Larry Efird: The spell of college football

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 17, 2023

By Larry Efird

My earliest memories of college football go all the way back to when I was a Cub Scout in Kannapolis and our rambunctious little pack traveled to Chapel Hill to see the Tar Heels play. The first game I ever saw in Kenan Stadium was a contest between UNC and VMI in the 1960s. I didn’t know what the three letters – V.M.I – meant exactly, but I figured it was the name of the team the Tar Heels would be playing that November afternoon at 1:00, whether the name of their school made sense to  me or not.

VMI wasn’t the only school I was confused by. The first time I heard of LSU as a youngster, I didn’t know it was a football team in the Deep South. Being a child of the ’60s, I  wrongly associated those  three letters with a drug, which was an innocent mistake, to be honest. At  some point, however, I did make the correct association after I saw them play in their psychedelic purple and yellow uniforms on television.

Not only children get confused by the tossed salads of initials associated with college teams. A few years ago, I was wearing a Texas A&M football hoodie that I ended up with as a “re-gift” from my son. I wore it one day to Home Depot and the lady who checked me out told me that she had never heard of “Texas ATM.” I figured I wouldn’t bother trying to explain that I wasn’t promoting ATM machines in Texas so I let it go.

Maybe one reason I became a UNC fan is because of those first football game experiences in Chapel Hill. There was nothing more fun than being herded on a bus before daylight on a Saturday morning to ride a couple of  hours through the country with a bunch of other boys my own age, knowing that when we got there we would get to break out our bag lunches and drink a Coke out of a can, while we sat on a rock wall. Can drinks were a novelty in those days, and getting one was a simple, yet special, treat. After we ate our picnic lunches, we would head over to Kenan Stadium to take our seats.  Wearing our navy blue uniforms, adorned with our hallmark yellow neckerchiefs, we would hike single file up and down pine strewn paths and sidewalks, until we entered the stadium, which appeared to sit in the middle of a forest.

It didn’t matter to me who the Tar Heels were playing. In those days, free tickets were given to Scouts of all shapes and sizes when Carolina played teams such as William and Mary or VMI, two teams that usually weren’t very good. I suppose that’s why tickets were so dispensable. On one occasion, I remember seeing a yellow and orange banner hanging off a high rise dormitory that unashamedly proclaimed, “VOMIT on the Keydets.” The letters V.M.I. were painted in red, and the other two letters were in yellow. All together, they spelled out  the  word “vomit.” I was intrigued by that sign because I knew we would have gotten in trouble if we had written something like that at  our elementary school. Today, I would deem that sign ESPN College Gameday worthy. How times have changed!

I always enjoyed watching the band and the cheerleaders as well as the game itself. I liked waving a light blue, paper pom-pom on a long wooden stick whenever our team would score a touchdown. In one game, the score was 42-0 at halftime, so the paper pom-poms were almost shredded by the fourth quarter. I always hated for those days to end because I felt like I had been to a giant party with all my friends, and I didn’t want it to be over.

Without knowing it, I came under the spell of college football as a young boy. That spell lured me as an older boy in my 30s to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where LSU had scheduled Carolina for homecoming. That Saturday night in Tiger Stadium it appeared LSU was, in fact, a drug, because their 30-3 trouncing of the Tar Heels felt like a hallucination. In what felt much like a stupor and a nightmare, UNC took on the losing role of V.M.I. But I was just happy to be there, along with my inner child and a few other  thousand Carolina faithful, huddled together under a spell of beaming stadium lights, a field of green, and a psychedelic  sea of purple and yellow, still cheering on my boys in powder blue.