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UNC Football: Choices

The Tar Heels face a decision with the Clemson Tigers looming on the horizon.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 21 Appalachian State at North Carolina Photo by John McCreary/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Eeny, meeny, miney, moe…

Life is full of, and defined by, choices. Obviously, big choices are generally given the most time and attention: marriages, mortgages, career moves, and more. But we don’t as often pay attention to the small choices, the things that seem inconsequential in the moment. For example, on the playground in your childhood, when the call came around for everyone who wanted to play tag to put his or her feet in the circle to see who would be ‘it,’ you could choose whether or not to play.

This wasn’t a big decision, it probably wouldn’t have a lasting impact on your life, but you were faced with a choice nonetheless. You may have a great time with your friends, running away from ‘it’ and laughing, or you may get tagged a little too hard by a bigger kid and fall. Maybe you would scrape your knee, and then you would have another choice to make: to get up and keep playing, or to nurse that knee and stay down. The only way to lose a game of tag was to quit, but you always had that choice, and so much of life is found in the space between two choices.

Catch a Tiger by the toe…

The cumulative effect of a bunch of little choices is especially clear in football, where decisions are made every snap, from the head coach down to the freshman walk-on holding the clipboard on the sidelines. In a macro sense, the final score of any given game is the quantifiable result of thousands of tiny choices made over the course of that 60-minute period. Some may be bigger than others, sure, but they all add up.

The decision to punt from the opponent’s territory on fourth-and-short in the fourth quarter is a choice a coach makes. The defense can, in turn, choose to cover and block would-be tacklers in the hopes of a big punt return, or pin their ears back and try to block the punt itself. A running back makes choices every time the ball is in his hands; Michael Carter, for example, made a couple of incredible choices during his 75-yard return of the opening kickoff of last week’s game.

Sam Howell chooses between receivers on passing plays, running rapidly through a checklist of wideouts to see who is open and who isn’t. The defense chooses to disguise a coverage or send a blitz in the hopes of causing the quarterback to make the wrong choice, or at least to slow him down long enough to force his hand. The right choices for the offense can lead to points and big plays; the wrong ones to turnovers and games lost.

If he hollers, let him go…

We, as fans, also make choices. We decide whether to make the drive to campus, to sit in Kenan Stadium and lend our voices to the third-down noise until we get hoarse, or to simply sit at home in the air conditioning and make slightly less noise at our TV. We choose which shirt to wear on gamedays, because it does help, and God save you if you wear the wrong one. We choose weekends to leave open on our calendars for the games we don’t want to miss, and we choose to live and die with Tar Heel sports because it’s worth it to cheer for the team you love. We choose how to respond when Carolina doesn’t get the result we want, just as the team chooses how to rebound from a loss.

Eeny, meeny, miney, moe.

There are two choices facing a team after a tough loss, like the one suffered by the Tar Heels last Saturday--to bounce back, or to fold. The choice is a deeply personal and individual one, and yet can show exactly what a team is made of. The defending National Champions are coming to Chapel Hill, carrying their 19-game win streak and looming like that playground bully that would sometimes make you think twice about playing tag.

The Clemson Tigers haven’t lost a game since the College Football Playoff semifinals of the 2017 season, and so the blue and white faces a choice: to show up and give the Tigers all they want, or to lose hope and fade. Nothing thus far this season has given me the impression that our Tar Heels will choose the latter—the team is nine points away from 4-0. I don’t expect Carolina to wilt; I expect the Heels to show up and play.

After all, the only way to truly lose is to quit.