By R.L. Bynum
Because of pandemic restrictions, it will be harder for me to get into the Kenan Stadium press box Friday when No. 2 Notre Dame visits Chapel Hill than when the Irish played UNC in 1975.
With only a limited number of reporters allowed into the press box this season, I’m unlikely to be in the press box Friday. As a kid, I found a way to sneak into the stadium early and slip into the press box for the Notre Dame game. (The above photo is of that press box but wasn’t taken that day.)
That happened 45 years ago, and it wasn’t even the plan.I was a kid growing up in Chapel Hill and, of course, excited that the powerhouse Notre Dame football team, ranked No. 15, was visiting Kenan Stadium for the first time since 1960. The problem was that I didn’t have a ticket. That wasn’t going to stop me.
A couple of years earlier, I had worked in a trailer helping to sell hot dogs inside the stadium during Carolina games. It was a pretty good deal: I got there early in the morning, made $10 (which seemed like a lot at the time) and could watch most of the second half many days. I gained some spending money and some knowledge: Back then, they didn’t lock the gates until late in the morning.
Here’s how my day played out
On a typically perfect fall day in Chapel Hill with temperatures in the high 70s, I ride a town bus to the campus from my Franklin Street house, which is just down from Brady’s Restaurant (near where the Siena Hotel now stands). I make the trip early in the morning with a plan to get into the Notre Dame game: I figure that I can sneak in before the gates are locked and ticket-takers are in place.
That plan works out perfectly. I slip inside the fence unnoticed.
The only problem is that I have a lot of time to kill, so I walk around the stadium and hope nobody sends me back outside. As I explore, I notice that the entrance to the west side of the old press box on the south side of the stadium is open.
Nobody is blocking the entrance.
I figure, what the heck? I’ll walk in and look around. (The photo above isn’t from that game, but shows the size of the press box.)
I eventually end up near the top of the press box. Amazingly, nobody asks me what I’m doing there. Everybody must assume I’m with somebody else.
In my mind, this isn’t a lot different from going to Chapel Hill High School football games with my dad. He takes film (yes, back then it was film) of the games for the Tigers’ coaching staff. I go along with him to every game — home and away — and sit at the top of the press box. This press box is quite a bit bigger and I am at a top-level. For CHHS games, I’m on the roof of much-smaller press boxes.
There’s still a lot of time to kill. But I just take in the scene while I can, assuming that it is only a matter of time before somebody runs me off.
Nobody ever does.
And who do I stand behind for the entire game? The old Notre Dame television broadcast team of Paul Hornung and Lindsey Nelson.
They are recording a syndicated broadcast to be shown nationwide on Sunday morning. (All of the action didn’t fit into the broadcast window, so the familiar phrase Americans often heard Sunday mornings was: “We now move to further action in the same series of plays.”)
Needing to be quiet and not react to what was transpiring is difficult, particularly when UNC amazingly takes a second-half lead. That is challenging, but being able to stand behind a broadcasting legend and a Hall of Fame football player and hear their calls live is incredible.
I simply can’t believe I’m getting away with watching the game from the top of the old, cramped press box or that UNC is on the path to an improbable upset. After a scoreless first half, the Tar Heels take a 14–0 lead. They still are ahead of the mighty Irish entering the fourth quarter.
But an unknown young quarterback changes the plot.
With a little more than five minutes left and trailing 14–6, Notre Dame replaces the starting quarterback with a sophomore. I’m not familiar with the name. By the time he finishes engineering a crazy comeback and a 21–14 Irish victory — with more than 100 passing yards in less than a couple of minutes on the field — I make a note of his name.
Montana does it for the first of many times
He turned out to have a fairly decent career. It was Joe Montana.
Montana created a wild ending to this adventure (Bob Holliday goes into more detail about the game here), and I saw it all standing in the old Kenan Stadium press box behind a couple of legends.
With the game tied at 14, UNC kicker Tom Biddle missed a 41-yard field goal attempt with 1:19 left. That was plenty of time for Montana, even though the Irish drive started at its 20.
Montana connected on a short pass to Ted Burgmeier, who also didn’t start the game. Burgmeier sprinted past UNC defensive back Jeff Caldwell and down the left sideline on an 80-yard scoring play with 1:03 left. A UNC pass into the end zone on the game’s final play fell incomplete.
This season’s visit would have been to a much more spacious and modern press box and would have been much different.
It will only be the Irish’s third visit to Kenan Stadium since that day in 1975. That year, the Tar Heels’ loss was the first of five consecutive defeats during a 3–7–1 season.
The Tar Heels beat the Irish at Kenan 29–24 in 2008 when they finished 8–6. UNC was 3–9 in 2017 after losing at home to the Irish 33–10.
That 1975 day didn’t produce a Carolina win. But it was one of personal victory for one Chapel Hill kid.