M.J. Stewart addressed his unit in the locker room after the North Carolina football team’s 65-10 win over Western Carolina.
The old head among the defensive backs wanted to tell his younger teammates how much he loved them, and how much he appreciated their willingness to accept the challenge of effectively restarting their season in November.
He wanted to reiterate to them that no matter where you are or what you’re doing, if you were ever in the Rude Boy family — the name the Tar Heel secondary adopted years ago that reflects the unit’s grit and swagger — you’re in it for life.
And, of course, he wanted to thank them. After all, the senior departed from Kenan Stadium on Saturday victorious for the first time at home this season — and the last time in his college football career.
“We asked them to play for our seniors today, and they definitely did it,” Stewart said. “They gave their heart out for us.”
For the pregame Senior Day festivities, Stewart stood with his senior class. This group, as head coach Larry Fedora has explained, has acted as the glue that has kept the Tar Heels from unraveling.
“We got close to the bottom,” Stewart said, reminiscent of North Carolina’s mid-season woes. “There wasn’t much farther for us to go.”
These seniors emanated positivity, no matter their health status, because they’ve had to. Through seven conference games, the Tar Heels didn’t have an ACC win. By October, North Carolina became ineligible for a bowl game.
The injuries didn’t help. Senior wide receiver Austin Proehl — North Carolina’s unquestioned leader on the receiving corps — went down with what seemed to be a season-ending injury in North Carolina’s matchup with Duke on Sept. 23.
Proehl returned on Saturday, notching three receptions for 52 yards, but was confined to the sidelines in a sling for five North Carolina losses. He said he had every intention of competing against Pittsburgh last week.
“I wasn’t very happy with it,” Proehl said with a smile. “But it was probably the best decision.”
Two weeks after Proehl went down, redshirt senior Donnie Miles broke his right forearm. The strong safety, who has witnessed some of the highest and lowest points in North Carolina football, was diagnosed as out for the year.
“I felt for him, you know, because I knew how much he wanted it,” Stewart said. “We wanted it together. We talked about it all the time. And when he went down, it really hurt him, but it hurt me too.”
Saturday’s blowout in Chapel Hill led to North Carolina’s third win of the season. The team scored over 60 points for the fifth time since Fedora has taken over, and it tied a record for most points in a quarter after scoring 35 points in the second.
But the significance of Saturday’s win for North Carolina can’t be unearthed from the box score. It is special because, in a season stifled by shaky quarterback play and an injury-riddled roster, the game went according to plan.
“It hadn’t been the season we wanted,” Fedora said. “Our seniors have done a tremendous job of keeping that locker room positive and keeping our guys playing hard no matter what the situation was.”
North Carolina won’t be competing for an ACC Coastal Championship next week. The team won’t be favored when it travels to Raleigh as a 15.5-point underdog to take on conference foe N.C. State. The seniors won’t be afforded the luxury of playing in a bowl game afterward.
But, as this Tar Heel team sees it, the legacies of these seniors aren’t damaged a bit. And the win on Saturday cemented the sentiment.
“They’re the ones that have kept this team fighting,” Fedora said. “They’re the ones that have kept this team together.