A Band of Bruised Brothers

January17/ 2000

… While 99% of Tar Heel fans were concentrating on Basketball last weekend, BobLee was with 120 or so men reuniting for a different sport.  Carolina’s Football Lettermen had their annual Spring Reunion in conjunction with the Spring Blue-White Game.  What unites these men ranging in age from 25 to 75?  Kuralt was right “It’s not The Well or The Bell” at all.  For a rare glimpse into a sub-culture foreign to most fans join Mr. Swagger as he introduces you to “a Band of Bruised Brothers”.

   What this is “about” far exceeds the territorial boundaries of any campus.  It wears no particular jersey color.  It sings no partisan fight song.  It is not about “Carolina”.  It is about men who shared the experience of “College Football” and how that experience has bonded them over the ensuing years.  It is irrelevant that these men all played for The University of North Carolina Tar Heels over the past 50 years.  Gather a group of former Wolfpackers or Blue Devils or Crimson Tide or Seminoles, the variances would be minimal.

…The bond uniting them is Football.  For fans it’s Football Games”.  For the players it’s about “the Game of Football”.

   Humans have “needs” … nourishment, breeding, sleeping, seeking pleasure, watching Oprah, etc.  Enjoying pain is not a natural human need/desire except for folks with loose screws.  Some “loose screws” do gravitate to Football and we’ll get to them in a minute.  Football is the process of enabling or preventing others from achieving an end result via the application of dynamic physical force on your fellow man.  Laws of physics say being “the hitter” is better than being “the hittee” but any time large bodies collide, the force of the impact is shared by all parties.  Lawrence Taylor felt pain when he collided with a running back or quarterback.  Pads and helmets notwithstanding, pain hurts. 

   Recall the opening scene in the movie “North Dallas Forty”, Nick Nolte getting out of bed the day after a game … 

    With due respect to the conditioning agonies associated with any sport, no sport, with the exception of Boxing, shares Football’s reality of “what just happened hurts and what’s coming next is going to hurt too”.  Every position on the field (OK, except “kickers”) brings that promise.  Linemen bear the brunt of the impacts on every play, the “skill positions” (an unfair designation by the way) “get hit” more often especially the less skilled skill players. 

   For fans it is the color and pageantry of Fall Saturdays … for the players it is a 4-5 year lifestyle of grueling practices and conditioning … of screaming coaches and nagging bumps and bruises that never heal and the ever present cloud of potential serious injury.

   Fans remember exciting “games” … Players rarely talk about “games” but recall teammates and coaches … and not always favorably.  Not all coaches are beloved mentors and “father figures” by any stretch of a screenwriter’s imagination.

   Fans recall whether “their team won or lost” during a certain era.  For the players, the “success” was in enduring and surviving the Experience.  The “Experiences” of 1-10 and 10-1 have more in common than not for the participants.  Winning is definitely preferable.  Yours truly was involved in 2 and 3 win seasons and a 9-1-1 Orange Bowl season … That Orange Bowl season was “better”.

   Fans disparage players who “quit the team” … Players rarely criticize former teammates because EVERY player thinks about “quitting” at various times in his career.  It’s not a matter of manhood. It’s a matter of life priorities.

   Fans ratchet up hatred towards opposing teams … Players respect opponents because of the “shared experience”.  That brotherhood transcends jersey colors.  With fans it is about over-hyped “Us vs Them” morality plays … for players it’s a hard fought competition. 


    Now, before we go too far with this … comparisons of Football to REAL Combat are ludicrous.  A platoon of soldiers patrolling thru a rice paddy in Viet Nam or running out of a Higgins boat onto a bloody Normany or Iwo Jima beach are enduring a trauma far beyond the worst August 2-a-days under a burning sun and a psycho coach.

    Both experiences require a man to do something while every instinct screams “NO, this is NOT normal!”  … AM I NUTS?  The threat of “pain and injury” is at one level … “dying” is a whole other circumstance.

   Anyone who has played football at even the Pop Warner level has some inkling of the applied physical trauma inherent in the sport of football … but what compels a man to run onto a bloody beach or into a booby-trapped war zone. In a column a few months ago I said:

 “Some 18 year olds can run fast and jump high 

and are called “Blue Chippers”.

 “Some 18 year olds carry a rifle thru the streets of Fallujah 

and are called “Marines”.  

    Respecting former Footballers is “different” from visitng a VA hospital filled with men with missing limbs and tears for fallen comrades.


    Comparing a reunion of former Footballers to a gaggle of fans crying “We Deserve(!!) a winning team because” they bought a ticket, a hot dog, and a ball cap at K-Mart is a whole other issue.  Former players rarely discuss the player – fan relationship for the same reason soldiers don’t discuss the military – civilian relationship.  Those not “in the fray” can simply never understand.  “Former players” don’t pay any attention to the howler monkeys on the Internet or call-in radio.  A lesson current players should learn.

   John Bunting’s recent tribulations created an intriguing circumstance.  Former players are also “fans” and enjoy the “bragging rights” that come with victories … but the player brotherhood is an even stronger pull.  John, as a former player, is “a brother” and in this case also a “Carolina brother” so the reaction is a universal desire for John to succeed … beyond simply program succeeding.  Players also know that “Hard Work and Want To” while essential to success does not guarantee success.  Ask any “high school phenom” who finds himself permanently mired deep down the depth chart about “unfulfilled dreams”.

   Carolina Football has not enjoyed the 40 years of “success” that Carolina Basketball has.  The 8-9 Ws years are balanced by the 1-2-3 W years with the average being “average”.  But for the participants, it is not “the Saturdays” … it is all the experiences between the Saturdays and between the seasons. 

   Player reunions are an endless stream of “whatever happened to …” and “do ya remember that time we …” and “when Coach So & So did such and such to whatshisname.”  It’s never about the game winning catch or the goal line stand.  Those moments belong to the fans … the players share different intimacies that never makes the highlight reel.

   The teammates whose memories endure are often not the All Americans and the “stars” but rather the eccentric characters down the depth chart … “the loose screws” and “the kamikazees” on the scout squad.  Players respect the talented players but they also have an endearing respect for their teammates who shared the traumas of The Experience but had little or no opportunity to enjoy The Event.  

   Particularly so in Football with its unique “job descriptions”, the “glory” is never shared equally.  80% of UNC fans have already heard of QB Matt Baker, and the remaining 20% will by next September.  The name Kyle Ralph draws blank stares yet he has started in the offensive line for 3 seasons now.  The anonymity of  “the trenches” is another grim reality of “Football”.  If Matt Baker enjoys glory in this upcoming season, he will likely be among the first to embrace Kyle Ralph when they reunite.

   It may shock you to know that players generally feel a closer kinship to their opponents on the field than they do to their own “fans” up in the stands.  As players they share a bond in the physical and emotional stress of Football that no fan can appreciate.  Unlike Basketball and even Baseball, The vastness of Football stadiums and the concealing nature of the helmets and uniforms prevent “fans” from identifying with players on any personal levels.  Facial expressions, emotions, and even physical identities are concealed.  John Bunting talks about “a linebacker’s eyes”.  No “fan” ever sees that but teammates and opponents do in the huddle and across the line of scrimmage.

  Football is NOT a required rite of passage to manhood or to success in later life.  I know quite a few “former players” who never transitioned well into “the real world”.  But for those who do endure The Experience especially at the rarified Div 1-A level, it does mark that man forever.  That “mark” may be a crooked nose, a hitch in his get-along, a set of “railroad tracks” on his knee, or a knuckle permanently swollen to the size of a walnut … or maybe just a certain look in his eye when he is reunited for a weekend with “The Band of Bruised Brothers”. 


 Swagger Says

 Bill Belichek is the NFL’s Coaching SuperStar du jour

What is The Belichek Connection to UNC FB?


 So you noticed the “new look” to SwaggerSays, huh?

    Yep, we are ratcheting up for a quantum leap for Ye Olde Website.  We will be explaining the new features and new direction in the weeks to come.  Meanwhile CHECK OUT THE NEW AUDIO LINK over yonder on the right – HEAR BOBLEE HERE!

    In it’s four Final Four Finals wins … Carolina has an average victory margin of 3.2 points/game … ’57 = 1 … ’82 = 1 … ’93 = 6 … ’05 = 5.

    What about that “Helms thingie”?  That “Helms thingie” back in the 1920s is “fine” but only serves to give some bragging breathing room if Duke gets another NC someday.  If UNC diehards want to boast about the Helms award, then Wuffie diehards can count Ol’ Everett Case’s Dixie Classic wins in the 40-50s which were probably more legitimate.

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