After being all but washed away by Hurricane Floyd, East Carolina was playing 85 miles from its home field and against a top 10 team. Harnessing the emotion of a difficult 10 days the Pirates overcame a 20-point, third-quarter deficit and upset the ninth-ranked Miami Hurricanes, 27-23, at North Carolina State's Carter-Finley Stadium.
For the previous week, the Pirates had been forced to remain in Columbia, S.C., after their victory last Saturday over South Carolina because flooding from the hurricane had overwhelmed Greenville, N.C.
The flooding also had displaced thousands of ECU students and fans. It killed at least 47 people and forced thousands into shelters and destroyed homes, crops and livestock. But none of that kept 45,900 fans from flocking to the game, and after a rocky first half they saw an inspiring finish.
"It's a storybook kind of thing," ECU Coach Steve Logan said. "And the biggest reason of all is because of the fans in the stands. It was emotional, no doubt. It looked early like we wouldn't have anything for them to cheer about but I know they wanted desperately to vent some emotion and they got their wish tonight.
"There was nothing to go home to, so I'm glad they decided to stay and cheer." The Pirates fell behind 20-0 during the first 18 1/2 minutes tonight, and didn't score until Kevin Miller kicked a 38-yard field goal with 1 minute 37 seconds left in the first half. But Miami countered with a field goal early in the third quarter.
East Carolina rallied, beginning with two touchdown runs by Jamie Wilson. A 24-yarder made the score 23-10 midway through the third, and an 18-yarder made it 23-17 with 12 minutes left in the fourth.
Miller kicked a 39-yard field goal 2 1/2 minutes later, and the Pirates took the lead on quarterback David Garrard's 27-yard touchdown pass to Keith Stokes with 4:51 to play.
On the ensuing series, Miami--which came within minutes of defeating No. 2 Penn State last Saturday--drove inside East Carolina's 20 before an illegal procedure penalty forced the Hurricanes into a third down and 15. Two incompletions later, the Pirates had the ball back, Miami was out of timeouts and a celebration was getting underway. Fans tore down both goal posts.
"The crowd was fantastic," junior guard Mabayo Ahmadu said. "I never would imagine so many would turn out and be so excited. They were definitely a 12th man. To give them a victory is the greatest feeling in the world."
Four hours before game time, a steady stream of fans flowed into the parking lots, glad that ECU officials had decided to move the game here instead of canceling it. As excited as they were about the game and about the Pirates being 3-0 for the first time in a decade, they were even more excited about taking a break from their troubles.
"The community back home has been devastated," Greenville resident Tom Chambliss said as he waited outside the stadium before kickoff. "It will take a while to recover. But this is a time to forget about all that, to watch Pirate football and to feel good about each other."
But even on a day when three other games were taking place across the state--N.C. State-Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, Florida State-North Carolina in Chapel Hill and Vanderbilt-Duke in Durham--the victims of the storm stayed on everyone's mind.
Some fans unloaded toothpaste, toilet paper, diapers, bottled water and canned goods to donate to storm victims. In Chapel Hill, fans dropped off canned goods and supplies at designated gates, and every fan who brought three or more canned goods to the Duke game received a ticket to the game.
The yellow ribbons on the back of the Pirates' helmets were also reminders of the storm victims.
After beating South Carolina on Sept. 18, the hurricanes left the Pirates stranded in Columbia, S.C., all week at a cost estimated by Athletic Director Mike Hamrick to be $35,000-$40,000, with only a high school facility to practice on, with no way for many of the players to contact relatives back home.
"The week on the road really brought us closer together," Stokes said. "We spent every minute of every day with each other and we came out and showed that through the hurricane and all the damage that when it comes time to play, the Pirates know how to play."
Team officials said 16 players lost a significant portion of their possessions in the flooding.
Classes at ECU won't resume until next Wednesday at the earliest, although the team was returning to Greenville tonight for the first time since the flooding. The university made arrangements for football players who were left homeless to move into new apartments in a part of town farthest from the river. None of the players will know the extent of the devastation until they return to campus.
"We're going to get back to our normal routine, come heck or high water," Logan said. "Well, maybe not the high water."