Going to Church

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.”

 

Top Five of 2016

I think I’d be writing about Carolina sports as therapy even if there was no GoHeels.com. The happy surprise is that other Tar Heel fans actually read those stories, but even if they didn’t, I think I’d need an outlet to try and rationalize Kris Jenkins or salute Marcus Paige. The fact that some of you find something worthwhile in those words is what enables me to have a job.

In looking back at the columns from 2016, I felt reasonably confident that the postgame column from the loss to Villanova would have the biggest readership. I had no idea about the others. Here are, then, the five most-read GoHeels columns of the year. Thanks to everyone for reading, and for helping keep me sane.

April 5: Proud. These end of season columns are the absolute worst to write. Not only was it the end of a basketball season, but it was also the end of Carolina careers for Brice Johnson, Marcus Paige and Joel James, and I think that’s what connected with readers. Plus, in the immediate hours after the championship game, Kris Jenkins’ shot was everywhere, and the overwhelming national storyline was what a great game it had been. Carolina fans needed somewhere to turn that understood that in their minds, it wasn’t a great game, that it was a horribly awful game. Hopefully, this story provided some of that, while also reminding everyone that it was a pretty incredible season (and four years).

March 24: A Loss Beyond Words. This one surprised me. Written in the buildup to the Sweet 16 game in Philadelphia, it wasn’t really about basketball at all, other than the way basketball brings a family together. But this story was mostly about an unimaginable tragedy that ripped a family apart, as a house fire in Virginia killed two boys and left their parents—including hardcore Carolina fan Lindsay McKinnon—wondering what to do next. Talking to Tom McKinnon on the phone was one of the hardest interviews I’ve ever done.

December 17: Hate the Game. Thanks to the state of Kentucky and one specific UK writer who misconstrued a key line for quite a few of the clicks on this one. Still, it might have been the best Carolina basketball game of calendar year 2016—except for the outcome. There’s a good chance these two teams meet again in approximately three months.

March 28: Priceless. Probably my favorite column of the year, because it was such a prototypical Roy Williams story. His Easter egg hunts are legendary among his family, and you just knew he’d find a way to have one even while coaching his team to the Final Four. The image of Williams hiding Easter eggs near the team hotel while the rest of the Carolina world was stressing out over the regional final is a great one. It was a nice reminder that these people we see on television and on the sidelines are, ultimately, just people.

October 1: Believe It. I didn’t plan to write this story. But watching Nick Weiler tomahawk chop down the field in Tallahassee after his game-winning field goal over Florida State, it just seemed necessary. And the response speaks to just how hungry Carolina fans are for a football winner. At the time, it felt like one of the biggest wins in modern Tar Heel gridiron history. Given how the season turned out, perhaps it’s been lessened somewhat. But the fact remains that Carolina football is now on the level that going into Tallahassee and emerging with a win doesn’t seem so impossible anymore, and that’s progress.

Thanks again for reading in 2016, and for making it possible for me to share my passion for the Tar Heels with you. Looking forward to even more fun stories in 2017.

Foul Weather Fans

The weather could be bad at Kenan Stadium on Saturday.

That’s not meant as a deterrent. In fact, it’s meant as encouragement. That’s right–I think you should sit in the pouring rain, with water dripping into your shoes, and wear clothes that are still a little damp several days from now.

Doesn’t it sound glorious?

Kenan Stadium is one of the most beautiful places in America to watch a college football game. But some of those postcard sunny days can start to melt together in your memory. The rainy/cold/terrible weather games, you never forget.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of bad weather Tar Heel games (I can already hear my dad telling me I forgot the freezing cold Peach Bowl in Atlanta in 1983). But it is a list of the five most memorable bad weather Carolina football games I can remember since I began regularly attending games in the mid-1980s. Will Saturday’s game against Virginia Tech be added to this list? It looks like a good possibility, which means anyone who turns down a chance to sit in Kenan is turning down a chance to have a story to tell for decades to come.

Sept. 30, 1989: Navy 12, Carolina 7 at Kenan Stadium. What I’m about to say is a bold statement–this might be the worst football game in Tar Heel history. These were two very bad teams, playing a very bad game in very bad weather. Mack Brown called it “one of the lowest times of my life,” and he might be underselling it. It was the first time in THREE YEARS that Navy had beaten a Division I football team. Brown wrote in his book, “I went out to my car and just sat there and cried.” That’s how bad it was. The next day’s Washington Post described Carolina as “almost totally inept on offense,” which was generous. Tar Heel quarterbacks combined to complete 9-of-32 passes. This game might be worth a blog entry all on its own.

But here’s the thing: almost 30 years later, I still vividly remember sitting in Kenan in a driving rainstorm. I have a friend who attended that same game and we often refer to it as a “badge of honor” game–as in, if you sat there for this game, then you have a permanent Tar Heel fandom badge of honor.

Nov. 9, 1991: Clemson 21, Carolina 6 at Kenan Stadium. Someone will undoubtedly correct me if I’m wrong, but my memory is that the Tar Heels played an exhibition basketball game before this football game, and then the hearty among us hiked over to Kenan Stadium, where the wind chill was 11 degrees. Lights had only been added in the late 1980s, so night games were still somewhat of a novelty. The thrill quickly wore off in the cold, as we came to two realizations: 1. Clemson was a lot better than Carolina. 2. Frostbite is uncomfortable. The cold was heightened by rain that occasionally threatened to turn to snow and/or sleet. Announced attendance was 31,000.

Dec. 19, 1998: Carolina 20, San Diego State 13 in the Las Vegas Bowl. Here is what you think when you sign up to go to the Las Vegas Bowl: Oh! Fun! It will be in Las Vegas and we will get to see the Strip! Here is what actually happens: the stadium is in the middle of the desert in what apparently is a wind tunnel. And it’s not one of those winds that is mainly a cool breeze. It’s a gritty, dry wind that left me picking sand out of my clothes for days after the game. Fans were wearing sunglasses not to fight the sun, but as a form of eye protection.

Carolina gained 196 yards total in the game and won. That should tell you something about a day when the wind gusted up to 48 miles per hour. Decorated Tar Heels like Ronald Curry and Brandon Spoon played in this game, and yet head coach Carl Torbush correctly said afterwards, “I would have voted for (punter) Brian Schmitz for MVP.”

The punter for MVP of a bowl game. These are the kinds of things you only see in bad weather games.

August 25, 2001: Oklahoma 41, Carolina 27 in Norman. From the top of Oklahoma’s press box, you could see for what felt like hundreds of miles in every direction across the flatlands of the Sooner State. That meant we had a terrific view when what looked suspiciously like a tornado began moving towards the stadium. And while the Tar Heels were mounting a comeback under the direction of Darian Durant, the weather–which had started the day at an angry 99 degrees–got progressively worse, with lightning crackling across the gray clouds.

The game was paused in the third quarter for the referee to check with National Weather Service officials, who were undoubtedly sitting nice and dry in their offices. The game then continued, only to see the skies open near the end of the fourth quarter.

Sept. 29, 2012: Carolina 66, Idaho 0 at Kenan Stadium. It still amazes me that 32,000 people sat in a monsoon to watch the Tar Heels beat the Vandals by 66 points. Granted, by the second half, there was nowhere close to that many people present. But if you attended this one from start to finish, you have your own Badge of Honor game.

And we haven’t even gotten to numerous games that could’ve been on this list, such as the 2002 loss to Miami of Ohio (NINE Tar Heel turnovers) in a rainstorm, or any time you’ve melted in Columbia watching Carolina and Pretend Carolina, or the fog in the 1993 Gator Bowl that left some fans in the stadium unable to see the field. Feel free to add your own below; when you sit outside in horrible weather for three hours, you deserve permanent bragging rights.

Will Saturday’s game against Virginia Tech be so damp and so uncomfortable that it should be added to this list? If we’re lucky, it will.

Pod People

From 2005-2012, I sat next to Jones Angell while he did play-by-play for the Carolina baseball team. It was a pretty incredible time to have that job; the Tar Heels went to the College World Series five times in that span, meaning Jones and I became much better acquainted with Omaha, Nebraska, than we ever imagined. There was a time when Jones rightfully claimed that other than his hometown of Jacksonville and Chapel Hill, Omaha was probably the city in America he could most easily navigate without a map.

I was originally going to write that I was the “color analyst” on the baseball broadcasts, but that sounds a little more professional than I actually was. I had no clue what I was doing and Jones was nice enough to let me sit there and follow the Tar Heels. We saw some of the greatest victories in program history and also some of the most painful defeats. Jones once checked into a hotel room that had as its primary feature a guy who was not wearing pants, and I once told off the Oregon State radio broadcaster in an Omaha parking lot. Come to think of it, off-the-field baseball broadcast stories might be a good blog topic.

Since that last baseball broadcast in 2012, Jones has provided the signature radio calls for every important moment in Carolina football and basketball.

Just like he did for baseball, he’s provided the perfect mix of Tar Heel emotion and radio professionalism.

I’m far from being a radio expert, but based on what I’ve observed from Jones–and Woody Durham before him–one absolute truth of the business is that the broadcasters who are the best at their craft work much harder than you think. “Anyone can do radio, it’s just talking about sports and I’m good at that!” No, that’s how some people do it, and it’s usually pretty easy to pick them out. But being good at it actually requires preparation and knowledge and skill.

Even with Jones’ current high-profile gig, it’s been gratifying to have numerous fans ask if we might ever do baseball again. They are usually nice enough to follow that comment by saying they enjoyed the broadcasts. The funny thing, though, is they rarely mention specific games. They do, however, frequently talk about the rain delays, and the tangents that were a semi-regular feature of the baseball broadcasts.

We tried to have fun doing the games while also being informative. I don’t know which of those two goals we met more regularly, but that’s the same strategy we’re going to follow with the new Carolina Insider podcast, which was announced today. UNC is one of four schools nationwide to participate in this pilot program. The others are Alabama, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, so we’re in good company.

Prior to about three weeks ago, I had never listened to a podcast in my life. Since then, I’ve listened to some good ones and some bad ones, but I still feel a little bit like my dad trying to program the VCR in 1988 (“BUT WHY DOES IT HAVE TO BE ON CHANNEL 3?”). There’s one thing I’ve determined for certain: to make this podcast good, and to make it something that has some value to you as a Tar Heel fan, we need your help. So we’re open to your comments on what you want to hear more or less of, or which guests make for entertaining listening. We want it to be informative, because that’s the whole point, but we also want it to be fun, because this is sports and in some small way that’s also supposed to be the whole point. So we’d ask you to subscribe and listen to the initial episodes next week (new podcasts each Tuesday and Friday) and then let us know what you like and don’t like.

I’ll never forget one particular baseball rain delay. It was during the 2008 NCAA Tournament, when Carolina played its home games at the USA Baseball complex in Cary while Boshamer Stadium was being renovated. It was approximately 184 degrees that day, and a summer thunderstorm had sent fans to their cars. We stayed on the air to kill some time, and the conversation ranged from movies to favorite Tar Heels to when we might ever play baseball again. I was pretty convinced that our only listener, at that point, was my father, and even he might have dozed off.

I was trying to persuade Jones to play the UNC baseball rap song (that’s a whole different blog entry). To enlist the always-helpful aid of peer pressure, I said, “If you’re listening in the parking lot and want to hear the rap song, blow your horn.”

To be honest, I just assumed we would be greeted with dead silence. But then came a cacophony of car horns. “Wow!” I remember saying on air. “They’re actually listening!”

We’re hoping for the same enthusiastic response to the new podcast. Blow your car horn if you can hear us.