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Charlotte 49ers football: ‘It’s for real’

2013 Charlotte 49ers Football: After years of dreaming and imagining the moment, the Charlotte 49ers open practice and a football program begins.

By Tom Sorensen

 Football practice is scheduled to start Thursday at 7 a.m. but the Charlotte 49ers arrive earlier. They run onto the field in groups, often by position, campus buildings behind them and trees in front of them.

      “Surreal” is how Larry Ogunjobi, a nose tackle out of Greensboro, describes the sensation.  

       A redshirt freshman, Ogunjobi says:  “I feel like the intensity level is up because now we’re actually playing toward a game. It’s just good. It’s exciting. We’re ready to go, ready to hit somebody.”

     By somebody Ogunjobi means somebody other than a teammate. The 49ers practiced last fall and spring and played a spring game. They started a program and installed a philosophy.

     But until Thursday they had never prepared for an opponent. On Aug. 31 at Richardson Field they play Campbell.

      “Hey, it’s for real,” says head coach Brad Lambert. “And we’re just like everybody else...getting in August, and here we go, and they’ll be sore in a few days and that will be good.”

       Thursday is whistles and orange cones and Titan 64 pop-up dummies and Lev blocking sleds and 93 players trying to prove they belong.

        “You think Campbell cares how tired you are!” yells offensive line coach Phil Ratliff. “You think Campbell cares how tired you are!”

         I know Mike Minter, the former Carolina Panther safety who coaches the Campbell Camels. Minter doesn’t care how tired the 49ers are.

        Offense wears white jerseys, defense wears green jerseys and quarterbacks wear black jerseys.

         Many players wear silver and black Nike shoes so sleek they make right guards look fast.

        Austin Duke, formerly of Independence high, runs a post pattern and Patrick O’Brien, formerly of Mooresville High, hits him in stride. Corey Nesmith Jr., formerly of West Mecklenburg high, runs a post and Matt Johnson, formerly of Maiden High, hits him in stride.

          The football is fast and even frantic.

      “When we take a water break you jog to the water,” one assistant coach says. “You jog back. You don’t walk on the field.”

      Thursday is the first practice for Justin Bridges-Thompson, a freshman linebacker out of Spartanburg.

        “It’s quite an experience,” he says. “I mean, it was great. The freshmen really got after it, we really did.”

         Coaches didn’t give them a choice.

          “Don’t mess up my drill!” outside linebackers coach Napoleon Sykes yells early in practice.

           I met Sykes at lunch Wednesday. He didn’t yell once.

           “Don’t cheat on me!” another coach yells.

             “Don’t tell me!” another coach yells. “Show me!”

              “Let’s go!” yells another. “It’s old school here.”

              Charlotte football isn’t old school. The grassroots movement that alumni started for years was underground, and the 49ers were always underdogs. Then the administration latched onto it and, despite considerable criticism and condescension, fought for it.

               In less than a month, across the street from the practice fields, the program goes public. It will be a tremendous day for the school and for Charlotte. It often is when underdogs win. Even if the 49ers lose to the Camels, they win.

          The green shirt Lambert wears proves it. Charlotte Football, it says.

         “It’s a privilege and a blessing to be able to come by here and just do what you love and be the first to do it,” says Ogunjobi, the nose tackle. “To be able to build a brand that’s going to be here forever.

          “We’re the team everybody thinks they’re going to beat. So we have to prove them wrong.”

            If Campbell, as is customary, sends Charlotte game tape or game videos or game DVDs or game files, what will Charlotte send? The 49ers might have to throw in  helmets or jerseys or players to be named later.

            They have no tape. But before the month ends they will.

             When practice ends I ask Matt Johnson, who will start at quarterback, how Thursday feels to him.        

            “It feels like we’re a football team,” he says.

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