Ah, Thanksgiving. It’s that one day a year when Americans gather around tables and give thanks for the blessings of the year. Thanks for our health (pass the turkey). Thanks for our friends (pass the gravy). Thanks for our family (honest). We put down our forks long enough to catch a football game after lunch, then pick them up again for dinner. Burn through another speed round, then put the plates in the sink and rush out the door to Black Friday sales. Ah, Thanksgiving.
But for Carolina fans, that giving thanks thing is not quite done. Not yet. Saturday, Carolina football will conclude its season with Senior Day and a 3 p.m. kickoff with Maryland. Prior to the game, the program will honor 17 student-athletes who have given their all to the University of North Carolina.
In March, when Carolina was handed down NCAA penalties that included a one-year postseason ban, these seniors were given the opportunity to transfer and play immediately. At a meeting soon after, Kevin Reddick stood up and said, “We’re not going anywhere.”
The players were contacted by other programs but decided to stay in Carolina blue. “They knew that they could (go) and we were going to do what we did, and we didn’t change anything,” Fedora said. “We just did what we said we were going to do, and they hung in there.”
They have been through a lot, these seniors, and not just in the last two and a half years.
Sylvester Williams went from the floor of a Missouri radiator factory in Missouri to Coffeyville Community College, and from there to the Tar Heel defensive line.
Kevin Reddick went from New Bern High School to Hargrave Military Academy to Chapel Hill, where he immediately asserted himself as a leader on defense. Since then, he has been through the fire - literally - and emerged as one of the preeminent linebackers in college football.
Wilmington’s Jonathan Cooper is an Outland Trophy finalist and one of the best interior linemen in Carolina history. Kind and gentle off the field, he’s been nothing but frustrating to defenders on it.
On the other side, Bertie County’s Travis Bond slimmed down to play in the high-tempo spread offense and moved from right guard to right tackle late in the year.
Erik Highsmith didn’t shy away from wearing number 88 and became a four-year starter. He needs one reception tomorrow to rank among the top three pass-catchers in school history.
Who can forget Jheranie Boyd’s brilliant night in Atlanta, when the then-sophomore had six receptions for 221 yards against LSU, including the Tar Heels’ longest-ever play from scrimmage on a 97-yard touchdown catch?
Devon Ramsay fought back from being declared ineligible to hit the field in 2011. He tore two knee ligaments in the season opener and has had to fight back again, this time through the rehabilitation process.
A pair of seniors became trailblazers in the new defense installed by Vic Koenning and Dan Disch. At 6’4 and 245 pounds, Dion Guy became Carolina’s first-ever bandit, the hybrid defensive end/linebacker. Likewise, Gene Robinson introduced Tar Heel fans to the ram position.
Two Tar Heel seniors saw their college careers ended by injury: Casey Barth walked on in the footsteps of brother Connor and went on to become Carolina’s all-time leading scorer. Brennan Williams, perhaps the most entertaining right tackle in Tar Heel history, played through pain before succumbing to injuries this season.
And then there are the walk-ons, whether it’s a player like Pete Mangum, who became Carolina’s hardest-hitting special teams player and a reliable defensive back, or Kenny Owens, who when called upon was able to spring Giovani Bernard for a fourth-down conversion (and more) against Virginia Tech. Adam Curry became a valuable reserve at defensive end. Two years ago, Peyton Jenest, an offensive lineman, became an emergency defensive lineman at Virginia. Players like Jordan Marsh and Josh Bridges may never record a stat but make invaluable contributions in practice.
Though they won’t get the reward of a bowl game themselves, the 2012 senior Tar Heels have helped lay the foundation for success to come under Larry Fedora. A win over Maryland would give the Tar Heels eight wins, tied for the highest total in 15 years, and best win percentage in that same time. The lack of the postseason carrot will do nothing to diminish that accomplishment.
Saturday, 17 student-athletes will make their final appearances in a Carolina jersey. It’s the last time fans will get to see them play for the Tar Heels. Two days after Thanksgiving, it’s not too late to stand up and say thanks.
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