Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Number 22 and the boys in blue

In my first season of Carolina football, the great Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice passed. Justice defined an era of Tar Heel football that was long gone when I arrived in 2003; he was a two-time All-American in 1948 and 1949 and finished second in Heisman Trophy voting in both years. He gets the credit for taking us to the Sugar Bowl in 1947 and 1949. He remained humbly faithful to Carolina until his death in 2003.

Heavy hearts observed a moment for Justice on the saddest football Saturday in Carolina history. The athletic department painted his number 22 on the appropriate yard line, and the announcer barely finished his tribute to the man behind the elusive Carolina glory days.

I did not know who Charlie Justice was until I walked into the stadium that day, yet I felt the past swell around me in the hearts of alumni. I felt like a part of my new family. Years later I listened to a tape recording of Justice at the North Carolina Museum of History. He sounded like my own grandpa, affable and quiet.

Carolina has a basketball history as well. Friday night's pro alumni game marked the beginning of a year-long celebration of 100 years of Carolina basketball. Most of this history also escapes me, but I feel the tradition every time I walk the floor of the Dean Dome or listen to my friends talk about the Jerry Stackhouse dunk at Duke. The reunion game connected faces to the names I hear on the lips of reminiscent fans.

"Remember that game where so-and-so blocked so-and-so for the double overtime win?" my friend might ask.

I will shake my head or shrug my shoulders. I do know the national championship basics to stay afloat. We beat Wilt Chamberlain's heavily favored Kansas team in the 1957 NCAA championship under New Yorker Frank McGuire. In 1982 Michael Jordan hit the shot before Hoya Fred Brown accidentally passed the ball to James Worthy. In 1993 officials charged Michigan with a technical foul for calling an unavailable timeout. I saw 2005 and 2009, so the recent success helps me a bit.

But really one name made it all possible. A friend at Saturday's football tailgate told me a story about a sad soul he encountered who did not know Dean Smith, a leading integrator of college basketball and probably the best coach of all time.

"What was he the dean of?" she asked.

"Basketball," my friend said.

Enjoy the video. This is the best I have seen from the athletic department.

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