CHAPEL HILL – Shakeel Rashad isn’t the emotional type. But that doesn’t mean he can’t try and bait his teammates to be.
In the postgame press conference area, there was Rashad, North Carolina’s senior linebacker, playing the song ‘Closing Time’ by Semisonic on his cellphone, trying to get his fellow seniors to shed a tear. It’s been his goal all week to get one of his UNC brothers to let the waterworks flow, to have an emotional breakdown during their final game in Kenan.
His main target was Landon Turner. No dice. Rashad moved to Jeff Schoettmer. He didn’t budge. Next was Marquise Williams. Nothing. Rashad just smiled and gave up. There was, and has been, plenty to smile about in Kenan Stadium this season. After the Heels destroyed Miami 59-21 in a game that wasn’t that close, Carolina improved to 9-1 overall, a perfect 6-0 in league play.
The Tar Heels honored 26 seniors before the game, the last time they would play at home. What made this victory so important was it was the first time since 1996 that UNC has finished undefeated at home. While North Carolina had another video game numbers-type of afternoon (487 yards of offense) it was the scene after the game that made this a memorable night at Kenan.
Players danced, they shook hands with the crowd, there was even a wedding proposal – senior Damien Washington asked his girlfriend to marry him after the game, she said yes. But the kodak moment was the look on the faces of the senior class. The class that has gone through so much at UNC. Recruited by one coach (Butch Davis), playing for another their first year (Everett Withers), sanctions, bowl bans and so much more. On their final night at Kenan, the seniors got to end things on a high note.
“I want to tell those seniors that walked off that field for the last time,” coach Larry Fedora said. “I want to tell them thanks for what they’ve done for this team, and what they mean to this program. It was a tremendous burden for all the guys to make sure they (the seniors) went out on that field as winners.”
Knowing they were going out as winners was not in question long after the game started. After a slow start in the first half, Carolina scored 45 straight before the Canes finally struck paydirt. The Heel have now scored 50 or more points four times this season, all at home. Fedora gave his seniors, at least the offensive players, a curtain call in the fourth quarter, allowing them to walk off the field together one last time as a unit – “I wanted to get the defensive guys as well … I did a horrible job with that” – but the celebration was on.
The underclassmen couldn’t live with themselves if they didn’t send this group off right.
“They’ve been through a lot,” junior cornerback Des Lawrence said. “Coming in, we’ve heard a lot of stories of what they’ve been through. We just wanted to give them a good going away present. To know that it’s out of hand and those guys can celebrate on senior night, that’s the whole purpose.”
After the game, long after the players had celebrated with the fans in public view, Fedora said there were tears in the locker room. This year, the tears were tears of joy, the complete opposite of the scene on senior day 2014, after North Carolina State embarrassed UNC, 35-7.
“I don’t know if I can describe to you (the feeling),” Turner said. “It’s just something you have to go through. It’s hard to think of the word for it. Just a lot of crying, and I’m so proud of the guys on my team. Guys that I’ve grown with and they worked hard to send us out with a bang, that means a lot to me.”
Between quarters on the video scoreboard, UNC plays the James Brown hit ‘I Feel Good.’ The video montage shows various Carolina players dancing, smiling, celebrating. There is still plenty of football left, still more to celebrate. But to see the complete turnaround from one year ago, to see players smiling, having fun, winning, is a reward to those – especially the seniors – who suffered through all the internal programs from a year ago.
“So much more fun,” is the Washington describe this season, compared to last. “We always rally around each other and find a way to win. Winning is the best feeling you can have.”
Rashad said the Heels are having a “real special season.” And he is right, but the good news, there are still two games remaining in the regular season. Carolina can clinch the Coastal at Virginia Tech on Saturday. That would mean a return to Charlotte for the ACC title game versus Clemson. But nobody is talking about the Tigers yet, right now the Heels are basking in the glory of making history. But they aren’t done. They just closed Kenan for the 2015 season, but there are still goals to be reached, games to be won.
“It’s not closing time for us all,” Rashad said. “Not just yet.”