Nobody could remember anything quite like it at Byrd Stadium. Meaning Maryland winning, for starters. Ever since Jim Tatum became a dad-gummed Tar Heel in the mid-'50s, the Terrapins nearly always sort of wilted in times like these, when a lifetime of dedication seems to turn on lots of little plays.
"I didn't smile till the end," said Jess Atkinson, the Maryland kicker who pretty much beat Carolina yesterday with his hands.
Neither did most Maryland watchers, the ones who have been faithful through the decades, during all those defeats with the stadium all but bursting, the ones who can recall the annual sad song, note by note. Here's how the strange, sweet music went yesterday:
Carolina's Brooks Barwick lined up for a dead-straight field goal from the 22-yard line midway through the fourth quarter. A nasty wind in his face had gone calm. Until . . .
"He kicked it. Just as he kicked it," Atkinson insisted, "the wind kicked up. Maybe kickers notice things like that."
"I felt it, too," Coach Bobby Ross said.
The ball sailed wide.
Earlier, Carolina had a touchdown nullified by a holding penalty; later, a quarterback with an enraged turtle bearing down on him missed an open teammate in the end zone for the two-point conversion that would have tied the game at 28-28 with 22 seconds left. In between came the play that set up Prayer Time, all that final drama, the few seconds of silliness that ultimately made celebration possible.
Let's allow the central figure, Atkinson, to relive it, as he will, again and again, for about six zillion times. He was as astonished as anyone that the football he'd just sailed downfield on that kickoff all of a sudden ended up in his arms. At 160 pounds, he would just as soon not get that close.
Anyway . . .
"I try to keep about 10 yards behind my guys," he said. "Not too close, now. I've been nailed a few times. But if I stay 20 yards behind, a guy breaking through the line has too much room to get by. You don't have to pass tackling technique to get my job."
Four games ago, against Syracuse, Atkinson made his first tackle. He rassled the fellow to earth, but left with a deep thigh bruise.
"I realized what football playin' is," he said.
Yesterday, Atkinson was perfectly willing, if perhaps not perfectly able, to grab Mark Smith as he dashed through the Terrapin kickoff wave and into the clear. Then the damndest thing happened. One instant Atkinson was trying to figure the safest, surest way to hobble a Heel; the next, that wasn't even necessary.
"I still can't believe the ball fell out of his hands," Atkinson said. "I saw it bounce and then--Holy Toledo!--it's in my hands. But I didn't realize I had it until all these guys are on me (at the North Carolina 30). I think a teammate might have knocked me down."
And a gang of others soon were on him.
Not meaning to, they were mauling their tiny hero.
"Their love taps are like cross-body blocks," he said. "I remember looking up and smiling at a photographer."
He tried to break free.
"I figured I might have to kick soon," he said, "but I couldn't get free to get any practice."
Soon enough, two plays to be exact, his unerring right foot was necessary again. For an extra point this time, one with no hokum involved.
Yes, 10 minutes earlier, the Terrapins had faked an Atkinson kick and scored on a two-point, Boomer Esiason-to-Chris Knight, conversion. One more seemingly nice touch at the time that proved momentous.
"Made a block on that one," said Atkinson, puffing up to full 5-9 height now. He thought about everything that had taken place, two field goals, two extra points, one fumble recovery, one block, glanced heavenward in the Maryland dressing room and gushed: "I had a football player's day."
On a dazzling day that saw Maryland start to shine when afternoon passed into night.
Into the wind the second quarter, the Terrapins could scarcely gain an inch; into the wind the third quarter, they scored 18 points. And still had to endure all manner of mental misery at the end.
"Our biggest problem is we lose concentration," said Atkinson, whose long periods of inactivity on the sideline give him a chance to consider such matters. "We get up, say, 10 points and we think about what we've done instead of what we've still got to do.
"We lose a bit of our edge.
"We got to thinking too much when we got ahead, about our last down, about their (weak) schedule. This team sometimes thinks too much. When we start thinking, we're in trouble."
When one of the officials, incorrectly it developed, signaled the Heels had recovered an onside kick after that failed two-point conversion, everybody got to looking toward the end zone, and thinking: what if they get into field-goal range?
The goal post already had been destroyed, twisted beyond quick repair. Eleven students were parading down the track carrying one upright. What would happen if the Heels wanted to try a field goal? Would they be allowed to switch ends of the field, give it a go toward the goal post still untouched?
Carolina would have had to kick in the direction it was going; Maryland would have had to haul out one of those portable goal posts hosts are required to maintain for just such occasions.
"Yeah, I know where ours are," Atkinson said, "and it would have taken about a half hour to set it up. I would not have wanted to be a kicker waiting a half hour to try something that important."
That chance never came. It was Maryland's ball after all. On this glorious day, when Maryland controlled the game and then lost it in sunshine and then gained control and almost lost it at night, when the smallest fellow on the field made the biggest play, who could have expected anything else?