Breakfast is served at Zada Jane’s Café in Charlotte, North Carolina. Heavy tattoos creep below his shirt sleeves as the nonchalant waiter plonks my omelet down, trotting off in an identical pair of grey Chuck Taylors that all the servers wear. The eclectic walls are painted bright canary yellow, accented with purple ductwork, and a few shuffleboard courts flank the patio outside. In addition to the usual breakfast favorites, the menu also features an array of vegetarian, free range, hormone free (pick your toxin to avoid) fare. Most of the items sport uber hip names like the “blazing saddles” omelet or the “bunny rancheros” eggs, and a full bar starts serving at 11am. This quirky little diner would be perfectly at home in cities like Austin or Portland, but in a conservative town like Charlotte, it’s a stand out.
While a hipster joint like this might not be my usual artery clogging greasy spoon, the recommendation came highly endorsed by my Irish cohort Ron, who assured me it was one of the best breakfast haunts in town. True enough, the biscuits are fresh baked and fluffy, served warm with an array of local preserves waiting to adorn them. A satisfactory chorizo omelet fills the belly, crowned with a side of locally sourced bacon and a helping of home fried potatoes; I’m topped up for an afternoon of football in the Queen City.
I’m in town to see the Charlotte 49ers, the newest member of the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision. The game on this Saturday would be their first foray into the torrid world of big time college football, having made the jump up from the FCS ranks at the start of the 2015 season. I’d also be bringing a newcomer with me on the pursuit – Kristina – who, appropriately, would be attending her first ever college football game. A college football newbie and an FBS rookie both making their debut on the same day. These two, mixed together with a swampish September game in the South, promised for an interesting afternoon.
In addition to the jump into the FBS ranks this year, nearly everything else about the ‘Niners program is squeaky new. The school has only fielded a football team at all for two years, kicking off their first season in 2013 after the student body began petitioning for a squad in 2006. Similarly, the mortar is still drying between the bricks of Jerry Richardson stadium, an intimate 15,000 seat venue that first opened its gates in 2013. Fresh concrete sidewalks surround the stadium, flanked by young tree saplings and recent landscaping. Everywhere you look, the facilities are new. Remarkably, for many Charlotte fans, they have dogs older than the football program itself.
Yet, beautifully, the spirit of college football sprouts proudly in the Charlotte program. Fans line the sidewalks around campus, buzzing on an early Saturday morning. Shaded by green 49ers tents and matching chairs they set their tailgate spreads out in the parking lots, the snap of footballs and squawking kids ringing in the air. A massive alumni tent greets returning visitors, many of whom may be experiencing football on their campus for the first time. There are even a few custom tailgating wagons to be found, ramshackle vehicles that fans outfit in team colors and regalia, driven to each home game for Saturday festivities.
For their part, the school tries to indoctrinate the students into the spirit of the fledgling program. They provide a sprawling green lawn adjacent to the stadium dedicated solely to student tailgating. The manicured green spills over with a few thousand revelers, beer cases are stacked beneath the tents (kegs are banned), and some pop tunes crackle over the loudspeakers. The bustling village comes complete with University supplied tents and tables, which the student body then claims with various flags or fraternity letters. While there are a few rules against excessive drinking (beer pong is banned), it’s a deft move by the Charlotte administration to foster this kind of student spirit, the lifeblood of any successful football program.
One of the most magnetic aspects of college football for me, is unearthing all of the pageantry and traditions that make each school so unique. In the case of Charlotte, it’s fascinating to literally watch them nurture and develop those traditions in real time…
We scan the grounds for ticket resellers, but there are none to be found. Evidently the scalpers haven’t found a market in the Charlotte program yet, and I’m forced to ply my trade at the stadium box office. For thirty bucks apiece, I grab a pair of tickets on the fifty yard line, one row in front of the swelling Charlotte student section – all of them decked out in monochromatic green T-shirts. Delightfully sitting in front of the most vociferous mob in Jerry Richardson Stadium, I’ll be able to get a first hand feel for the true energy these college football neophytes can muster. Kristina shifts nervously as the rabble behind us continues to swell…
Before the final pre-game festivities kick off, the PA announcer requests a moment of silence over the loudspeakers for departed offensive line coach Phil Ratliff. Ratliff, a two time all American on the offensive line at Marshall, died at age 44 of heart complications only three weeks before the start of the 49ers 2015 season. Beloved by his players for the intensity he brought to the program, he also routinely held barbecues at his home in nearby Harrisburg to instill comradery amongst the young squad. His presence clearly left an impact on the early foundations of the Charlotte program.
As the visiting team takes snaps in front of us, I get an up close look at the opponent on the day – the “Blue Hose” from Presbyterian University in Clinton, South Carolina. Sneakily sporting what might be the funniest mascot name in college athletics, the “Blue Hose” moniker was coined by sportswriters in the early 20th century when referring to the blue socks or “hose” that the athletic teams wore. Proud as the Presbyterian program may be, on this day they were scheduled as cannon fodder for the 49ers inaugural FBS contest.
As a shower of green fireworks explodes into an overcast afternoon sky, the Charlotte squad comes streaming out of the tunnel beneath the fresh brick archway of the Judy Rose Football Center, named after the current, and 25 year tenured, Athletic Director that brought the program to UNCC. The Niners’ soon make quick work of the visiting Blue Hose. Decidedly overmatched for their southern foes, the Charlotte squad runs down the field unabated, putting on a show for the 16,631 that showed up at Richardson Stadium (an attendance figure I might question given the blocks of empty seats). Meanwhile, lackadaisical freshman still amble into the stands throughout the first quarter. Something they’ll have to remedy when a bigger opponent marches into town.
In the end, the 49ers have their way with the hapless Blue Hose. Junior wide receiver Austin Duke is the standout on the day for Charlotte, amassing 166 yards and a touchdown catch on the afternoon. With a comfortable 34-0 lead after three quarters, head coach Brad Lambert takes his foot off the gas, and the Niners’ skate away with a comfortable 34-10 victory that was never in question. But as they enter the teeth of their Conference USA schedule in the coming weeks, things are going to get decidedly more challenging for the young squad. Welcome to the FBS Charlotte…
After the game we pull into the South 21 Drive-In for a throwback slice of Americana. The classic car hop is a time warp back to the 1950’s, and remains nearly unchanged since they first opened their doors in
1955. An original red neon sign out front touts their “curb service”, a perfectly preserved homage to the golden age of 1950’s roadside decor. More neon accents the bright red and white color scheme that lines the flat roofed car ports spreading out from the tiny brick cook shack in the middle. A few patrons precariously squeeze their lumbering SUV’s into tight parking spaces between the white painted columns of the structure. With parking dimensions originally designed to comfortably house the smaller family cars of the 1950’s; the South 21 Drive-In is ill equipped to deal with today’s soccer mom and her hulking suburban school bus.
I order their signature “Super Boy” burger, shouting my order into the galvanized metal speaker box that swivels out from the menu board. Paired with a chocolate shake and a portion of crisp golden onion rings, the entire feast costs about ten bucks. While roller skates would be more appropriate, the waiter hustles the order out to my car window on foot a few minutes later, setting it down on the rotating stainless steel tray while we square up the bill.
The Super Boy is a simple, no frills burger – two thin patties, fully dressed with all the condiments, sandwiched between a soft, white sesame seed bun. It’s a delightful throwback to the times when just a modest, fire grilled, 100% American beef burger was enough for a man. Before the days of elaborate chipotle turkey burgers garnished with exotic cheeses, slathered in frilly aioli’s or foie gras, and capped with all other manner of hipster adornment. Simple food that never falls out of fashion.
Your grandfather ate this burger. And he probably washed it down with a quart of Old Crow whiskey before driving his entire family home without seatbelts. You should too.
And that’s representative of exactly what a football weekend in Charlotte is all about. The old, and the new. The delicate balance of honoring the old world of pageantry and tradition that underpins the fabric of the game, yet intelligently blending it with the new world, as a fledgling program rises to carve out its own niche and create tradition within the modern landscape of the sport.
Special thanks to Kristina for a positive attitude and vociferous cheering during her first college football experience!
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