There’s a breathless kind of anticipation in the seconds before the ball is snapped. A moment distilling a week’s worth of preparation; a summer’s worth of blood, sweat and tears; all built on the foundation of a lifetime spent playing the game. All of the momentum leading up to this moment, all of the work and sacrifice and continuous go, go, go; each of the many moving parts is suspended briefly in this handful of heartbeats, this proverbial eye in the middle of the storm of violence that is the sport we know and love. It’s like the breath before diving into cold water; it’s the tension between the push of the tide and the surface of the water just before a wave breaks on the shore. It’s a wonderful bit of stillness, made all the more beautiful by how brief it is and how completely it is destroyed as soon as the center moves his hand.
It’s a unique moment in sports. Basketball fans in the Dean Dome are accustomed to much more free-flowing play, especially with Coach Williams taking his timeouts back to the locker room with him. Fans of the dynastic women’s soccer team are certainly used to the running clock that accompanies the beautiful game. In football, there is this blink-and-miss-it period of quiet that precedes each and every play, a few seconds of peace in which anything can happen.
Coaches on both sidelines believe they know what will happen. A quarterback, looking across the line at a defense hell-bent on visiting harm upon him, thinks he knows what’s coming next. A safety, staring right back at the quarterback, thinks the same. The Tar Heel fans in Kenan Stadium believe they know what’s coming next, and they know it with just as much certainty as the fans who aren’t wearing light blue sitting next to them, fervently knowing the opposite. This (un)certainty, while nerve-shattering in a close game, also holds an incredible amount of potential. One play can change the course of a whole game, or even a whole season; just look at last year’s squad. In the brief period between the 22 players on the field falling still and the frenzy of motion that is set off by the ball leaving the hand of the center, each and every play in the game could be that play.
When Sam Howell takes the first snap of the season, whenever that may be, there will be more than usual suspended in those few breathless, precious seconds. There will be a very different kind of buildup to this season than to every season in the past, and the game will likely be played in a very different world from any we’ve ever seen. There will be feelings that none of us can readily explain in the balance, in this moment of believing that we know what will come next.
The coaches on both sidelines will still think they know what’s coming. The quarterback, surveying the defense, will think he knows the same. Each and every fan sitting in Kenan Stadium, on a bar stool in Linda’s, or on the couch at home will still be convinced that they know. None of us will have any idea, of course, but for those few ticks we can allow ourselves to believe that we do, and that’s a beautiful thing.