It’s barely twenty minutes after landing in Raleigh, North Carolina and I’m already bellied up to a BBQ counter.  I’m parked on a stool at the iconic Clyde Coopers BBQ on Davie Street in downtown Raleigh.  Dishing out epic Carolina style pork since 1938, the joint stands as the oldest continuously operated BBQ in the state of North Carolina.  The walls are covered in old BBQ photos and ancient wooden booths, worn smooth over decades of use, still have built in coat racks – relics of a bygone era. Sadly these artifacts are about to see the working end of a wrecking ball, however, as the current owners of the restaurant have been unable to come to terms with the developer that purchased the historic building.  As such, they will be forced to move the iconic location in a few months and try to salvage as much of the “feel” of the old place as they can.

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While the atmosphere has all the classic charm of 75 years of service, when my food arrives, it heartbreakingly disappoints.   Having spent a summer in Raleigh a few years before, this is particularly hard for me to reconcile, as Clyde’s held high esteem in my BBQ rolodex after a handful of visits.  But my BBQ palette has expanded quite a bit since those days, and the food here has declined from what I remember.  The chopped pork was minced so finely that it hardly resembled protein anymore, although a nice vinegary North Carolina style sauce helped bring it back to life.  The ribs arrived red sauced, presumably grilled, and absent any smoky flavor.  What’s more, they were incredibly tough and chewy.  I yanked them from the bone like a jackal tearing at a dead water buffalo hide.  Golden hush puppies and thick Brunswick stew were the highlights; a few items I wish would make it onto Texas BBQ menus.

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With a brilliant Thursday afternoon in front of me, I wander the streets of downtown Raleigh to get a feel for the city.  I stroll past the monolithic state capitol building, walkways shaded with magnificent live oaks and southern magnolias.  A bronze statue of Andrew Jackson, James Polk and Andrew Johnson honors the three North Carolina borne presidents on the main walkway, flanked by old mortars and cannons.  Through the trees, an inspiring 75ft tall granite obelisk pokes through the canopy, the carved inscription reading “To our Confederate Dead”.  It’s the Confederate Soldiers Monument dedicated to the North Carolinians sacrificed during the Civil War, a state responsible for nearly a quarter of all Confederate casualties.

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From there, I find my way into the cramped confines of the Roast Grill, a tiny Raleigh hot dog staple since 1940.  Little more than a linoleum countertop and stainless steel grill, they have only one thing on the menu here: hot dogs.  Your only choices are 1. How many you want (they are linear priced at $2.50 apeice according to the “menu”), 2. How burnt you want them, and 3. what you want on them.  I order two – one with mustard and onion, the other with the “works” – mustard, onion, chili and slaw.   Delightfully, ketchup is absent from their entire establishment, as their T-Shirt slogan proudly reads “No Ketchup”.  After my meal, an old lady that looks like she may have been here since day one rings up my tab on an ancient punch button cash register (this is a cash only establishment) and tosses me a free tootsie roll for dessert.  While the dogs are pretty average, the Roast Grill becomes an instant classic on my travels.

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IMG_0299I take a quick campus visit, admire the iconic NC State granite belltower for a few minutes, and then shoot west a couple miles on Hillsboro Avenue towards Carter Finley Stadium.  Carved into a stretch of southern yellow pine forest abutting Interstate 40, the stadium is unfortunately removed from the bustle of campus and downtown Raleigh.  PNC Arena, home to the NC State basketball squad, is also located within this massive athletic complex. As such, the stadium is surrounded by great swaths of pavement, gravel and grass lots, revealing a surprisingly robust tailgating scene.  Red tents stretch in every direction and the smell of smoked hog wafts enticingly around me.  I spot a few untended racks of ribs on a grill and, for a moment, consider a snatch and run. But rib rustlin’ isn’t looked on too kindly in these parts, and my Yankee brogue is unlikely to talk me out of a skirmish.  And after the eating I’ve already done today, I’m not outrunning anyone…

I mill around Dail Plaza on the North end of the stadium, haggling with a few scalpers to see what the going rates are.  With #3 Clemson in town they’re asking a pretty penny.  The first one, mistaking me for a rube, tosses out a $200 price tag for a single and sneers when I belligerently laugh in his face and walk away.   After a little hunting, I hammer a guy down to $50 bucks for a premium 50 yard line seat 20 rows up from the field; still under face value of $65.  As I take my seat, students continue to fill in the sections across the field, exchanging boisterous chants of “Wolf”…”Pack” back and forth while an eerie wolf howl booms over the loudspeakers.  A few NFL scouts ascend the steps from the field, each of them wearing plastic yellow “scout” badges with the respective team names across the front.  From the looks of it, the Cleveland Browns, Atlanta Falcons and Kansas City Chiefs are all represented to inspect some of the ACC talent taking warm-ups on the field.

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As the national anthem concludes, four prop planes streak overhead, leaving trails of exhaust behind them.  The flyover is a nice touch, all too rare in these days of military spending cut backs. With more piped in wolf howling and an impressive pyrotechnics show, the Wolfpack squad comes streaming out of the tunnel to the cacophony of the now jam packed bleachers.   A few moments later, as the sun sets over Carter Finley Stadium, the pigskin is booted into the night air.  Electricity flows through the red garbed crowd at that moment, eager for their team to upset the highly ranked Clemson Tigers.

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True to form, the Wolfpack comes out snarling.  While the Clemson offense is able to move the ball, the NC State defense stiffens up in the red zone, holding the Tigers to field goals.  The pack defense further stymies Heisman hopeful quarterback Tajh Boyd, who tosses the ball errantly for incompletions and gets stuffed into the Bermuda turf for a couple of sacks.  At the end of the first half, a card stunt is performed and the silhouette of the Wolfpack logo forms across the East bleachers.  As the cards are turned over for the second stunt, it spells out “This is our State”.   The energized crowd continues their raucous support, at the end of the first half Clemson clutches to a thin 13-7 lead.

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Midway through the third quarter, with the NC State defense stifling Clemson and the Pack offense gaining momentum, a blown call seismically shifts the game.  NC State receiver Bryan Underwood grabs the ball on a reverse and streaks 83 yards down the field on a blistering touchdown run to seemingly knot the game at 13.  The crowd erupts in jubilation, high fives are exchanged, and, for a moment, the Wolfpack owns the momentum.  But the bungling referees whistled Underwood out of bounds at the 47 yard line, reversing the touchdown.  Adding further insult to injury, because the play was whistled dead, it is not reviewable by instant replay.  Despite the jumbotron flashing evidence that the touchdown should stand, State head coach Dave Doeren is powerless to toss his red challenge flag. NC State assumes the ball at the controversial 47 yard line.  Boos rain down from all corners of Carter Finley stadium, and a few drink cups are tossed into the air in protest.

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Three plays later, NC State quarterback Pete Thomas coughs the ball up on a sack and fumble recovery by the Tigers.  Clemson capitalizes a few plays later, punching in a touchdown for a two score lead.  Instead of a 13-13 tie ballgame and NC State pressing midway through the third quarter, the bad call and a few bad plays now result in a commanding 20-7 lead for Clemson.  The energy in Carter Finley visibly deflates, and the Tigers would never look back from that point.  While the NC State crowd would resume their raucous support in spurts on a pristine Thursday night, Clemson would eventually roll to a 26-14 victory, defending their lofty #3 ranking.

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