I sat down this evening thinking I’d be writing about Sam Howell. I’ve been feeling acutely bummed all day today, watching the news as more and more conferences and teams announced postponements and cancellations, buckling before the swell of this virus that has so fundamentally shaken the day-to-day. I was planning to write about the Tar Heels quarterback, no longer a true freshman and with a full offseason of work under his belt. I probably would have mentioned his stellar freshman year, and touched on the pages of the record book that now belong to the rising sophomore QB. I also would have whined a bit about how unfair it would be to be denied the opportunity to watch that quarterback play this season.
In the interest of being thorough, I sat down to do research for the piece I thought I was going to write. I navigated to one of my most trusted sources, YouTube, and threw on the 2019 highlights of Sam Howell, reminding myself every once in a while that I had to focus instead of just giggling like an idiot every time Howell dropped a dime to Dyami Brown. It was nice to relive last season. Last season was fun. I had expected to feel a little bit sorry for myself, as I preemptively begin to mourn a future that may or may not be. I was planning for that feeling, yeah; I wasn’t planning for the band.
Sam Howell threw a lot of touchdowns, in the video I watched, and a lot of them took place in Kenan Stadium. In a lot of those clips, the camera remained on the celebrating players long enough to give us a taste of the band playing that song we all know, the song that had a younger me telling the school down the road to go to hell before I even knew what hell was. Suddenly, I wasn’t focusing on the monumental things a freshman quarterback was doing on the field. Suddenly, I wasn’t giddy with excitement as a beautiful pass hit a streaking Beau Corrales in stride. I was distracted by the music, playing in the background of this highlight reel, and sounding so much like home that it spoke to my heart through the computer screen.
It’s always amazing to me how a sound can become so intertwined with a memory. Sensory memory remains, to me, one of the most potent and bewildering things that our brains do. It’s a lot like the smell of chlorine that lingers on the skin long after the sun goes down on another day of swimming, and never fails to take me back to my very first job as a lifeguard at my neighborhood pool. The sound of the drumline leading the Marching Tar Heels into the fight song has been a constant since I can remember, punctuating some of the greatest moments of my life as a fan. When I hear those first few notes, I’m reminded of losing my voice, high-fiving strangers, and having to read the lips of my father to see what he was saying because his voice, too, stood little chance against the noise. I’m reminded of a time when all of that was possible, in a way that I’m not convinced it ever will be again.
I was seven years old when Florida State came to town, carrying a #6 ranking into Kenan Stadium. As long as I live, I will never forget when Sam Aiken became the closest thing to a superhero that I had ever seen with my own eyes. Not ten seconds after he dove over the Seminole defender into the endzone, there came those staccato snare hits, cutting through the noise of a crowd of UNC faithful 50,000 strong to lead the rest of the Marching Tar Heels in their brief but oft-repeated celebration.
North Carolina beat Florida State 41-9 that day. My dad took me down to the field as the student section spilled over onto the turf. It was my first time being on the field at Kenan Stadium, my first time ever storming a field, period—and I remember the band was playing then, too.