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UNC Football: First Contact

The difference a change of scenery can make

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 25 Mayhem at MBS - North Carolina at Georgia Tech Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I remember the switch. Even after concussions and an intervening decade or so, I remember the difference. I remember the preamble—it’s like a wave, rising from some distant point all the way across the ocean, pulled by the moon or resulting from some shift deep within the earth, travelling hundreds of miles to reach the shore. It’s days of heat, and sweat, and pain, and frustration. It’s hours in a weight room that may as well not have air conditioning, followed by sprints in grass that always seemed like it was a day shy of being mowed as it whipped your shins. It’s scuffles with the friends that you’ve spent the summer running into, only to be replaced by high fives and handshakes in the locker room after practice. It lasts forever, or almost forever.

And then it ends. Just like the wave reaches the shore eventually, soon enough those summer workouts and practices are over, and you settle into the routine of a game week; film study, practice, walk through, specific situational stuff relevant to this weekend’s opponent. The first week is jarring, with that subtle shift from the more freeform work put in over the summer to the more rigid Week One preparation happening almost imperceptibly. One minute you’re in shoulder pads and shorts, walking through offensive sets or defensive schemes, the next you’re watching closely to see exactly what an opposing offense’s tendencies are when the right guard’s first step is to the left.

It’s still not quite real, though. The week preceding the first game of the year is still in that liminal space, the possibilities of a season still coming into focus as preparations are made for the first game and the weeks to come. To this point, you’ve been practicing against your friends, the guys who you grabbed lunch with before practice in the summer. Even in “full-speed” drills, you’re still maybe not going quite at game speed because you know that guy; he’s wearing the same color as you.

It’s not fully real until the kickoff. When you line up on that field and wait for the first whistle of the season, it’s almost like time slows down. This is what all the work was for in the spring and summer; this is the moment you’ve been waiting for since last fall. The entire world holds it’s breath in that space between the whistle and the ball being kicked; this is it. Things are about to become much more solid and real, and it all starts with the long-anticipated chance to hit someone wearing another jersey.

The Heels have been looking at light blue all offseason, and as beautiful as it is, I remember how good it felt to look across at a different set of colors. I can only imagine the desire in that Carolina locker room to get the season underway; after a season-ending loss and a summer of tackling teammates, it’s going to feel good to look across the line at someone else.