by Rick Brewer, Sports Information Director Emeritus
CHAPEL HILL - Some of North Carolina's finest players will be on hand Saturday when the 1963 Gator Bowl team celebrates its 50th anniversary.
The Tar Heels posted a 9-2 record that fall and routed Air Force, 35-0, in the Gator Bowl. These players provided the school its finest moments from the Charlie Justice teams of the 1940s until Bill Dooley rebuilt the program in the 1970s.
Carolina entered that season as the mystery team in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Tar Heels had compiled just a 3-7 record the previous year. However, three of those losses were on the road at Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame. There was a one-point loss to N.C. State and a two-point setback to Duke.
There was good talent and experience on hand in 1963 with running backs Ken Willard and Eddie Kesler, quarterbacks Junior Edge and Gary Black and ends Bob Lacey and Joe Robinson. The team also featured All-ACC center Chris Hanburger, All-ACC guard Jerry Cabe and a quartet of veteran tackles in Cole Kortner, Vic Esposito, John Hill and Gene Sigmon.
The key to the season may have come in the first game. Hopes of rebounding from 1962 were almost ruined by a Virginia team that would finish 2-7-1. It took a late rally to secure an 11-7 victory.
The Tar Heels dominated play all afternoon in Kenan Stadium. Carolina ran 86 plays to just 39 for Virginia and outgained the Cavaliers, 330 yards to 80. Virginia did not complete a pass all day. However, a 27-yard field goal by UNC's Max Chapman was the game's only scoring in the first half.
The Cavaliers' Henry Massie stunned the Tar Heels with a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the second half and give his team a 7-3 lead.
Carolina had reached the Virginia 22-yard line in the first quarter and drove to the Cavalier six and five in the second half without getting any points.
"Our players were really getting frustrated," said UNC Coach Jim Hickey afterwards. "We were moving the ball all over the field, but couldn't get in the end zone."
Midway in the fourth quarter the Tar Heels began to move from their own 47-yard line. Black made the big play in this drive by converting a third down with a 21-yard pass to Robinson. Willard finished the drive with a two-yard run and caught a two-point conversion pass from Black. That gave Carolina an 11-7 lead with 5:01 to play. With Virginia unable to move the ball against the Tar Heel defense, that was enough for the victory.
The Tar Heels would lose the following week at Michigan State, who would finish 10th in the country, and later drop an 11-7 decision to Clemson.
Carolina set a dozen offensive records that year, but sputtered against the Spartans with just 104 total yards. The Tar Heels trailed only 10-0 at halftime. But, Michigan State scored on a blocked punt early in the third quarter and was never threatened after that.
Carolina led 7-3 in the third quarter against Clemson. But the Tigers rallied for a touchdown and two-point conversion in the fourth quarter for a come-from-behind win.
The Tar Heel season was filled with tight games.
For example, Carolina intercepted six Maryland passes at College Park, but trailed 7-0 at halftime. In the second half Edge scored on an eight-yard run and Black had a seven-yard scoring pass to Lacey for a 14-7 victory.
Two weeks later Carolina outgained South Carolina 311 yards to 121, but needed a touchdown run by Willard with 1:48 in the game for a 7-0 win.
And then there was the season finale at Duke. In what has become one of the most famous games in the storied rivalry between the two schools, Carolina edged the Blue Devils, 16-14.
The game was scheduled for November 23. But, when John Kennedy was assassinated on Friday, it was moved to the following Thursday. On Thanksgiving Day the Tar Heels faced Duke with a Gator Bowl bid on the line.
A 12-play, 92-yard drive ended with a Willard 14-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
Early in the third period the Tar Heels pounded out 77 yards in another 12-play march with Kesler scoring from the one. Max Chapman missed the conversion, but Carolina held a 13-0 lead.
Duke then took a 14-13 lead with touchdowns on a 70-yard pass from Scotty Glacken to Steve Holloway and a 24-yard run by Jay Wilkinson. The Tar Heels immediately suffered an interception on their next possession.
After a Duke punt, Carolina then showed the resiliency it had all year.
Only 1:25 remained as the Tar Heels took over on their own 28. Edge began the drive with two passes to Lacey and ran for nine yards himself. His 10-yard run gave his team a first down at the Blue Devil 21.
Two incomplete passes and a five-yard penalty left the Tar Heel with fourth down at the 26. Chapman came on to kick a 42-yard field goal with 21 seconds on the clock.
"I've never sweated out a game as much as this one," said Hickey. "This game was sort of like our whole season. Before the year began I wasn't sure what to expect. But, this team responded every week. You would really have had to be around these guys all year to really appreciate how special they really were."
The Gator Bowl win over the Air Force was almost anti-climatic. Willard ran for 94 yards on 18 carries and Black completed all six of his passes for 71 yards and a touchdown. The Tar Heel defense intercepted five Falcon passes and recovered two fumbles, while Carolina did not have a turnover.
It was a perfect finish for what was a special team.