Saturday was a day this Carolina blue-tinted Tar Heel won’t forget for a long, long time.
Between being reunited with University of North Carolina roommates for the first time in 30 years and a thrilling, come-from-behind football victory for the Tar Heels over Miami, it was memorable on many different levels.
My story in Chapel Hill began in the fall of 1989, when I moved into the Morrison Hall dormitory on the southern UNC campus. For a country boy born and raised in Wilkes County, it was an eye-opening experience, to say the least.
The first friendships I formed at Carolina were, naturally, with the fellow freshmen who lived with me in our eight-man suite at Morrison. My immediate roommate was Chris Milner, who was also from Wilkes, which was comforting right out the gate.
The other six guys in our suite were also in-state imports from Hendersonville, Salisbury and Siler City. We all shared a bathroom, which truly accelerated the necessity to become fast friends and conscientious neighbors.
After we all graduated in 1993, we essentially lost touch with one another, which is natural when school gives way to jobs and families now separated by time and distance. Yet, through the reconnective powers of social media (Facebook, namely), we were able to eventually “friend” one another and relink our lives.
On Saturday, my wife, Carmen, and I drove east to Chapel Hill (taking the nostalgic, but longer, route along N.C. 54) and met up with Chris and his wife, Lisa, who flew in that morning from their home in Massachusetts. The four of us spent a couple leisurely hours on the beautiful campus, with Chris and I alternately amazed at how some things had remarkably not changed in 30 years, while other things were completely different.
The first thing we did was order one of the famous chicken and cheese biscuits from Time-Out restaurant, which is in a new, larger location but serves up the same delicious food. Chris then bought a UNC hat at Johnny T-shirt, where we bought our first school apparel three decades ago.
Four hours before game time, we did some tailgating near Kenan Stadium with Morrison suitemates Battle Watkins and Jeff Brovet, who both now live in the Triangle. Sending messages to old friends over the internet is one thing, but to be able to give them big bear hugs and laugh with them face-to-face is quite another. It was a joyous reunion for all of us.
And then, there was the game. In case you haven’t followed Carolina football in recent years, times have been lean of late. Last year’s squad won only two games, the worst showing in 15 years.
But this year, optimism is back in the soon-to-be crisp fall air of Chapel Hill. Coach Mack Brown is back on the UNC sidelines, after 21 years of Tar Heel football mediocrity.
During my last two years at Carolina, the Brown-led Heels put together back-to-back 9-3 and 10-3 seasons. And before he left the school, Brown guided UNC to 10-2 and 11-1 campaigns, the latter being the program’s best mark since 1980.
Last week, the Tar Heels opened the season with a 24-20 win over inter-state rival South Carolina. Freshman quarterback Sam Howell threw two fourth-quarter touchdowns to spearhead the comeback victory.
On Saturday night, Howell worked his youthful magic again, connecting on a fourth-quarter pass to propel UNC past the Miami Hurricanes, 24-20. Brown and the Heels are 2-0, and Chapel Hill finally has contracted football fever again after a long remission.
My experience Saturday night in Kenan Stadium was good for the soul. To be surrounded by old friends and a stadium full of Carolina blue-clad fans, I felt 18 again. I’m still a bit hoarse after yelling and cheering the Tar Heels to victory.
During the quiet, late-night drive back to Wilkes, it was easy to reflect on a day that makes one appreciative of the timeless and unconditional nature of friendships forged decades earlier. It’s a comfort knowing that I’ll always be a resident of what we called “Suite 3” in Morrison Hall on the University of North Carolina campus.