A Rally to Overcome

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- This North Carolina football program has been given every reason to confirm what so many have hinted at – that the 2010 season is a complete and utter disaster due to the NCAA investigation. But the Tar Heels have displayed a unique ability to avoid the obstacles in their path while continuing to move forward.

During the 33-minute weekly press conference on Monday, athletic director Dick Baddour and head coach Butch Davis answered a bevy of questions about the dismissal of Marvin Austin and the permanent ineligibility status of Robert Quinn and Greg Little. Not one single question pertained to Saturday's contest at Virginia and the infamous curse that has plagued the Tar Heels in Charlottesville dating back to 1981.

In typical years, the head coach would be peppered with questions about the inability to rid that Wahoo ghost from UNC's attic, but 2010 has been anything but typical. However, somehow amidst the rubble created out of agents, extra benefits and harsh criticism, the Tar Heels have cleared a path to the football field, a place where the realities of the world shrink and the pigskin represents a safe haven from distraction.

While Monday morning's news stirred yet another avalanche in the court of public opinion, for this headstrong group of Tar Heels, it was just another hurdle that they have become so good at clearing.

"I don't think it's a distraction," senior free safety Deunta Williams said on Monday when asked about the impact of the morning's announcement. "I think the biggest distraction was LSU when we found out 13 players weren't going to play. But right now I think it's more of us trying to heal with those guys and trying to move on and getting ready to play."

In other words, a distraction can be defined as losing a baker's dozen of players 36 hours before kickoff. Losing three of those players for the season six weeks later? That's child play.

That's not to minimize the fact that Austin, Little and Quinn accepted more than $20,000 in agent benefits and preferential treatment and then provided false and misleading information to the NCAA. Such actions are egregious and no one at the Kenan Football Center made excuses for the players in question.

But for the 68 scholarship student-athletes that never had their names tainted through this NCAA investigation, there has been ample reason to point fingers and blame the difficulties of the past three months on their teammates, though there has been no sign of that resentment in the public realm.

"It's very disappointing to hear the outcome," senior quarterback T.J. Yates said. "It was an initial shock when we first found out, but we've been rolling without those guys for some time now, a couple of months since training camp and throughout these first five weeks of the season. It's going to be a little tough just knowing that we're never going to get any of those guys back, but I think this team is going to do well moving forward since we've had some success and we'll be able to focus on the guys that are out there on the field."

If there's a buzz phrase around the Kenan Football Center these days, it's undoubtedly "moving forward." Instead of allowing themselves to be beaten down by criticism and directing their anger at others, the Tar Heels have bonded together and used the only tool available as an outlet – football.

No one would have blamed this group of players for staying in the Georgia Dome locker room after falling behind LSU 30-10 in the Chick-fil-a Kickoff Game in prime time on a Saturday night. Even when North Carolina rallied only to fall six yards short of victory, many observers wrote it off to adrenaline and the rallying ability that comes when playing for fallen teammates.

But that type of push rarely extends beyond one game, so the thought that UNC would still be in the Coastal Division race six weeks into the season was absurd to many.

Oddly enough, North Carolina's current three-game winning streak and the average nature of the ACC has many fans playing the "what-if" game more than a psychologist would recommend. The Tar Heels, however, have long since exhausted their interest in that harsh mental exercise.

"I know we did it a lot before [the season]," Yates said. "I bet it's gone through everybody's head – the what-ifs – so much already… But for the majority, I think we're already past that point."

Despite the castle walls seemingly falling down around them, the Tar Heels are intent on defending their program and contending for the ACC Championship and a bowl appearance, regardless of who is standing by their side.

"Whoever's out there playing, that's who is going to play," Williams said. "That's what we've been doing and we've done a good job concentrating on that."

Ironically, there have been many typical seasons in Chapel Hill during which a loss in Charlottesville was an infuriating aspect that no one could explain. Maybe this off-kilter 2010 season is the appropriate battleground for the decades-old curse to finally rid itself of the North Carolina football program.

Given what has taken place this season, a victory would somehow make sense.

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