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Charlotte 49ers football: Cheers, tears and a great start

By Tom Sorensen

The football team steps off two team buses Saturday at 9:49 a.m. Accompanied by drums and cheered by fans, the Charlotte 49ers make the brief walk to the Rose Football Center.

A guy who probably is in his mid-60s waits for them, watching the coaches and players pass. Then he can’t stand it. Finally he yells, “It’s about time!”

His point is undeniable. The wait for football at Charlotte has been excruciatingly long. But the payoff is tremendous.

I’ve attended 49ers’ athletic events on and off campus since 1981. Years ago I regularly watched good basketball in a gym full of passionate fans. But nothing I’ve seen that involves the 49ers looked or felt like Saturday.

Fans show up as early as 6 a.m. with giant foam fingers and grills, inflatable helmets and, on the back of a T-shirt, a message: Undefeated, untied, never been scored on.

Fans sweat and laugh and wear more versions of school colors than anybody has ever seen. Older fans pause frequently at Jerry Richardson Stadium vistas to stare at the field. It’s as if they found a roadside observation point that offers a great view.

One long-time fan, a basketball season-ticket holder I know, says he won’t believe in football until he’s in his seat.

He’s in his seat at 12:06 p.m. when the 49ers rush onto the field, fireworks above them and cheers on four sides.

On the second play from scrimmage Charlotte linebacker Mark Hogan intercepts Campbell quarterback Brian Hudson’s pass and returns it 32 yards for a touchdown. Forty-six seconds into the 49ers’ first football game they lead 7-0.

The 49ers offer 63 football scholarships, which is 63 more than the Fighting Camels offer. Charlotte is too fast, too big and too athletic. And in Matt Johnson, the 49ers have a quarterback. The home team wins 52-7.

“Other than that we got killed, it was a good experience,” says Campbell’s Mike Minter after his first game as a college head coach.

Minter, of course, played 10 seasons at safety for the Carolina Panthers. He says he loves Charlotte the city and Charlotte the school and loves Saturday’s opening-day atmosphere. He does criticize one of the fans’ taunts, calling it high school. They’ll evolve, Minter says.

The 49ers receive a standing ovation when they run onto the field before the game and when they run off at halftime. After the game, students jump the fence and run onto the artificial turf. Rushing a court or a field usually is silly.

But the school wins the first football game it plays, and it wins by 45 points. Charlotte 49ers, come on down.

Charlotte did come in undefeated. It won the summer and it won 2012. The team isn’t the property of the school. It belongs to the city. Coaches and staff consistently work to prove it.

Charlotte Bobcats first-round pick Cody Zeller, who is from Indiana, tweets this Saturday: “Great to see UNCC playing so well in their first football game in school history! So much excitement around town for this team.”

ACC Commissioner John Swofford sends Charlotte athletics director Judy Rose a congratulatory message. The Charlotte Knights buy season tickets. The Southern Conference officials the school uses give Rose a conference coin. She isn’t in on the coin flip; Chancellor Phil Dubois is. Rose receives a coin anyway and it moves her. Saturday moves her

“I personally believe this will change the university,” says Rose, the athletics director since 1990.

She says the school will be perceived differently, and she’s right. Rose isn’t talking about football solely as a game. She’s talking about football as a catalyst, football as a reason for the unfamiliar to drive to campus and appreciate the school’s programs and beauty. If the team is Charlotte’s, why can’t the school be, too?

At 9:49 a.m., Rose watches players get off the buses.

“This is it,” she remembers thinking. “This, right here, is a tradition that’s being set. This is real. Did we ever even dream this?”

As she watches, she begins to cry.

“I have to stop this,” Rose tells herself. “I have to stop this.”

She thinks about what she’s seeing.

“No I don’t,” Rose says.

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