Former players ready for Duke vs. UNC
"When it's Duke versus Carolina, it's usually basketball," and that's from former Tar Heel football player and Sanford Central alum P.J. Gay.
The North Carolina-Duke rivalry on the gridiron dates to Nov. 27, 1888. This afternoon's contest in Chapel Hill will be one of the most important games in the long history.
Duke is 9-2. The nine wins equal the all-time Blue Devil season best. Duke is aiming for many milestones and firsts in a season already full of them, most important being a division title, a spot in the ACC Championship Game and a shot at its first ACC title since 1989.
Phillip Chappell was a Blue Devil offensive tackle after graduating from Lee Senior in 1992. He was in the trenches one of the last times the rivalry was bigger than normal for both shades of blue.
Chappell helped Duke's 1994 team to the Hall of Fame Bowl, which was the last bowl game the Blue Devils played in before last season. The '94 Blue Devils finished with an 8-4 record — Duke's last winning record before this season. Even in Duke's run to the Hall of Fame Bowl, the Tar Heels won, 41-40.
The Tar Heel teams Chappell faced were national contenders under head coach Mack Brown. Chappell remembers, now fondly, needing to block Tar Heel defensive linemen Greg Ellis, who went on to a 12-year career with the Dallas Cowboys, and Marcus Jones, who had a seven-year NFL career.
"We always tended to play better games versus UNC," Chappell said. He admits though, while playing competitive battles, never topping the Tar Heels is still "frustrating."
Duke scored a last-second touchdown to win 33-30 last October in Durham. It was the first Blue Devil win since 2003.
North Carolina has a five-game winning streak going after starting the season 1-5. The Tar Heels can clinch a winning season and earn a better bowl spot. Stopping Duke's remarkable run and chance at the ACC title is the major motivator.
"This year, it's different," said Gay, who was on the victorious Tar Heels four times over the Blue Devils from 1976-79. "It's our biggest game of the year."
Gay, his wife and his kids will be on hand early, likely for tailgating depending on how cold the morning is, for the game at Kenan Stadium.
Gay's time as a Tar Heel, during which he was a two-sport athlete playing baseball as well, included UNC wins of 39-38 and 16-15 even as UNC went 4-0.
"Duke was always a physical team, always a smart team," Gay said. "It was always a game that seemed to come down to the end."
Typically, Gay said, the Tar Heel roster was mostly North Carolina and southeastern kids, while Duke had more northern recruits than normal for the ACC. It made the games tough and the rivalry a unique one, Gay said.
Gay said the Carolina-Duke game is better when both teams are good.
"It's good for the ACC when Carolina, Duke, State and Wake are all successful. Any kind of fan of the ACC, of UNC, should want all four teams to do well. I want all four to go to bowls," he said.
Even from someone who was part of the games, the rivalry brings up memories off the field for Gay. With the game traditionally on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, going to the Gay home in Sanford became a popular tradition for Tar Heel players during those years.
"We'd have practice on Thursday morning, then you could either eat at the training table, which was, well, the training table, or come home," he said.
"So we'd have five or 10 guys, as many as could fit in my car, come down here," he said.
His mom fixed Thanksgiving dinner for everyone.
"So we had a lot of friends," Gay said.
Chappell, who was an assistant coach for Lee County for four years and is the president and a coach for the Sanford Sting Pop Warner organization, passes along a lot of the lessons he credits to his Lee Senior coaches, as he was also a baseball, wrestling and basketball player, and to his Blue Devil coaches.
"Football is a game that teaches so many life lessons ... there are so many positives kids can gain from being part of a team," he said.
"When you're knocked down, you learn to get back up and focus on what you have to do on the next play," he said, "that goes for if you're playing in front of 500 people or 100,000 people in the stands."
The Sting schedule takes up most of his Saturdays, but Chappell made it to Duke's win over N.C. State, and the Duke victory over Miami a few weeks ago was Sanford Sting Team Day at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Chappell can't make it to today's game, but he's hoping to make it to the ACC Championship and a bowl trip, which largely depends on the outcome today in Chapel Hill.