A dark gray fog surrounded Kenan Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon. Gusts of wind blew steady streams of rain, causing the flags on top of the venue to shake. Onlookers retreated to whatever covered area they could find. The student section was mostly bare, leaving a few rows of the dance team and a poncho-wearing cluster of Marching Tar Heels to perform alone.
And after head coach Mack Brown announced the official end of North Carolina's spring football game, he yelled over the speakers, “Thank you fans!”
The rainfall couldn't stop UNC from enjoying its first spring competition in two years. And it surely couldn’t stop the spectators from filling the soaked seats.
“I was proud of the fans that weathered the awful weather,” Brown said. “They did a good job of coming out, and they were actually loud and seemed to have a good time. That was fun.”
The precipitation did halt a typically potent offense, creating a 14-12 low-scoring contest. Open receivers saw footballs slip out of their hands, and quarterbacks struggled with their grip.
“Yesterday, a lot of the offense was pretty sad when they heard it was supposed to rain all day,” sophomore wide receiver Josh Downs said. “But you still got to play through it. I took my gloves off and a lot of the receivers took their gloves off and we just worked through it. We weren’t going to drop any balls.”
While they did squander a few catches, the receivers were able to capitalize on the deep ball, a staple of the Tar Heels’ offense. Downs and the rest of the pass-catchers dove onto the field to make several spectacular gloveless grabs.
After exploding past the offensive line to team up for a sack, the first-year duo of Rara Dillworth and Power Echols shared a celebration together. Linebacker Eugene Asante did the same on an earlier drive, triumphantly shoulder-bumping his teammate after one of his two sacks.
It was a new experience for the Chantilly, Va., native.
“I’m going into my junior season and I have never had a spring practice before,” Asante said.
When COVID-19 shut down collegiate sports last spring, he, along with the entire North Carolina team, was left quarantined at home with fewer opportunities to practice. And when the 2020 season finally commenced, it was in front of either no fans or a limited number.
Saturday’s spring game was a culmination of both. UNC had all spring to train and for the first time since 2019 and was planning to play in front of more than 11,000 fans. While the forecast reduced that number, it still provided a small glimpse of a more normal 2021 season.
The heavy rainfall was more of a benefit than an issue.
“Now we’ve had practice for a wet day and that’s hard to get,” Brown said. “We’ve all taken buckets of water and dipped the ball in it to have a wet ball and we didn’t have to do that today. The weather took care of it for us.”
While the Chapel Hill sky was murky, the future of the team playing on Chris Smith Field remains bright.
“It was a great spring. It was a very competitive spring,” Asante said. “We learned what we bring to the table and how we can develop upon that and be the best team we can be.”