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In My Opinion

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Jim Duncan helped put the air in Charlotte 49ers football

By Tom Sorensen
tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com
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.

Although the Campbell Fighting Camels don’t offer football scholarships, the Charlotte 49ers will be the underdogs when they play their first football game Saturday. Not the Charlotte football team; the Charlotte football program.

As natural as the sport will feel on campus and in Jerry Richardson Stadium, Charlotte football was long wedged between unlikely and you have to be kidding.

In 2006, 49ers football was little more than an occasional plea on the Niner Nation message board. From time to time a graduate, student or fan would ask: Why don’t we have football?

Across Charlotte and the Carolinas, thousands of sensible and mature adults, not all of them condescending, were willing to provide an answer.

You can’t have football, 49ers, because the economy is bad. You can’t have football because, well, what conference are you in this week? You can’t have football because you’re a commuter school. Tell you what; when the season starts you have our permission to watch ACC or major college football.

There was a Know Your Role quality to the criticism. Charlotte was widely perceived as a commuter school with a concrete campus. Take your classes and head on home and watch the Tar Heels or Wolfpack on TV.

Jim Duncan, a psychology major, Charlotte class of ’91, decided there was no future in asking: Why don’t we have football?

What do you gain? What good is a question without an answer?

So he helped fashion an answer. He began the Charlotte Football Initiative. In a Sept. 5, 2006 post on the Niner Nation message board, Duncan wrote:

“The Charlotte 49er Football Initiative is an organization dedicated to the success and glory of the University of North Carolina Charlotte. Our mission is to promote the creation of a Division I college football program at Charlotte through awareness campaigns. A football program will have a positive impact on athletic programs, school spirit, alumni giving, the image of the University, and the City of Charlotte. In time, we hope to bring these benefits to Charlotte.”

Initiative implies action, and the organization earned the moniker. Duncan talked to Old Dominion, which had committed to football, and would play its first game in 2009. Tell me how you did it. Tell me why you did it.

The Initiative canvassed faculty members, looking for support. They found student leaders.

Instead of ripping the school for failing to commit to football, they reached out to help their school attain it. They sought pledges. They sought commitments. They sought people as committed as they were. They asked graduates to identify other graduates who might join the cause. And it was a cause.

They did their homework. How much would football – salaries and structures and scholarships – cost? How would they offset those costs?

Of course they were ripped. I remember speaking at a media roundtable about a variety of sports subjects. There were 14 of us. Most supported the football quest. But I was the only one who believed the 49ers would succeed.

It’s not as if I can see into the future, as my NFL picks attest. But the 49ers were onto something. They were so tired of being told who they were. They didn’t require help, thanks. The grassroots passion trickled up. The chancellor, athletic director and administration began firm in their commitment.

Of course it was the wrong time to build a stadium and sell tickets. The 49ers knew that. They also knew that there has never been a good time.

I wrote about Duncan in 2006. This week we met for the first time in seven years.

Since the Charlotte Football Initiative’s first meeting was at the Hickory Tavern on Harris Boulevard, we met there.

Duncan, 45, lives in Clemmons, outside Winston-Salem. He works for Novant Health. He has sons aged 6 and 4 who weren’t born in ’06. They will join Duncan and his wife at the game Saturday.

Duncan, who wears a fairway green Augusta National golf shirt, smiles often during our conversation. He should.

The good guys won.

“We’re not little brother anymore,” he says.

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