While I maintain that “9/11” had a bigger influence on the UNC Football program, it is irrefutable that ONE PLAY on October 6, 2001 meant an ego-saving Carolina Victory …. gave one coach’s career critical breathing room … sent another coach into oblivion … and may have put one school’s football program in a vegetative state. The young man whose extra effort made that play ended his UNC playing career in sideline obscurity … forgotten by all but BobLee Swagger.
September 11, 2001 certainly changed world history. Those who prefer to revise historical events to suit their own agendas may twist the events of that awful day into an unrecognizable mass … so let us chronicle what it meant for UNC Football and those directly involved in the program.
I had spent Monday, September 10 in Kohler, Wisconsin with PGAer Tom Lehman. We had done a corporate outing at BlackWolf Run … a companion course to Whistling Straits. I spent Monday night in Green Bay and took an early Tuesday morning shuttle to Chicago’s O’Hare, expecting to be back at Swagger World HQ by noon. As I waited at my gate around 8:00 AM CST I got a cell call from old pal Darcy Miller in Jaxville. “Hey guy, have you heard what happened in New York”. He proceeded to give me the first reports of that terrible chain of events.
As he blurted out the early disjointed accounts, I noticed that no one around me seemed aware. That would change by the minute. A quick thinking O’Hare official had put the entire airport into “Keep Calm” mode. The TVs in the bars were locked on ESPN and not the news channels; but other passengers were receiving cell calls and word was spreading by the second. It was eerie.
Realizing that the nation’s airports would be locked down within minutes I headed directly to the Avis counter, flashed my Preferred status card and was driving out of O’Hare within 20 minutes of Darcy’s call. O’Hare was still locked down when I finally drove up the driveway of Swagger Manor two days later.
In the aftermath of “9/11” football games were cancelled for Saturday, September 15. UNC was 0-3 on September 11 and scheduled to face a weak SMU team in Kenan on that 15th. The first of the “Fateful IFS” …
IF Carolina had played a weak SMU on Sept 15, and won which was likely … then Florida State would have come into Kenan on Sept 22 with at least one eye opened. Arguably the greatest ambush upset in Carolina football history took place. John Bunting’s first home game as UNC Head Coach was the 41-9 win that day. The Tar Heels took command early on, had a key turnover early in the 3rd quarter and won in a rout. IF FSU had taken UNC seriously that day, would that ambush have been possible?
Riding the emotion of the FSU win, Bunting’s Boys went into Carter-Finley and whacked the Wuffies 17-9. Bunting – 1; Amato – 0. The stage was set for the General Assembly mandated rematch of East Carolina vs North Carolina in Kenan on October 6, 2001.
Bunting’s Boys were now 2-3 and riding high. It was SRO at Kenan as Purple Pirates streamed across I-95 for the long awaited renewal of the UNC-ECU series. Despite the two big wins, Heel fans knew a loss to “that no-account party school downeast” would be more than a UNC ego could handle. Steve Logan’s Pirates had the talent to win, no question. An NFL quality QB and a top Running Back would be a test for Bunting’s team.
I recall it as a perfect Autumn Football Saturday … a bit overcast and a slight chill in the air. Even with Peppers, Sims, and Thornton; the Pirate offense was too potent to shut down. The teams traded scoring drives in the first half and Tar Heel fans knew that this was going to be a nail baiter.
Destiny’s Moment was around the 8 minute mark in the 4th quarter. ECU’s offense was moving the ball up and down the field but Carolina was somehow staying even or slightly ahead. Despite a Tar Heel score it was clear to the assembled 55,000 plus that Mo Mentum was wearing purple.
The Tar Heels kicked off from the East towards the KFC. One of ECU’s speedsters, Art Brown, took the kick-off, broke to his left down the sideline, cutback crossfield at the 50, juked several Tar Heels out of their jockstraps and headed hell bent for glory … with naught but Kenan turf ‘tween him and Six. It was one of those Slo-Mo moments that make sports so special.
In what was no more than three seconds in the sands of time … Carolina fans calculated an ECU tying score and a likely Pirate victory … trips to “da beach” would be HELL for the next decade at least. Pirate fans saw years of gut wretching subservience to Tar Heel arrogance about to be vindicated … 40 … 35 … 30 … 25 … 20 … Oh The Shame … Oh The Glory … 110,000 eyes were locked on Art Brown sprinting into history. History would indeed claim it’s hero in those fleeting seconds but he would wear #2 in Carolina Blue.
His name was Derrick Johnson. He was from Upper Marlboro, MD out of Eleanor Roosevelt High School but in a historical sense … he came out of nowhere.
As Art Brown passed the 15 … the 10 … suddenly another form entered the frame. WHERE IN THE HELL DID HE COME FROM? Derrick Johnson’s desperation diving tackle at the 3 sends Brown to the turf 12” shy of PayDirt but the magic moment was only half over. Derrick’s dive knocked the ball loose … it rolled through the end zone and out … Tar Heels’ ball … Mo Mentum rips off his purple jersey … and it’s safe for Tar Heels to visit “da beach” again.
UNC – 24 … ECU – 21 … 00:00
What IF Derrick had “quit” in chasing Brown … no one would have ever known … What IF Brown had held on to the ball, ECU likely scores the next play from the One. What IF Carolina had lost that game?
As to that latter question … there would have been no Peach Bowl that season. One can argue that reversing a later defeat to Wake in the “2nd half comeback nightmare” would have qualified UNC for a bowl … but could they have overcome a ECU defeat to defeat UVa the following week? A fragile team with a rookie coach working on the slimmest of margins … if Derrick Johnson was a half-step slower …
Without a Peach Bowl Victory from that season … how much more intense would the pressure from the past two disappointing seasons have become? Would John Bunting have survived “losing the bell” without that Peach Bowl trophy in his pocket … if Derrick Johnson was a half-step slower … on October 6, 2001.
And what of History’s Hero – Derrick Johnson? Sadly, post – October 6, 2001 was not kind to the young man from Upper Marlboro, MD. His Tar Heel Football career fell on hard times with the resultant futility of the UNC defensive backfield in the next two seasons. With 70,000 Wisconsin Badger fans singing Run Around Sue in Camp Randall Stadium on September 20, 2003, Derrick Johnson turned the wrong way one too many times and ended his Carolina Football career buried in the dank sub-basement of the depth chart on a 2-9 team.
As delirious Blue Devils rode “their” victory bell out of Kenan on November 22, 2003 … Derrick Johnson walked off that stage for the final time. If he played at all that day … it was minimal. Do you think the young man maybe paused for a moment … gazing into the far East end zone … and heard once more the cheers and gasps of those 55,000 astonished fans on October 6, 2001 … I hope he did, don’t you?
… And what about Steve Logan … if Derrick Johnson had been a half step slower …
This TV police drama often featured Veronica Hamel
taking a bubble bath ???
Pernell Roberts bolted The Ponderosa for 10+ years of unemployment before he resurfaced as Trapper John M.D. … a MASH spin-off. David Caruso pulled a similar career killer with NYPD Blue but paid a lesser price when CSI came along.
A fond farewell to very special BobLee Buddy Jerry Agar. Jerry is leaving his WPTF talk show post for an upward career move to KMBZ in Kansas City. Jerry is a cool dude and we wish him all the best. Loony Libs in KC look out … here comes Jerry!
An Encore Performance … Swagger got his first Re-Booking this week. The High Point Rotary got on the 2005 BobLee ALIVE schedule for next June. I wonder if any thing goofy will happen in sports between now and then … YA THINK?
BobLee ALIVE will be at Casa Carbone on Raleigh’s Glenwood Avenue this coming Thursday at Noon – Crabtree Rotary. Guests/Visitors Welcomed. Wonder if any Wuff Loonies will show up … probably not, no keyboards to hide behind!
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