A breakaway highlight finish
During his short time at North Carolina, Giovani Bernard had grown used to tears after football games against N.C. State. But not like this.
I saw guys crying, Bernard said that Saturday, after the Tar Heels dramatic 43-35 victory against N.C. State. I mean, it was different from last year, years before, where guys were crying tears of sadness.
Six years. Thats how long it had been, before Oct. 27, since UNC had beaten N.C. State. UNC players came and went without ever experiencing a victory against their most impassioned rival. Coaches came and went. Five seasons of anguish, frustration and disappointment. Five seasons of hearing it from co-workers, friends, family members, neighbors.
And then came Oct. 27 at Kenan Stadium. At last, the day that Larry Fedora had been anticipating since the day he became the Tar Heels coach.
Ineligible for the postseason, UNC didnt have a bowl game this season. The Heels didnt have a chance to play for the ACC championship. The always-meaningful game against N.C. State, then, took on even more meaning.
It was one to remember even before the final seconds. Up tempo. Back and forth. Full of momentum changes and highlights.
The Wolfpack had possession with less than one minute to play, a chance to break a 35-35 tie and extend UNCs misery. It would have been N.C. States longest winning streak in the history of the series.
But the Tar Heels defense, awful at times this season, forced a punt. Bernard fielded it at UNCs 26-yard line. He took a step back, ran right and used a wall of blockers to find room on the right sideline.
It happened so quickly, before it became clear no one would catch him. Bernard said the tears came to him somewhere near the end of his 74-yard dash to the end zone. Andrew Carter
U.S. Open champ and recycling day
When you see someone in sports do something extraordinary, its difficult not to think of them as somehow different than the rest of us.
They are different, at least in their skill level.
But spending a day with Webb Simpson, just two weeks after his U.S. Open victory at the Olympic Club, was a reminder of how much the athletes at which we marvel are like the rest of us.
Simpson was going to Greensboro for a Wyndham Championship media day appearance, promoting the event that had been his first PGA Tour victory nearly one year earlier.
When I arrived at Simpsons south Charlotte home at about 6:30 a.m., the U.S. Open champion was carrying his silver U.S. Open trophy through his garage. He put the trophy on the garage floor and then rolled his garbage can and recycling bin to the street like everyone else on his block that day.
Simpson checked to see if it was a recycling week, admitting he loses track of which weeks both bins go to the street.
With his garbage cans in place, Simpson grabbed the trophy and tucked it into the back seat of an SUV for the ride to Greensboro, the trophy at his feet in the floorboard.
We stopped at Chick-Fil-A going and coming, the national champion of American golf standing in line to order his sandwich.
On the ride to and from Greensboro, Simpson talked about sports, told stories about himself, did some business with his agent, autographed photos to be mailed out, contemplated his playing schedule and touched base with his then-pregnant wife, Dowd, back home.
Back in Charlotte by mid-afternoon, Simpson planned to get a workout in and then spend a quiet evening with the family.
After he rolled the garbage cans back in place. Ron Green Jr.
Dean Smith said Coach K could bring home the gold
I was fortunate to be sent to London this summer to cover the Olympics, focusing my stories mostly on the athletes and coaches from North Carolina. I ended up covering a number of the U.S. mens basketball games there because Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was coaching the team for the second Olympics in a row.
After the U.S. won the gold medal 107-100 over Spain in a victory keyed by LeBron James, I asked Jerry Colangelo the chairman of USA Basketball about something I had heard regarding former UNC coach Dean Smith and Coach K.
Colangelo had been charged with helping the U.S. mens team rise from the ashes of the 2004 Olympic squad. That team had been coached by Larry Brown and had lost three times in Greece after many top NBA players found convenient excuses not to play.
Brown obviously wasnt going to get to return after a bronze medal. So Colangelo started asking lots of basketball people who should next coach the team in 2008. One of those he asked at a meeting in Chicago was Smith, who had directed the 1976 U.S. team to an Olympic gold medal (that was back when the U.S. used only college players Smith put four of his Tar Heels on the squad).
Colangelo showed Smith a blackboard filled with possible head coaches from the NBA and college ranks.
Dean Smith said theres only one college guy up there who I believe can get the job done, and thats Coach K, Colangelo recounted. Which was really a statement, coming from his biggest rival.
Coach K was recommended by many others, too, of course. But that one carried particular weight with Colangelo. And Smith was right Coach K sure got the job done.
Krzyzewski ended up leading the U.S. mens team to a 62-1 overall record as their head coach while still keeping Duke basketball at its normal height on the mountaintop. He said after these Olympics that he wont return as coach for the 2016 Summer Games.
Even coming back for a second Olympic stint in 2012 carried quite a risk, because America shrugs when you win gold medals in basketball and rants when you dont. But Krzyzewski felt the pull of patriotism. And ultimately, he was able to ride off into a golden sunset, capping one of the best moments of the 2012 Summer Games. Scott Fowler
Washburn breaking free from some old ties
Chris Washburn is never too far from his past.
Minutes after a lengthy interview during which he talked about his past struggles with drug addiction, Washburn stood in the parking lot of his Hickory restaurant and introduced a visitor to four old friends.
Washburn, a Hickory native and former star basketball player at N.C. State whose NBA career was cut short by drug abuse, chatted and joked with them for a while. Then they left.
I bought my dope from them, Washburn said. But I dont hang with them now. Im not disrespectful, but I dont go out of my way to see them. They come here to see me.
Washburn pointed to one friend: Hes still homeless and on drugs.
Then to another: Hes cleaned up. He works for a chef here in town.
Washburn has been clean for nearly 13 years now. He moved back to Hickory from Texas in 2012 and opened his restaurant Washburns Wings and More with his girlfriend and business partner Monique Richardson.
A gregarious and welcoming sort (who stands 6-foot-11 and weighs 440 pounds), Washburn has worked hard to re-establish ties to his hometown and N.C. States basketball program.
The restaurant is on the fringes of an area where Washburn once looked for drugs. He allows customers who are unable to pay to work for their meals. Some of them like the friends in the parking lot knew Washburn from his days as a drug addict.
Washburn watched as they got in a car and drove away.
The tables have turned now, Washburn said. But if you were nice to me back then, Ill be nice to you now. David Scott
A day of possibilities
I dont often use the word delight.
Delight isnt just a state of pleasure or satisfaction. Its meant to be something rare.
Point guard Kemba Walker was delighted when his Charlotte Bobcats won their first summer-league game in July in Las Vegas over the Sacramento Kings. There were no tangible stakes. This was a glorified scrimmage that included players who would never be on a regular-season NBA roster.
But there was a ball and referees and fans in the stands. It had been months and months since the Bobcats won a game of any sort. So Walker expressed delight.
It counts, Walker all but shouted. I say this ends the losing streak at 23!
Technically no. That would happen in November, when the Bobcats won their season-opener against the Indiana Pacers, 90-89. But what happened in Las Vegas was the first step toward fixing the mess that was the Bobcats 2011-12 season.
What I saw in Vegas was players buying into what new coach Mike Dunlap wanted. They were scrambling around on defense, pressing and trapping. Walker was making better decisions with the ball and Dunlap was putting him in plays that maximized Walkers stop-and-start dribbling skills.
This wasnt just what happened, but what it evoked. I kept kidding Walker that he smiled more those two weeks in Vegas than he did his entire rookie season.
Walker couldnt hide what a shock and disappointment the Bobcats 7-59 season became. He was always polite and professional. But he was glum. You could see it in his expressions and hear it in his answers.
That was understandable; he went from leading Connecticut to the 2011 national championship to dragging through the worst season, winning percentage-wise, in NBA history.
Vegas represented change and hope. You could see that on the court. You could see it even more in Walkers grin. Rick Bonnell
A showdown in the Southern Conference
Unless you were in Asheville or you went to one of these two schools, you probably dont remember this game.
It wasnt Duke-North Carolina. It wasnt N.C. State making its run. But in a 25-year sportswriting career, it was one of the five best college basketball games Ive ever seen in person.
This was in Asheville on March 5. Southern Conference tournament final. Davidson the heavy favorite vs. Western Carolina. The Catamounts had once been 10-17 but had won seven straight games including three over the previous three days to make the final.
The tournament final in a mid-major conference like the Southern has a totally different and better vibe than those of bigger conferences, because in the SoCon only the winner is going to the NCAA tournament and everyone knows it. The game is always played with a frantic energy borne of desperation.
And this one rose and rose and rose to an improbably high level. Down by 12 points in the final two minutes of regulation, Western Carolina got it all back and sent the game into overtime before a screaming crowd of 6,000 that was probably two-thirds for Western.
We believe! We believe! the Catamount fans kept chanting.
Then the game sped on into a second overtime. My ears rang like they do coming out of a really good concert.
Finally, Davidson took a 93-91 lead. Western had a three-point try in the final seconds, but it barely rimmed out. The game ended with Davidson earning its 11th overall NCAA tournament berth but its first since the Stephen Curry-fueled magic of 2008. (The Wildcats would lose to eventual 2012 Final Four participant Louisville, 69-62, in the NCAAs first round 10 days later).
The players were all exhausted. Half were ecstatic. Half were inconsolable.
It was a thoroughly amazing game. And although a lot of people have already forgotten it, I wont. Scott Fowler
49ers kick off football
Fans streamed into UNC Charlottes new football stadium one sun-dappled afternoon in early November. They werent there to watch an actual college football game, but it was close enough to the real thing.
The 49ers dont open their first season of football until Aug. 31. But on this day late in the fall, they were holding their first public intra-squad scrimmage on McColl-Richardson Field. The scrimmage the first of three in the stadium in November was the culmination of several weeks of practice for the 49ers, who had been working out since late August without the reward of games against live competition awaiting each Saturday.
The atmosphere among the approximately 1,500 fans who came to watch the scrimmage was festive. Chants of Forty! with replies of Niners! mingled easily with sounds of pads popping and coaches shouting on the field.
The 93-play scrimmage produced one touchdown and 415 yards in total offense. There were big plays offensively a 58-yard end-around down the left side by Independence High product Austin Duke and a 54-yard pass play from Karsten Miller to JaQuil Capel. Defensively, nose guard Larry Ogunjobi led the way with seven tackles (two for losses).
But the statistics were largely meaningless. What was more important was this: there was football being played at UNC Charlotte. And the real thing is only eight short months away, when the 49ers face Campbell in the stadium on the final day of August.
This was a taste of it for me, said defensive end Brandon Banks afterward. But not the full-course meal. David Scott
In his sons corner
Kerry Earnhardt stood a few yards from the six-sided cage in which his son, Jeffrey, would fight.
I asked Kerry, son of the late Dale Earnhardt, if he was nervous.
He asked why he would be. We talked a few minutes. He was courteous but struck me as shy and not interested in, or terribly good at, interviews.
I also thought he was nervous. Wouldnt you be?
Jeffrey, 22, is a racer who in a few minutes would compete in his first mixed martial arts fight. Jeffrey had wrestled at Mooresville High. But the three-round fight would include kicks, punches, elbows and, presumably, blood.
If one of my kids was about to walk across the wooden dance floor at Coyote Joes to get in a cage, Id be terrified. Jeffreys mom, Rene, didnt attend because she didnt want to see him get beat up. Jeffrey didnt even tell his parents. Theyd heard rumors that were confirmed when they read my column about it.
The Fight Lab announcer called Jeffreys name. Country music played, fans clapped, a few women screamed and Jeffrey walked out of the shadows.
His opponent was more experienced and landed the first blow, a succinct kick across Jeffreys shin.
But Jeffrey was stronger and regularly brought the other man to the ground.
He won a unanimous decision in his final MMA encounter. Shy no more, Kerry rushed into the cage.
The best sports stories are about more than sports. Theyre about lots of things, and sometimes theyre about family. Who do you want in your corner, even if the cage has six of them?
After handshakes, hugs and pictures, Kerry left the hexagon. As he circled past me, I stood to offer my hand. He slapped it hard and smiled and talked in a rush, saying more in 20 seconds than he had before the fight.
At that moment Kerry no longer was a guy with a legendary last name. He was a father, and he was proud. Tom Sorensen
Kalils rallying cry for the Panthers fans
An hour before one of the biggest Panthers games of the season, their Pro Bowl center was in the press box at Bank of America Stadium, wheeling around on a scooter and making his way through the buffet line alongside the gathered media, league and team officials.
Ryan Kalil was about as far removed physically and emotionally as he could be from his teammates as they warmed up before facing Denver and former coach John Fox on Nov. 11. Behind quarterback Peyton Manning and defensive end Von Miller, the Broncos rolled to a 36-14 victory to drop the Panthers to 2-8.
It was not where Kalil envisioned he or the team would be when he took out a full-page ad in the Observer in July, predicting a Super Bowl title that he said was more of a rallying cry for the fans than a guarantee.
Adding to the Panthers early struggles was the fact that Kalil could do nothing about it. He underwent season-ending foot surgery in October after sustaining a Lisfranc injury a rupture of ligaments in Kalils left foot against Seattle in Week 5.
After visiting with a couple of reporters and filling his plate, Kalil made his way to the private box where the teams injured players gathered to watch the Broncos game.
Thats a sad room to be in, Kalil said recently. You see a lot of guys demoralized, kind of watching it from afar and not being able to contribute.
But Kalil said he gained more appreciation for the teams fan base that day as he watched from on high.
Man, the Panther fans want to cheer for us so bad. They want us to do so well, he said. You can feel that. And its heartbreaking that we cant finish it out and give it to them. Thats the frustrating thing is weve had all these close games.
Kalil is off the scooter and will soon shed the protective boot hes worn since his surgery. He plans to be full speed next year when the Panthers try again to carry over a strong finish into the following season.
Hopefully, he said, we can keep the momentum and put it together to be a complete team that wins week in and week out. Joseph Person
The play of her life
The 2012 N.C. 4A girls state championship game was supposed to be a coronation for Morrisville Green Hopes unbeaten girls soccer team.
Green Hope was ranked No. 1 in ESPNs national high school poll. It had reached the state finals with an experienced team and was virtually playing at home at N.C. State against a second-year school from Cornelius.
Hough High, which had ascended to No. 2 in ESPNs poll with a Cinderella playoff run, had 13 freshmen and sophomores on the roster, and for the entire first half, the Huskies played like what they were young.
Green Hope dominated, but didnt score, leaving the Huskies a chance.
Green Hope got a penalty-kick score with 22 minutes to play to go up 1-0. With his team beginning to look defeated, Hough coach David Smith called sophomore Sarah Moon over to him and implored her to give him everything she had.
Moon, the teams fastest player, got behind the defense on a pass from Brandi Arey to tie the game with 12 minutes to play.
With about seven minutes left, Green Hope had a dangerous-looking corner kick set up to get the lead back.
Hough assistant coach Mike Kutcher started arguing the officials call that led to the attempt, but just before Green Hope put the ball in play, Hough coach Smith bear-hugged Kutcher.
Let it go, man, he said. Dont worry about it. Were about to win a state championship.
Sure enough, Green Hope missed on the corner kick. A couple of minutes later, Moon delivered the play of her life and her teams season.
Teammate Courtney Carroll tapped a ball down the right side of the field. Moon was trailing three Green Hope defenders who were closer to the ball than she was.
It didnt matter.
Theres all these balls we have where you think no one in the world can get to it and Sarah Moon gets to it, midfielder Hannah Robinson said. That was one.
Moon raced past three defenders in a blink. In another, she had possession. In a third, she unleashed a rocket of a kick that sent the ball into the back of the net.
It delivered one of the biggest upsets in N.C. soccer championship history.
What did I see? I was really driven to get it in, Moon said of the game-winning play. I knew we had to get into the lead to be able to win the state championship. I believed we deserved it. Langston Wertz
Another side of sports
I like writing about the Carolina Panthers and Charlotte Bobcats. Ive enjoyed covering the Olympics, Super Bowl, championship fights and the Final Four. But I also like the unconventional. I need it.
Who knew Johnson and Wales had a basketball team? I didnt until an editor told me. I watched the Wildcats one evening in their 600-seat campus gym. Although they had never won a game and had lost almost 50 straight. I returned. I hung out on campus and spent time with players, coaches and administrators.
Athletes took classes, held jobs and showed up for practice. They hustled, listened to fans tell them to get back in the kitchen and lost one game by 74 points.
After the story appeared readers were surprised they had no idea the school had a team. The next week there was a bigger surprise. The Wildcats won. The coach, who owned a tattoo parlor, called to tell me.
I suspect the victory dinner was outstanding.
This was January. In February I watched the Charlotte Speed Demons practice. All I knew about roller derby was Raquel Welch and the Kansas City Bombers.
Twenty-one women sped around the track. They dont get paid, risk their bodies to compete in a rough and fast sport and dont give Raquels movie great reviews.
I met a lawyer, a banker and a former skating waitress.
They share a quality. They enjoy being part of a team and helping resurrect a once fading sport that has become popular again.
I decree that in 2013 every reader watch one new sport.
I also recommend that every sportswriter write about one.
Nobody says no comment. Tom Sorensen
An autograph signing to remember
Its my first year covering the NFL, so I havent been to many training camps, but this night had to be the perfect training camp night.
A warm night in Spartanburg with a slight breeze, the Panthers were doing walk-throughs on the field of Woffords Gibbs Stadium. The crowd was lighter than most nights, and the sun setting behind the clouds gave the sky an orange and purple tint. I even took a picture, and no one believes me when I say I didnt enhance it.
Like most nights after practice, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is the most sought-after autograph. And usually without fail, night after night, Newton was the last Panther on the field signing jerseys, pictures, hats and balls.
Some folks would sit in the stands and then lean over the wall hoping to get Newton. But one dad was smart, and he and his son stood near the gate exit hoping to be Newtons last stop.
The boy, no more than 5 or 6, had a Clemson ball in his hands. His dad warned him with that fatherly wisdom that Newton, an Auburn alumnus, probably wouldnt go for it.
Up walks Newton in his red practice jersey, towering over everyone. He spots the kid with the Clemson ball, and the kid offers it up to the sky at Newton.
Man, you know I cant sign that, Newton said playfully.
The father smiled, in part because his son was meeting one of the most electrifying new players in the NFL, and also because he told him so. But never fear, because the dad had a drawstring bag on his back with another, more generic football.
He took the bright orange ball from his son and replaced it. Newton readily agreed to sign that. As many kids do when they get a ball signed by Newton, the kid made no effort to hide his unbridled joy as he turned around and hopped back to his dad.
The dad thanked the quarterback, Newton acknowledged it and then walked into the locker room, done for the evening. Jonathan Jones
End of a winless streak
It was a long-anticipated moment of celebration followed by an unexpected reminder that not everyone was happy.
On June 17, Dale Earnhardt Jr. NASCARs most popular driver ended his career-worst 143-race winless streak in the Sprint Cup Series with a convincing victory in the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
The elusive win, oddly enough, came at the same track that produced his most recent victory nearly four years previously.
Those last 15 laps were the longest laps ever, Earnhardt said in Victory Lane. I just wanted to do it for my fans theyve stuck behind me for all these years. I know exactly what theyve been thinking about and how long theyve been wanting a victory.
The win almost seemed to be followed by a collective sigh of relief from everyone in NASCAR.
In the minutes after the race, however, it became clear that even in the presence of an enormously popular winner, there was still an unhappy loser.
As the second finisher in the race, Tony Stewart was the first to appear in the media center after the race. He was quickly asked as was anyone in earshot of the media that day what he thought of Earnhardt finally ending his winless streak.
(Its) no different to anybody else that does it, Stewart said matter-of-factly. Its not a national holiday, guys.
There was a brief moment of stunned silence. The victory party was suddenly put on an awkward hold, but not for long. Other drivers, in the media center and in the garage, were quick to offer their congratulations. Even NASCAR President Mike Helton gave Earnhardt a hug in Victory Lane.
The NASCAR world celebrated its most popular representative was again a winner. Jim Utter