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UNC Football: How magic happens in Kenan Stadium

On Saturday, remember why sports matter so much.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at North Carolina Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Last year was a son of a bitch/for nearly everyone we know/But I ain’t fighting with you down in a ditch/I’ll meet you up here on the road. –Jason Isbell, “Hope the High Road

Next Saturday at noon, if that pesky “chance of thunderstorms” stays away, you’ll be headed into a near-perfect Labor Day weekend at Kenan Stadium: partly cloudy with a high in the low 80’s. The weather forecast is still evolving, but it’s a lot more certain than whatever might happen after Freeman Jones—or whoever the California kicker is—starts the 2017 football season.

Here at Tar Heel Blog, and in lots of other places (not least Las Vegas, where the Tar Heels are 11 point favorites), you can find plenty of guesses about that. And no matter what anyone may tell you with whatever level of confidence, they’re guesses.

By now, the storylines are familiar: is Brandon Harris a player who is just not quite as good as advertised, or is he a player who was limited by a program whose understanding of offense is stuck in 1992? Is Chazz Surratt’s rise the product of his true talent as someone genuinely ready to lead an ACC football team with serious aspirations, or is he being rushed because Harris isn’t what the UNC coaching staff hoped?

Is this the season in which the “just wait ‘till next year” mantra of the UNC defense in the Fedora era evolves into “this IS next year” while a lot of younger talent grows up on offense? Does anyone, anywhere have any idea how good the 2017 football Tar Heels actually are?

More than any year in recent memory, the range of possible outcomes seems impossibly wide. If you’re the optimistic sort, you can see the development of a maturing defense being met with Larry Fedora’s consistent history of offensive production by any means necessary. In the end it could make 2017 mirror of 2015: a fifth-place prediction followed by a Coastal Division title, and from there, just never know, do you?

If instead you come from the “kicked dog” school of UNC football fandom, it’s not too hard to come up with the opposite perception: we’ve had six years of a frenetic, talented offense covering up for the shortcomings of a defense whose results have so far ranged from “not suitable for viewing by children under age 13” to “not entirely embarrassing.”

In 2017, damn near that entire offense is gone, and for you, it may just be a bit too much to believe that the Tar Heels can just re-create that offense out of thin air, let alone that they can be carried to victory by the defense if that offensive production fails to materialize.

Take whatever perspective you will about any of these things. It doesn’t matter how you see it. It only matters that you care. That you invest. That you show up. That you talk and email and blog and post and tweet and text and talk trash and generally do what fans do: live and die with the joys and pains of another season.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s just heat fatigue. But it feels more important this year than most.

With the notable exception of the Tar Heels cutting down the nets on April 3, it seems as if we’ve walked through nothing but a long, hot relentless year of discord, tragedy and frustration. Right now, the people of Houston are taking a direct hit from Hurricane Harvey. Before that came the horrors of Charlottesville and the unwelcome conversations with our kids about what a neo-Nazi is. Before that there was a shooting of a politician on a softball field.

Somewhere in there, you found out about the speech that was given when Silent Sam was erected. You may have gotten angry with someone about what the right thing is to do about that. Someone, somewhere said something on the Internet that challenged your ability to be the kind of person you expect of yourself. And if all of this were not discouraging enough, we started the year with the Atlanta Falcons inexplicably forgetting that it is a good idea to run the football with a 25-point lead, giving us the—ahem—joy of another Patriots Super Bowl title.

I don’t know how all of that hits you exactly. What I do know is that if you’re reading this, and if you’re the kind of person who spends your free time at a site like this one, you understand something fundamental about the power of sports and why they matter so much.

Boiled down to its essence, the beauty of sports lies in an illusion: we collectively agree, at least as a society of sports fans, to pretend that the results actually matter. It cannot be credibly denied that this is, ultimately, an illusion. If you are unwilling to subscribe to this illusion, you will quickly find yourself in a more rational, but blander, poorer, and more bitter frame of mind in which sports seem like little more than a colossal waste of time.

If you're able to buy in, though, magic can happen. A kind of beauty becomes available to you that cold rationality, the endless internet culture wars, and political tribalism are powerless to provide.

It is the experience of standing and screaming next to another person you have never met, whose personal beliefs you neither know nor care about, and about whose life you have not the foggiest clue. Because by God, if Fedora will just go for it on 4th and 2 on the California 35 and convert it, you will high five, scream, and share being human with that person as if you’ve been best friends with them your entire lives. In that moment, that’s all that matters.

If you show up often enough in situations like these, you’ll ultimately find yourself present for one of those moments that is simply too good to be true—the kind in which you, as a grown adult, lose all sense of proportion and end up running around on a football field with people of every conceivable race, circumstance, and history, hugging strangers, screaming, getting teary-eyed, and experiencing deeply the fact that no matter how much you may spend your days hearing otherwise, you share something deep and fundamental with everyone around you. You have a window through which the more “rational” around you, who look at all of that as meaningless, cannot see.

This is why, over 35 years since the last time the Tar Heels won an ACC championship, you once more show up in Kenan Stadium, come what may. It is why you vent after a frustrating loss or a bad call. It is why you spend an amount of time you might not be willing to publicly admit wondering what the implications for next year’s recruiting class are when you see a tweet involving some 17-year-old kid wearing a hat that is, to your horror, not Carolina Blue.

Come Saturday, take your seat in a row of strangers who share this with you. Embrace completely the illusion of consequence, because through it lies a path to seeing past the tumult, the chaos, and the Twitter flame wars, to something far more real, beautiful, and important than winning a football game.

You can sit with me, if you like.

Go Tar Heels.