We were walking through a back hallway of Quicken Loans Arena on a February Friday night around 7 p.m. when a friend nudged us. “That’s the three-year-old,” he said, and then introduced us to Boone Church.
Boone looks too big to be a three-year-old, which is exactly right. He’s not a three-year-old, he’s the three-year-old—as in, the inspiration for the song by his dad, Eric Church, entitled Three Year-Old.
Boone has the type of personality that makes you pretty sure he’s going to be the inspiration for quite a few more songs over the course of his life. He’s five now, and is primarily interested in his father’s career because it means he gets to shoot baskets at a lot of really cool arenas. Less than three hours before Friday night’s first song, he was shooting hoops in the Cleveland Cavaliers practice gym.
“Who do you like better?” a security guard asked him, “LeBron or Kyrie?”
Boone was not impressed. “I don’t really like the Cavs,” he said. “I like Minnesota.”
His dad did a doubletake. His firstborn had not previously mentioned an affinity for the Timberwolves, but the tour had recently passed through the Target Center, so anything was possible.
It was like this every night on the Holdin’ My Own Tour. Backstage, there was a tightknit family of musicians and crew. Every night, they put on what was the biggest tour in America, and then they tore it all down and hauled it off to another city. On that particular day in Cleveland, they arrived from Indianapolis at 4 a.m. After the longest show of the tour so far—more tickets were sold at Quicken Loans Arena than any stop so far on the tour, so Eric felt inspired to give them the most songs yet on the tour, putting 36 songs on his set list and then adding a couple more on the end just to make sure everyone got their money’s worth; he took the stage just after 8:15 p.m. and played until midnight, with a 20-minute intermission–they packed up and headed for Auburn Hills, Michigan.
During the audible portion of the second act—Church is touring without an opening act, instead choosing to play for three hours every night, and on this night closer to four—the Granite Falls, N.C. native chuckled when he looked at the set list and saw what was supposed to come next.
“Before today, I had never heard this song,” he told the crowd. “But my manager is a Cleveland native, and he was singing it. And I told him I didn’t know this song, but I’d like to know it.”
So, as the unimaginably talented are known to do, Church simply learned “My Town,” a beloved Cleveland anthem by the Michael Stanley Band, in an afternoon. And there he was playing it in front of 20,000 people.
“My band and I,” he told the crowd, “have played this song a total of zero times together. Zero.”
And that’s what keeps them coming back. Because you never know when you might hear something for the first time, or when Church might decide to play “Standing Their Ground” as a tribute to first responders. The faithful were equally happy to hear “Two Pink Lines,” Church’s first single and one he hasn’t played on recent tours. It’s back on the set list now, because, well, there are three dozen other songs also on the set list. The singer makes certain every show is different.
It would be easier to simply replicate the same show every night, and it would still rock, and everyone would still go home happy. But it wouldn’t be Church, and that’s why he purposefully left a spot in his set list to rotate in a new group of songs every night. If someone is going to the show in Cleveland tonight and Auburn Hills tomorrow—and he inspires the type of fanaticism that means someone certainly did—he wants them to have two unique experiences.
In April, we went to the show in Pittsburgh on a Friday and Cincinnati on a Saturday. We saw Church perform nearly four dozen different songs on those two nights alone. In Pittsburgh, we met Buckshot, a West Virginia native who turned to us after every song and screamed, “This is America right here, man!” In Cincinnati, we met Jon Lester and Anthony Rizzo of the world champion Chicago Cubs, who seemed equally as thrilled as Buckshot, if perhaps a little more reserved. Church has a way of taking stars and making them seem very normal, which is exactly that same normalcy that seems to appeal to his fans.
At the Phoenix stop on the tour, Michael Phelps hung out backstage, looking more like a music fan than a swimmer with 23 Olympic gold medals. He attended the national championship game with Church later that week, just two people at the very top of their respective professions watching a college basketball game. This was just a normal day on the Holdin’ My Own tour.
Church’s guitar tech, Michael Joe Sagraves, is a diehard Kentucky fan. He’s the one who whispers Carolina basketball score updates to Church when the singer is onstage and the Tar Heels are playing. Church isn’t a bandwagon Carolina fan. He’s hardcore, and spent one very late evening after the Cincinnati show analyzing the 2018 lineup possibilities if Tony Bradley decided to turn pro.
At one stop on the tour, Sagraves was asked for his first reaction when Church told him he wanted to plan an entire tour of three-hour shows that were different every night. No one in music does this. No one in music even considers this.
“I thought he was crazy,” MJ says.
Maybe he is. It was surprisingly grueling just to watch the two-set performance as a fan, so there’s no telling how demanding it is to actually perform it. But yet, there is Church in his t-shirt, jeans, and aviators, and when you looked around the arena, every single person—every single one, even those in section 202, as far as possible from the stage while still being located inside the arena—were on their feet. Go to any event in any arena anywhere, and that’s how you know it’s connected with the folks who bought the tickets. The lower level is on their feet because they’re close to what’s happening. The upper level only rises when they feel something, and every one of them felt something on this tour.
It was very much like going to a revival. “I’ll tell you what,” Church told every audience. “I’m going to give you everything I’ve got, and you’ve got to give me everything you’ve got right back.” Both parties to the deal took it very seriously.
Before the Cleveland show, Boone was relaying his exploits of the day, which included whipping a friend in a shooting contest.
“Maybe you can give me a shout out if you get on stage tonight,” the friend told him.
And then the five-year-old left absolutely no doubt whose son he is.
“If I get on stage?” he asked incredulously. “If I ever get off stage.”
Today, in theory, is the final day of the College World Series. It’s only “in theory” because yesterday was supposed to be the last day, but bad weather–which is sort of an Omaha staple, like the zoo or arguments over the best steakhouse–forced the postponement of the final game.
I was lucky enough to work with Jones Angell on the Tar Heel Sports Network radio team for five Tar Heel trips to the College World Series. In 2006, after Carolina lost the final game in heartbreaking fashion to Oregon State, 3-2, Jones and I walked out of the Rosenblatt Stadium press box. At that facility, the stadium was on top of the hill, and the press box was on top of the stadium on top of the hill. So we could see for what felt like hundreds of miles all the way around us. Jones was carrying the giant box of stuff that was required to put us on the air. We looked at each other and agreed we should savor the view, because we would probably never be there again. We then proceeded to go back four more times, eventually broadcasting two dozen games from Omaha. By the end of our summers there, Jones made the observation that of all the cities in the world other than the Triangle and his hometown of Jacksonville, he believed he probably knew the streets and directions of Omaha better than any other city. It reached the point that we knew traffic patterns and shortcuts like a local.
We saw a lot of great games (and some devastating defeats). But when I think about Omaha memories, these are some of the first ones that come to mind.
Arby’s: Our first year in Omaha, there was an Arby’s within walking distance of our hotel. For some reason I don’t remember, we ate there before Carolina’s first CWS game, which turned out to be a 7-5 win over Cal State Fullerton. You have to remember that this was 2006. We couldn’t believe that Carolina was in the College World Series, much less that the Tar Heels had won their first game. It seemed obvious that our trip to Arby’s had propelled Carolina to victory (looking back, Andrew Miller might have had something to do with it). We proceeded to eat at Arby’s for every subsequent 2006 Carolina game of the CWS, to the point that the employees began to recognize us. Also, we parked in the same place at Rosenblatt every single time–directly beside a newspaper delivery truck with a giant photo of Omaha columnist Tom Shatel. At least our car was easy to find after the game.
Kong burger: You’ve probably heard that milkshake favorite Zesto did make the transition from Rosenblatt to the new TD Ameritrade Park. One Rosenblatt local that didn’t–as far as I know–make the trip was King Kong Burger. Kong Burger was like a Char-Grill if Char-Grill was slightly less classy, with a little less attention to nutritional value, and had a giant inflatable gorilla outside the front door. After the win over Fullerton in 2006, which took 13 innings and lasted nearly five hours, we were walking to the parking lot and came across UNC baseball photographer Joe Bray, who had the same did-that-just-happen deliriously happy expression that we did, except that he was gleefully eating a double Kong burger. This was well after midnight local time. But why wouldn’t you be eating a double Kong burger in a deserted parking lot after midnight in the middle of Nebraska? That’s what you do at the College World Series.
Radio rivalry: I believe the statute of limitations on this story may have expired, so it’s OK to tell. Carolina’s opponent in the national championship series in both 2006 and 2007 was Oregon State. I mean this in the nicest way possible, but Oregon State was more annoying than the zika virus. They had made their own rap song, and their mascot was the Beavers (which of course everyone thought was plucky and hilarious), and they were an underdog, smaller school that had never won anything. Also, they were good at baseball, which proved to be a problem for two straight years. In 2006, they had a second baseman named Chris Kunda, who is probably selling insurance somewhere right now, but in 2006 he had morphed into the second base version of Brooks Robinson, making every ridiculous play and usually leaving me staring at the sky from the broadcast booth and shaking my fist while muttering, “Kundaaaaaaaa” under my breath. I built up such a hatred for Oregon State that when mascot/shortstop Darwin Barney signed to play with my beloved Chicago Cubs during his professional career, it created some major internal conflicts.
Oregon State had a very colorful radio play by play man who also believed he was a member of the baseball team. He regularly cheered great plays from the booth and also, on at least two occasions, yelled out of the booth at the umpires after unfavorable calls to the Beavers. He was annoying, and when coupled with the fact that Oregon State beat Carolina four out of five games in the two championship series combined, he was very annoying. Finally, after the Beavers swept the 2007 series from the Tar Heels, we just happened to be walking through the parking lot at Rosenblatt (why did so many memorable stories happen in the Rosenblatt parking lot?) just ahead of him. “I need to talk to him,” I told Jones. “That seems like a terrible idea,” he told me. He was exactly right, but I didn’t care. I walked back to the OSU head cheerleader radio broadcaster and said, “I just wanted to tell you congratulations on your national championship. And also that you are the most unprofessional broadcaster I’ve ever seen.” Not my finest moment, but it sure was satisfying, and I can still see the look of surprise on his face.
Sullivan’s: Most of the details of this meal need to remain covert, but one of the greatest UNC athletics meals of all time happened at an Omaha Sullivan’s with Jones, Clint Gwaltney and Brian Bersticker. This was also the only Omaha meal we ever ate that prominently featured a famous (to Stick, at least) folk singer.
The ski lodge: The College World Series has now moved downtown and has a much more corporate feel. All the team hotels are also downtown, and everything is more centralized. But in the Rosenblatt days, teams were housed all over town, and poor luck of the draw could stick you a solid 20 or more minutes from the stadium. One year–I think it might have been 2008, but I’m not completely sure–the Tar Heels were housed at a mock ski lodge. Yes, in Omaha. The Regency Lodge featured a giant stuffed grizzly bear by the check-in counter. I really wish I had photos so you could understand that this isn’t being made up. TripAdvisor currently rates it the 44th best hotel out of 83 establishments in Omaha, just below a Super 8, which sounds about right, if possibly a little optimistic. On the bright side, however, it did feature a rocking happy hour in the lounge most weekday afternoons, which usually was attended by no one under the age of 85 and sometimes included dancing. There was a bar called The Naughty Lounge located directly across the parking lot (the ski lodge rooms had doors that opened to the parking lot) from the Regency Lodge. I never saw anyone eat a Kong burger in the parking lot of the Regency Lodge (although I did once see a Tar Heel land a new job in the parking lot), but if I had, it would’ve been the quintessential Omaha experience.
Carolina basketball takes us to some amazing places…and also to places like Tallahassee and Starkville. If you plan your trip just right, some of the best road trips also include a meal that can sometimes be more memorable than the games (note: this is unfortunately not the case in Houston).
Here’s one opinion on the best of the 2015-16 basketball trip-related meals:
1.Filomena’s in Washington, D.C.: I don’t know that it was absolutely the best food. But I can still perfectly picture the meal here, primarily because there were hundreds–no, thousands–of rabbits in the dining room. We ate here with three of our kids during the ACC Tournament, which means it was close to Easter. And Filomena’s gets really, really excited about Easter. So there were stuffed rabbits everywhere. Rabbit statues. Rabbits in airplanes. Rabbits driving cars and rabbits riding shotgun while rabbits drove cars. At one point, we tried to estimate how many rabbits were in the dark dining room–the low guess was 250.
Oh, but the food is delicious also. Lobster ravioli is the famous dish (“Bill Clinton loved it”) but anything with the red sauce was amazing. Go at the right time and there are old ladies hand-making the pasta in an upstairs window. Kind of like the red light district in Amsterdam, if the red light district was selling pasta and not, uh, other stuff. They also have gigantic cakes and pies for desserts…but Georgetown Cupcake is right across the street.
2. Montage in Cedar Falls, Iowa: I know, I know. Iowa? Here’s a great example of how a meal can overcome a terrible game. Jenn and I ventured here with Eric Montross and Clint Gwaltney in the middle of a November snowstorm. Not a November snow flurry. But a November snow storm that would’ve shut North Carolina schools for multiple days. Remember, Eric is from Indianapolis. He just laughed when I asked if he wanted to get dinner a different night because of the weather. I drove us there while he probably sat very frustrated (but polite, because he is Eric) at my lack of snow-driving abilities. He drove us back to the hotel in about half the time it had taken me to get there.
In-between, we had the most surprising meal of this past season. The waitress convinced me I should try piñon crusted chicken. To this day, I don’t know what piñon is, but I do know if you put it in the crust of a chicken, it’s delicious. The chocolate souffle–and I am a bit of a chocolate souffle expert–was also amazing. Friendly people, fun atmosphere, good food: it was a place I’d most definitely go back the next time I’m in Cedar Falls, Iowa, which hopefully will be at least decades from now.
3. Garozzo’s in Kansas City, Missouri: Now this is what an Italian restaurant is supposed to feel like. Garozzo’s came on the recommendation of Roy Williams, who indeed was seated with several friends from the Lawrence area when we walked in. Which, by the way, was only after parking in the middle of what feels like a residential neighborhood. You don’t in any way feel like you’re headed to a place that will ultimately land on the highly illustrious Best Of 2015-16 UNC Basketball Meals list. But there it is.
The owner, Michael Garozzo, was in the building the night we were there, and went around and greeted every table. Some people got hugs. Others got handshakes. But everyone got some kind of greeting. It’s that kind of place. It’s also a place where you should get the chicken spiedini. There are other foods on the menu, and maybe some other sucker at the table can get that stuff. But you should get the spiedini.