Growing up, my best friend was into trains. While I was hard-pressed to color inside the lines in most cases, he would build complex models of steam engines, displaying them proudly in his room after each was completed. He was always analytically-minded, comforted by these mechanical marvels that might as well be magic in my mind. The way his brain works is incredible to me to this day, and when he graduated a semester before me with a physics degree, I found myself thinking about trains. Personally, I could never quite understand the fascination; maybe because I couldn’t visualize how everything worked together and served a specific purpose, likely because my attention was too flighty, lacking the focus necessary to accurately analyze the inner workings of these machines.
There’s a reason, I reckon, that the common idiom specifies a train wreck. Car wrecks are too sudden, too violent; plane crashes are too sad. A train derailing appears to be happening in slow motion even to the naked eye; it’s a kind of creeping power applied in the wrong way, nearly a force of nature in its inevitability. Small issues compound, stacking up like so many boxcars beside once-straight rails, becoming a catastrophe before really even fully registering. Seen from far away, where the hopeless screeching of brakes sliding steel wheels over rails fades, it’s almost beautiful. It is certainly hard to look away from.
The point of no return in a train wreck, I think, is where the Venn diagram of my best friend’s brain and mine overlap. In the moment right before hell breaks loose, the train is still this wonderfully complex machine, working in harmony to convert steam power into nigh-unstoppable forward motion. In the moment after, parts are spinning out of sync, colliding and causing the kind of wanton metal violence that follows when a mechanical ecosystem is thrown suddenly out of balance. It’s entropy in motion, and for a creative mind it’s a siren call.
I wouldn’t claim that Friday night’s game against the Virginia Tech Hokies was a complete train wreck. The Hokies are a good team that brought a solid game plan into a great atmosphere in Lane Stadium, and the Tar Heels still had a chance to win the game late in the fourth quarter. A train wreck calls for a complete breakdown of all systems; Carolina outpaced Virginia Tech in virtually every stat line except for the one that counted. This was a tough early-season lesson, one that should prompt reflection and perhaps a re-calibration of the season’s expectations. This is not the end of the world; this is an Amtrak delay.
There was a different kind of train, though, that didn’t survive the trip to Blacksburg. The hype train that was the #HowellHeisman campaign, I’m afraid, has run off the rails. I’m sad to see it go, of course, but it was admittedly a steep grade to begin with.
The load will be lighter moving forward, though, and the Tar Heels can now simply go out and play football. Less pressure is seldom a bad thing, and winning the Coastal is still very much in play.