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Charlotte 49ers watch football dream become reality

By Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for 20 years and has been at the paper for 25, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.

Charlotte’s spring football game couldn’t have gone better if it had been scripted.

The weather Saturday is sunny but brisk enough to suggest fall. Fans drive to campus early Saturday and stay late, several hundred walking onto McColl-Richardson Field’s artificial turf to collect post-game autographs from the 49ers.

All morning fans tailgate. Some are students and some graduates. Some are fans that lack a connection to the school but have an abiding connection to the sport. Football joins them all.

Saturday has a theme that is bigger than football, however. It’s this:

The 49ers did it. They said they would start a football program and they did. People said they couldn’t; lots of them, mostly outsiders. The 49ers ignored them. This – the first spring game in the history of the school – proves it.

The green letters ringed by white and gold in the black end zones that spell CHARLOTTE prove it.

Quarterback Matt Johnson proves it by hitting 13 of 14 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown.

I talked to Johnson at his high school, Maiden, on Charlotte’s first signing day, Feb. 1, 2012. Even then, only 14 months ago, football seemed a possibility as much as a reality.

Reality is Johnson completing his first pass Saturday to C.J. Crawford for 47 yards and his second to Austin Duke for an 11-yard touchdown.

Starters on offense and defense play for the Green team, which wins 26-3.

The fans, too, are impressive. The stadium accommodates 15,300 and almost 14,000 show up. Students get in free but fans who don’t have season tickets pay $10.

The stadium is stunning, clean and pristine and in the middle of campus. Across the street is Duke Centennial Hall, where several fans watch from the patio. Because there is no upper deck, there are no bad seats. Fans wear every piece of Charlotte garb imaginable. One wraps up in so much green he looks like Gumby.

No matter what they wear, they make noise.

Asked what his reaction is when he hears the crowd as he runs onto the field, Austin extends his arms.

“This is real,” he says. “Time to show out.”

The game is spring football for players but spring training for fans. A guy in Section 109 tries to get the wave going. But fans in Sections 110 and 111 can’t quite get the timing down and the result is more of a ripple. Late in the game there is, however, a flood warning of a wave.

Question: When is the wave appropriate at a football game?

Answer: Never, and especially never when your team has the ball, and if you’re a Charlotte fan Saturday your team always has the ball.

But football is new, and fans have a good time and so does head coach Brad Lambert.

Nose tackle Larry Ogunjobi walks into the post-game news conference and Lambert tells him: “I thought they said no cleats in here.”

Oh, man. Ogunjobi, a freshman from Greensboro, hurriedly grabs his shoes and begins to remove them as he stands, not so easy when you’re 6-3 and 253 pounds.

“Just kidding,” Lambert says.

Saturday is as much festival as football. The opener, at home, against Mike Minter’s Campbell Camels, is little more than four months away.

“Get that atmosphere going and it will be special things here,” Austin says.

I believe him.

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