For lettermen, football means brotherhood
In a small lounge on the south concourse of Kenan Stadium, perfectly framed team pictures clad a dark wood paneled room to represent the tradition of UNC football.
In these photos are a century’s worth of UNC football players, and at halftime on game days, the lounge floods with Carolina Football Lettermen, who gather to share memories and reminisce over a hot dog.
“What I love about it is you know it is a brotherhood,” said Don McCauley, a former tailback from the late 1960s and early ’70s who went on to play 11 years in the NFL.
“We all represented and wore that uniform that makes you so proud.”
The Carolina Football Lettermen’s Association was created in the late 1980s under former head coach Mack Brown, who wished to unify the many eras of Tar Heel football.
Today, McCauley said there are about 1,200 lettermen that represent that tradition, but it’s about more than former players getting together at a game.
McCauley, who also serves as head of football projects and lettermen relations for the Ram’s Club, said meeting at the Charlie Justice Football lettermen’s lounge during halftime is just one aspect of keeping the brotherhood together.
“Whether you were first team All-American or third team tackle, it makes no difference — this group is in this together.”
Mel Lewis, who was a trainer when he was a student with the team from 1965 to 1969, now manages the nicknamed “Choo Choo” lounge, and knows what it takes to become a letterman.
“You’ve got to earn it,” he said about the coveted lettermen’s jacket. “It’d be like a girl buying a tiara for winning a beauty contest — no, you have to earn it.”
Lewis said that the head coach typically decides who letters on a team each year, but usually it corresponds to playing time and impact.
One change that Lewis and McCauley have made is working to bond all former players, even if they didn’t letter.
“There’s always been rules and standards, it used to drive me nuts,” McCauley said. “Saturday is when you get all the glory and have all the fun, but there are players who work during the week and just don’t get to suit up for home games.”
“To me, why isn’t that person a letterman?”
Another development is that current head coach Larry Fedora is working with lettermen to help increase stability by growing the association.
“We look at Coach Fedora as giving that (stability),” McCauley said.
Bill Balaban, a former UNC running back from around McCauley’s time, and now a lawyer, said that being a letterman also means a lot to those who would never go to the NFL.
“It’s very important that (we) stay committed to show these young men that sports are important and a great discipline, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t go into the NFL,” he said.
And during halftime, as they walk into the lounge those players can hear the cheers of the past students they once played for.
“The last time these guys put on a football helmet was their senior year at Carolina,” Lewis said. “But football meant a lot to them.”
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