock to get the ball back. But as the officials were checking the replay of third down, offensive coordinator Phil Longo approached his head coach with a different idea.
Brown said, “It was interesting when Phil Longo said, ‘Let’s go for the fourth-and-17.’ I said, ‘You just had two sacks. Why should I be excited about your fourth-and-17 call?’ He said, ‘I think that’s better right now than having 30 seconds left on the clock with no timeouts,’ and we decided to go for it.”
As they lined up to go for it, Eric leaned over and said, “I wanted to go for it before, but man, this is wild. It’s win-or-lose right now.”
With what Brown would later describe as, “Ice in his veins,” Howell, after having been sacked on consecutive plays, calmly dropped back and delivered the ball Rontavius (Toe) Groves for the first down.
That play knocked the air out of the Hurricanes and they didn’t recover. Howell led his team right down the field and capped it off with an electrifying 10-yard touchdown pass to Dazz Newsome that sent the congregation into a deafening frenzy.
Everybody lost their minds in celebration. Catherine commented, “Man, my hands are stinging right now from so many high-fives, but I love it! This is awesome!”
As the Tar Heel players celebrated the touchdown and were running from the endzone back towards their sideline, backup center, Brian Anderson, who had replaced the beforementioned Polino, saw Eric and screamed, “Eric! Yeah!” He then ran and hugged him with a slight headbutt.
After Anderson left, Eric was dazed a bit and laughed, “I don’t have a helmet on. He does. Who cares, this is incredible!”
Miami wasn’t done yet though. They quickly drove right back down the field and lined up for the game-tying 49-yard field goal. The Hurricanes’ placekicker, Bubba Baxa, had already nailed a 50-yard field goal with room to spare earlier in the game. You could feel the tension on the sideline.
Right then, Eric said, “He’s going to miss this. This team is due. He’s going to miss this.”
When the ball left the foot of Baxa, the entire North Carolina student section erupted as they could tell immediately that Baxa had pulled the kick wide. The Kenan congregation erupted once again, and the Tar Heel players celebrated yet another fourth quarter comeback victory.
And the congregation said, “Amen!”