This Saturday, there will be no need for me to be crazy early and sneaky to get into the Kenan Stadium press box for Notre Dame’s visit to Chapel Hill.
That was the only way it happened for me 42 years ago, and that wasn’t even the plan.
I was a kid growing up in Chapel Hill in 1975 and, of course, excited that the powerhouse Notre Dame football team 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 inside the stadium where hot dogs were sold 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 was able to 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, I ride the town bus system 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 and 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 and I go along with him to every game — home and away — and sit at the top of the press box. This press box is obviously quite a bit bigger and I am at a top level rather than on the press box roof.
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.
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.
Saturday’s visit to a much-more spacious and modern press box will be a little different. It will only be the Irish’s second 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.
But it was a day of personal victory in a way for one Chapel Hill kid.