Packed bars, a loaded Franklin Street and 21,750 fans jumping around are common staples of the UNC-Duke rivalry. And although excitement still fills the Chapel Hill air, COVID-19 restrictions have made this year’s rendition of the rivalry game feel bittersweet for some.
By this point in the season, first-year students have had to get creative with how they engage with other fans. Hawley Bronson from Chicago holds “two-second” conversations with fans on Franklin Street, while Yousuf Al Naseri from Salisbury, Maryland, opts for chatter on Tar Heel social media accounts.
But as any first-year will tell you, that first Duke game stands above the rest. It's a game that students immediately mark on their calendars, serving as a rite of passage that welcomes them into the North Carolina community.
With the lack of an authentic on-campus experience, though, some first-years have acknowledged the difficulties of getting fully acclimated with the rivalry and all of its lore.
“I actually grew up a Duke fan, so I feel like I don’t hate Duke as much as I would have if COVID wasn’t here,” Roshan Vridhachalam, a first-year from Cary, North Carolina, said.
While first-year students may be the victims of unfortunate circumstances, the same sentiment can be applied to this year's senior class — as some are somber at the likely prospect of missing their last hurrah against the Blue Devils when the teams play in the Smith Center on March 6.
Phillip Choi, a senior from Charlotte, said he has bled Carolina blue since he was 5 years old, so he vividly recalls spectating the rivalry for the first time in 2018. He was flooded with emotions when he made his way up near the rafters with a phase five ticket, which he still keeps, in hand.
“I almost started crying, man,” Choi said. “The place was electric, and I think nothing compares to that in terms of any sporting event I’ve been to.”
After the flu kept him home for the sophomore year bout, Choi came back the next season with the same excitement as before. It didn’t matter that the Tar Heels were on their way to a 14-19 overall record near the bottom of the ACC standings. Just being part of such a longstanding tradition was enough.
Now, with his last chance to be in the stands out of his control, Choi can only think about what could have been.
“I was in the risers last year, which was insane, and I remember being like, ‘Imagine going to this, but with a better team,'” he said. “It’s definitely tough.”
Despite the emotional roller coaster many students are riding, the UNC community is trying to right the ship.
Some restaurants on Franklin Street are expecting moderate crowds that will adhere to the state’s safety guidelines, including Blue’s on Franklin, which opened in October. Andrew Young, the restaurant’s owner, is a former Tar Heel who operates his space in the same location where his father stopped for gas before heading to Kansas City to watch the team win its first national title in 1957.
It wouldn’t take long for Young to fall in love with North Carolina basketball, as some of his greatest childhood memories were attending games at Carmichael Arena with his father and siblings.
“I grew up thinking this was something that everybody had, not realizing how unique it was,” Young said.
As a lifelong fan of the team, Young is no stranger to the magnitude of the rivalry. When the two teams square off on Feb. 6, he’s pulling out all the stops, including (wait for it) a Mike Krzyzewski dunking booth.
This tactic, like others cropping up around Chapel Hill, aims to remind fans how special the rivalry remains — even during unusual times.
“When I was in elementary school, the first two questions you’d ask somebody were, ‘What’s your name, and who do you root for,'” he said. “It’s truly been a blessing to everybody that lives around here that has gotten that experience.”