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Football is back and I’m a fan again

It was a new football season, the stadium was full and I returned as a normal fan.

After 22 months since the last game with fans at UNC’s Kenan Stadium, the Tar Heels opened their home season on Sept. 11 by hosting Georgia State. With the COVID pandemic ebbing in the summer, it was decided that capacity crowds in stadiums were back on the table.

But UNC chose to limit capacity indoors, particularly the Kenan press box. Only a few seats were available for season passes and I was told I could check back for future home games.

With no media pass to hang on my lanyard, I chose instead to buy a ticket. I would be back in the stands for the first time since 2016 or ‘17.

That also meant I wouldn’t have a media parking pass. Since I’m famously tight with my money, I would be looking for a free parking space.

I was a bit late leaving for Chapel Hill and knew my search would be tenuous. Arriving in town, I wasn’t surprised to see traffic gridlock. But I had a plan and I was sticking to it.

Half an hour after getting to the Hill, I was motoring on Cameron Avenue, heading west toward Carrboro. A few years ago, with two grandsons in tow, we finally found a parking space on a residential street with a 30-minute walk to the stadium.

This time, however, I was lucky. I located a parking lot where some folks were playing corn hole and partying. I asked if parking was permitted and they said nobody was checking cars.

I parked next to the entrance, got out and began walking. The closer I got to campus, the more partying I saw, mostly fraternities playing loud music with outdoor food and drink.

“Why haven’t they started walking to the game?” I wondered. “No wonder UNC is notable for its late-arriving fans.”

By the time I got to Columbia Street at the edge of campus, the crowd was similar to the vehicle traffic. I must have passed 20,000 other pedestrians as I hurried along South Road to Stadium Drive.

I found my seat in Section 130 in the southeastern corner of Kenan. I sat next to a young woman who was checking her phone.

“Hi, I’m Larry,” I said. She pulled down her mask and identified herself as Tiffany. 

Tiffany goes to most of the games, both football and basketball. She’s a nurse at Butner Federal Correctional Institution.

“I knew Bernie Madoff,” she said of the infamous Ponzi schemer who made off with more than $60 billion before being caught. “He was trying to get out before he died.”

I told Tiffany that I had been going to games in the press box before the pandemic. “It’s pretty quiet in there,” I said of the concrete and glass enclosure. “We aren’t supposed to yell or scream.”

Tiffany seemed to think that was odd but I told her we media types are supposed to be unbiased.

The crowd in the stands was just the opposite, making plenty of noise when the Tar Heels scored. In a way, I guess, they were letting off built-up steam from having to sit at home for nearly two years.

At one point in the second half, with the score safely in UNC’s favor, the student section at the west end zone started a wave, which continued counter-clockwise before reaching Section 130. Tiffany and I and our neighbors all stood and raised our hands, passing the wave on to the Blue Zone in the east end zone. Surprisingly, the wave lasted for at least five or six circuits before excitement on the field caused it to die out.

The most impressive sight, besides the game itself, came when the PA announcer asked everyone to turn on their phone flashlights in honor of all the first responders on this, the 20th anniversary of 9-11. It was amazing to see 50,000 lights shining all over the stadium.

When the game clock expired and we began exiting, fans stopped to take photos of the blue-lit bell tower. I, instead, used my cell phone to join the post-game Zoom interviews. Passing other walkers, I’d see them look my way when they could hear Mac Brown giving his impressions of the game.

I found my car at the entrance to the parking lot. I felt lucky to find no parking ticket under the windshield wiper.

Another game, another season, another satisfied fan.

Larry Penkava is a writer for The Randolph Hub. Contact: 336-302-2189, larrypenkava@gmail.com.