Red Eyes, Black Hearts, Can’t Lose

New readers –

This is launch week on Tobacco Road Blues, the new site dedicated to Duke and UNC sports. Today, we’re changing it up. This morning’s post comes from Devil Wolf, a new contributing writer. It was originally posted here. As you’ll see, he’s a huge Duke football fan, and he wrote this wonderful essay to express what that label means. If you’re interested in writing for TRB, follow the contact link to the right. Enjoy.


Red Eyes, Black Hearts, Can’t Lose

“Well, who do you cheer for during football season?”

And just like that, the conversation ended.

We were having a great time in Washington, DC last summer at this really nice outdoor bar in the courtyard of a downtown hotel. My friends and I were in town for a wedding, and like most conversations at most bars, we all began talking about sports. I ended up with a group from the other half of the wedding party, a nice group of folks with a passion for soccer hailing from Philadelphia and Chicago mainly, and I was holding court defending my beloved Reds from Liverpool against the group who were all Arsenal supporters. “Is soccer your favorite sport?” they asked. “Well, I love soccer, but where I’m from our first love is college sports,” I replied. “Yeah I bet, Tarheel country right?” But even that didn’t ruin the great mood I was in. “Big Duke fan,” I said. “We pretty much hate the Tarheels.” They laughed, and we shared a few jokes at the expense of the evil empire over there in Chapel Hill, and then it happened …

“Well, who do you cheer for during football season?”

“Duke,” I said. I don’t even know how to describe the tone of my response other than to say it was part defiant, part confused, part angry and part defeated. “Hey, I’m going to go catch up with my friends. It was nice meeting you guys.” The conversation was over.

It pretty much ruined my night.

Duke football fans have a reputation of being apathetic, and why wouldn’t we? Our 30,000 seat, outdated stadium is half empty most Saturdays, and our students choose to make a full day out of the pre-game costume party known as “Tailgate” rather than going to the football game itself. This from the same school who can sell out the Greensboro Coliseum for a glorified scrimmage against UNC-Greensboro simply because it’s the only available ticket to most Duke fans who want to see the team play in person. But this is the fatal flaw when pundits and rivals characterize Duke football fans … our perception is based on the empty seats, and not the ones we occupy. Duke football fans aren’t apathetic, or cynical, or fair-weather. We’re as proud, as hopeful, and as loyal of a bunch as you’ll find in all of college football. What brings us out each Saturday? The wins? The atmosphere? Someday, maybe. We come out each Saturday because there is a group of men on the field who believe even more than we do. We love football. We love Duke. And we can’t fathom a world where fans would actually be alright being asked the question “Who do you cheer for during football season?”

I’ve heard many say “it’s not easy being a Duke football fan,” but I couldn’t possibly disagree more with that line of thinking. There is literally nothing easier than being one. Tickets are cheap, and there are plenty to be had. Even on game-days, even minutes before kick-off, tickets are available at the box office for a very reasonable price, or from scalpers in the parking lots for next to nothing. The correct statement, and the focus of the remainder of this piece, is that while it’s easy to be a Duke football fan, it’s certainly not comfortable being a Duke football fan.

Novemeber 23rd, 2002. Coming off of a winless season in 2001, Duke again was winless in the ACC, but held a one point lead in the final minute of the final game against our rival, North Carolina. As with most “home games” at Duke, the crowd was heavily in favor of the road team, but the wall along the closed end of the stadium was filled with Duke fans, their legs hanging over the edge, ready to attack the goalposts. The longest conference losing streak in school and ACC history was about to end, but even more importantly, the Victory bell was going to come home for the first time since the 1989 ACC Championship season when head coach Steve Spurrier organized his men for a post-game team photo underneath the Kenan Stadium scoreboard which read UNC 0, Duke 41.

None of what I just wrote is a typo, by the way. Not only did Duke destroy UNC on their home field that season, Duke finished the year ranked in the top 20 and won the ACC championship with a league record of 6-1, including a win against #7 Clemson. Twenty-two years later, Duke remains the last Triangle area school to win an ACC championship. But let’s get back to that fateful, sunny November day in 2002.

Duke had UNC deep in their own territory with barely enough time on the clock for two plays. UNC quarterback Darian Durant bought enough time to convert a big gain, and on came kicker Dan Orner to attempt a 50+ field goal. The snap was good, and the hold was good. A high knuckle-ball sailed over the line of scrimmage, and I remember feeling this ball of excitement in my chest knowing there was absolutely no way this ball was making it between the uprights. We’d done it. After two years of some of the most embarrassing football I’ve ever witnessed as a Duke fan, none of it mattered one bit because we were going to beat UNC.

But the kick sailed through, the referees raised their arms, and Dan Orner sprinted across the field and into a giant inflatable Duke helmet, kicking it again and again, his teammates joining him until the helmet slowly began to deflate before collapsing completely. What a fitting image it was. I still haven’t gotten over it to this day.

The bell did come home the next season as interim head coach Ted Roof marched into Chapel Hill and won, setting up a knee-jerk removal of the interim tag and beginning the Ted Roof era of Duke football. Roof went 2-9 in his first full season, followed by a 1-10 season and an 0-12 start to the 2006 season with only the UNC game remaining on the schedule. Just like every Saturday before, and every Saturday after, the same group of Duke fans headed into the stadium full of hope. That hope certainly faded throughout a back-and-forth contest that saw Duke trailing by one at the half, and tied at 31 after three quarters of play. In the fourth, UNC had scored on a punt return and a long touchdown run, and led by 14 points with 8 minutes remaining. The first 0-13 season in NCAA history was just a few minutes away.

But then quarterback Thad Lewis led Duke on a huge drive, scoring a touchdown with 4 minutes remaining which brought the Blue Devils fans back from the exits. All that was needed was one stop to get the ball back as surely UNC would try to run time off of the clock and let their defense win the game. But inexplicably, John Bunting, in his final game as UNC’s football coach, decided to pass. Duke’s Patrick Bailey picked it off, ran to his right, and then cut back to his left finding a clear path to the end-zone. It was a miracle comeback, and Duke would be taking every bit of momentum into overtime. Tarheel fans surrounding us in the crowd threw hats and kicked over drinks, furious at their head coach who had outstayed his welcome in Chapel Hill. Some even began packing up, not wanting to sit through overtime and see Duke’s certain victory. “Wait ‘till basketball season, asshole,” a UNC fan yelled in my face, which were the only words the two of us had, or ever will speak to each other in either of our lives.

Duke’s kicker then drilled the extra point on a frozen rope right into the line of scrimmage, and the ball fell harmlessly away for the Tarheels to hold on to a 45-44 victory in regulation. I stood in disbelief during the remaining two minutes of the game as UNC gained a couple of first downs and took a knee letting the clock run out. Bunting took his team over to the visiting section and waved goodbye to the fans, and I silently pulled myself up the stairs and into the concourse, half wanting to break down and cry and half wanting to stab someone in the neck with my car keys. The scales were tipped heavily towards the latter as a ten year-old decked out in Carolina blue jumped in front of me and yelled “Tarheels!!! Duke sucks!!!”

And those are just some of the Duke/Carolina games that I’ve witnessed. I’ve seen losses to I-AA teams, I’ve witnessed epic losing streaks, I’ve seen some of the most comical game-costing bad calls in NCAA football history. I’ve watched games in 100+ degree heat on metal bleachers with no shade when the stadium ran out of water to sell to fans. I’ve sat through game-long downpours where the rain was coming down so hard it began to leak through my umbrella. I’ve put up with horribly obnoxious fans from Virginia Tech and East Carolina during some of the worst blow-out losses in program history.

I’ve also renewed my season tickets for 2011, just like I have throughout my life, missing maybe 10 home games since I was 10 years old. I took my 2 month old to “Meet the Blue Devils Day” in extreme heat, and just a few weeks later I took him to his first game, which was also Coach David Cutcliffe’s first game. I had to – we emailed his commitment to the football office on the day he was born, a commitment that I obviously expect Coach Cut to honor after my son graduates high school. And I’ll keep taking him to games, just like my dad keeps taking me to games, and just like it will remain a part of our family for as long as football is played at Duke. And we’ll be there every Saturday with the small group of fans who are just like us, and we’ll do it for one reason and one reason only …

What if we missed it when it finally happens?

Each and every Saturday is a chance for that win that changes the program. The start of a winning streak, the game on our schedule where we steal a win against a team like Wake Forest, Georgia Tech or Boston College that eventually gets us bowl eligible at the end of the year, that signature upset win over a football powerhouse like Alabama last year, or Stanford, FSU or Virginia Tech this year. What if I missed that? After all I’ve been through, can you imagine if I wasn’t in the stands for that?

Because of that, you will not find a more emotionally invested fan-base than you’ll find at Wallace Wade stadium. We stopped going just because we wanted to a long time ago. We go because we have to. It’s part of our soul at this point. I could care less that the University of Michigan packs in well over 100,000 fans each home game, I don’t care that Penn State’s student section should be on everyone’s bucket list to see once in their lives. Alabama and Auburn fans can have their Iron Bowl. They’ll never know what it’s like to love a program so much that they’ll stand with their arms by their side while taking punches to the face over and over and over again just because we believe that one day that will be us rushing the field to celebrate. Quite frankly, I’ll be damned if the goalposts are torn down again and carried across campus to Duke Chapel and my sons aren’t there to see it happen.

I go every Saturday because there is absolutely nothing the football gods can do to us now that hasn’t been done before. Seriously, give us your best shot. No amount of pain that could ever be inflicted on us can compare to the joy of seeing our team win. Every loss I’ve seen over the past 20 years has brought with it a chance to see the win that changes everything the next week. Every win brings with it the excitement of how close we are to turning the corner. But just don’t ask me who I cheer for during football season like it’s just some choice I make from year to year. Being a Duke fan isn’t about buying a $15 t-shirt and wearing it only when it’s convenient. Our team spirit isn’t on our hats, or our tailgate flags, or our stadium chairs. Our allegiance is shown by the scars that have been branded on our hearts, and our belief comes from the confidence of knowing there’s nothing than can hurt us more than what’s been done in the past.

Being a Duke football fan is easy. Remaining a Duke football fan, therein lies the rub. But for the few of us out there who still remain, I’ll see you on August 20th for Meet the Blue Devils Day, and I’ll see you again on September 3rd when our season begins at 7:30PM against Richmond. And I’ll see you every Saturday after that for years and years to come. We, truly, are Duke.

Follow the author on twitter at @TheDevilWolf

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