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Bowled Over by the Pack

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Streeter Lecka

As I recall, it was a bright crisp day. I should have been outside playing tackle football with the rest of the neighborhood street rats, destroying my Dad's front lawn, but it simply was not to be. I was prepared to play, I had my #19 Johnny Unitas jersey on, but unbeknownst to me my Dad had other plans. Mom had taken the lone family vehicle, the sleek and stylish Plymouth Belvedere station wagon, and headed off for some Christmas shopping and a much needed reprieve from us kids, or yard apes, as we were affectionately referred to. She smirked as she drove off and left us under the guardianship of the Commandant, better known as Dad.

It was a Saturday, December 16, 1967 to be exact. We lived in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia in a modest split level home with a rectangular front yard which was perfect for football. My brothers, friends, and I were all die hard football fans, and living in the Atlanta area meant that you either pulled for the Georgia Bulldogs or the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Now, since my best friends were mostly Georgia fans, or "Dawg" fans to us locals, I had hopped aboard that bandwagon a couple of years earlier. Besides, my Dad would not allow anyone in our family to cheer for Tech and their recently retired coach Bobby Dodd, who he considered to be one step above the Antichrist. Even back in those days, navigating the roads of Atlanta could be a living hell, and according to my Dad, the sole reason for that was because Georgia Tech engineers had been placed in charge of designing the roads, and most certainly, Bobby Dodd was to blame for that as he was for most natural disasters and assorted calamities. While Dad despised everything about Tech, he wasn't a Dawg fan either. In fact, he'd graduated from North Carolina State University in 1952 and was a dyed-in-the-wool Wolfpack fan. He tried many times to convert me into a Wolfpack fan, but in reality, his efforts were for the most part, futile. In my defense, our television only brought in three or four channels back then, and if there was going to be a football game on TV, it was most likely Georgia, Georgia Tech, or some other Southeastern Conference team that, according to my Dad, just "wasn't worth watching." Suffice it to say that the Wolfpack was never televised in our area, so it was difficult to be a fan of a team that you'd never watched. But that all changed on that December day.

The NCSU Wolfpack had started the season unranked in the polls, which was really nothing novel at the time. However, after winning their first two games they travelled to Tallahassee and beat the number eighteenth-ranked Florida State Seminoles. My Dad's hopes were lifted when the Pack was rewarded with a number twenty ranking in the poll, but never-the-less, the season was still young. The following Saturday the Wolfpack went on the road again, this time to play the number two-ranked Houston Cougars in the Astrodome, of all places. Imagine, little ole N.C.State playing in the Astrodome against a juggernaut of a team that had scored 120 points in its first three games. A crowd of 52,483 Houston fans packed the "Eighth Wonder of the World" to witness the sacrificial disembowelling and dismemberment of a cow-college team from the State of North Carolina. At the time, it was the largest crowd to ever witness an indoor football game, and the Wolfpack was listed as a twenty-one point underdog. To the sheer and utter horror of the home team fans, the Wolfpack rallied from a 6-0 halftime deficit to win the game by a score of 16-6. The "White Shoes" defense of the Wolfpack, so aptly named because they wore white shoes, which was, well, a bit unheard of in those days, stymied the Cougars powerful offense and rose to a number nine ranking in the AP poll. By this time, the Old Man had begun stepping up his recruitment of me as a Wolfpack fan, and though not swayed, I was happy for him, and happier to see him happy, especially because he was constantly harassed by Dog and Jacket fans at his workplace for his allegiance to N.C. State. The sun had finally risen and shown upon his and the Wolfpack's backsides. The number nine ranking was the highest that the Pack had ever risen in the polls, and Dad was happier than a pig with two peckers because the Pack was now sporting a 4-0 record.

The following week had my Dad strutting like a banty-rooster with his chest all puffed out because the number three-ranked Georgia Bulldogs were beaten by the Mississippi Rebels, while the Pack routed Maryland by a score of 31-9. The Georgia loss, coupled with the Wolfpack win, dropped the Dawgs to number eight in the polls while the Pack catapulted to a number six ranking. Dad was making a lot of friends with the Dawg fans in his office, and I, well, I still hadn't witnessed this White Shoes defense which to that point had not allowed more than ten points in a game in their 5-0 season, so I wasn't about to go all in just yet. I knew that despite his crowing, Georgia would prove to be the better team in the end.

The Wolfpack went on to win the next three weekends in a row beating Wake Forest, Duke, and Virginia and when the November 6th poll came out, low and behold, there sat the 8-0 Wolfpack at number three in the nation- a ranking they have since never matched. And yet still, I resisted all efforts of his recruiting despite the fact that "my" Dawgs dropped the first two games of November to tumble out of the top ten altogether. We'd show him I reasoned. And then disaster struck the Pack the following week. The Pack, which still had not allowed more than ten points in a game, gave up thirteen in a loss at Happy Valley to Penn State. The Wolfpack had battled back from a score of 13-0 and trailed 13-6 with the ball on Penn State's one yard line on fourth down with seconds left on the clock. The Penn State defense stuffed the Pack's halfback Tony Barchuck for no gain, and then took a safety and won by a score of 13-8.

My Dad's hopes for a perfect season were extinguished with that loss at Penn State, and the following week his hopes were nearly obliterated when the Pack lost at Clemson by a score of 14-6 to finish out the season at 8-2, and no longer ranked in the top ten. I had tried to warn him, but he had ignored me. I reckoned it served him right for believing in a team like the Wolfpack. Better to have been a yard-dog Georgia fan, thought I. And then, believe it or not, the dangedest thing happened. The Liberty Bowl selection committee with unknowing prescience announced that they had chosen the N.C.State Wolfpack to play the Georgia Bulldogs in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis on December 16, 1967. Holy shit.

On that bright crisp December Saturday I have to admit that my Dad was an old man at the age of 41, and certainly he knew little of football, and for sure, he knew nothing about Georgia Bulldog football. Crime-in-Italy, the last two weeks of the regular season had proved it, hadn't it? I mean, his Pack had fallen flat on their facemasks when the goal line and potential victory were three stinking feet away at Happy Valley, and subsequently lost to a then 4-4 Clemson team in Death Valley. Needless to say, it had been a bad year for his Pack to play in any valley, happy or deadly, after peaking at 8-0. Quietly, I figured the Pack as chokers, very quietly indeed. I believed that Dad was going to have to swallow a bitter pill in the Liberty Bowl, but fearing for my safety, I kept my mouth shut. After all, I had exhorted him on numerous occasions throughout the season that "The Pack doesn't want anything to do with these Dawgs". Look, I was pretty wise for a thirteen year-old, and it was apparent that my Dad was beginning that long journey up Fool's Hill- a journey that would culminate for him, ironically, with my own graduation from N.C.State just a short nine years later. I had observed that all my friends' dads were making that same journey, so I reasoned that that was just the way it was. There seemed to be little that I could do to steer him properly, so I let him navigate upward and onward.

Initially, I thought that I might slide out the back door as the game came on the TV that Saturday. I mean, just to spare him the indignity of watching his team get their ass kicked in front of his son- a son that he knew was secretly hoping to see the Dogs walk away victorious. The loss would put an end to his recruiting of me as a Wolfpack fan, a predicament that appeared to be a lonely proposition in our neck of the woods. Unfortunately, he was on me like a chicken on a June bug, and stopped me short of walking out of the door with a "Hell no, young man, you're not going anywhere, you're sitting here and watching this game with me!" "Gosh, dong, dong, dang," I muttered to myself. "Now get me a beer" he barked as the Star Spangled Banner blared from our newfangled RCA color television. Ah ha, there it was, the gold nugget of my Saturday confinement. Chasing beers for the old buzzard was indeed a noble and fortuitous assignment. What it meant was that in gratuity for my running, the first pull on every beer was mine, unquestionably mine. And a long pull would never bring out a penalty flag, that is, as long as the Head Referee was Christmas shopping, which in fact she was. Yes, a good gig indeed, given that the old man enjoyed his beer as much as I enjoyed his beer. We would share quite a few brews imported from Milwaukee that afternoon.

The first quarter was scoreless, but I could see that my Dad was enjoying it more than I'd ever seen him enjoy any football game. The Wolfpack's White Shoes defense played well, and I have to admit that they looked very cool and groovy, as it were, in those shoes. He was swilling beers, and happy that my Mother had taken off, when the Wolfpack quarterback, Jim Donnan, threw a touchdown pass to all-conference receiver Harry Martell to give the Wolfpack a 7-0 lead. Yes, coincidentally, the same Jim Donnan who twenty-nine years later would be named as the Head Coach of the Georgia Bulldogs. The trips to the refrigerator were getting increasingly more frequent, and then Georgia got a long kickoff return and drove down to the State one yard line. From there Georgia running back Ronnie Jenkins shoved it in to knot the score at seven apiece at the half. The Pack had looked impressive in the first half, and did I mention how cool their shoes were? The third quarter mirrored the first as both teams were unable to mount much offense, let alone score. Still, the beer flowed freely, and when Tony Barchuk dove in from the one yard line to cap a 73 yard drive, and give the Wolfpack a 14-7 lead in the fourth quarter, I must admit that my Dad's love for the Pack was beginning to become as infectious as the HIV in Haiti. The Wolfpack kicked off and pinned Georgia on its one yard line. From there Georgia ran a methodical drive down the field to the N.C. State one yard line. By then I could sense that you couldn't shove a needle up the Old Man's bunghole, but he only got louder and cheered the White Shoes defense on more vocally. I figured that State had given it their best shot, but would manage to come up short as I fetched another beer for us. But I figured wrongly. The State defense bowed their backs and stopped Georgia on fourth and one from the one. State was going to win, and Dad was going to go crazy, and I was going to be happy for him and the Wolfpack. The Wolfpack took over on downs at their own one yard line and all that remained for them was to sustain a drive and run the clock out. Dad was deeply inhaling the sweet aroma of victory, and imagining the verbal jabs that he would throw at his Georgia buddies at his workplace in retaliation for all the crap they had given him throughout the season, and especially in the weeks leading up to the game. With victory beer in hand he watched incredulously as State was unable to move the ball for a first down, and was forced to punt. And then it was as if we were both gut-punched, as Georgia blocked the punt. How could this happen? Really? We let them block the dadgum punt? Suddenly, what had appeared to be a certain Wolfpack victory only a minute prior, had now become a rather bleak situation as the Pack was staring directly into the salivating jaws of defeat, and I began to curse the football gods in my heart. The game obviously meant so much to my Dad, and I wondered how he could be dealt such a cruel and heartless blow. Georgia took over at the State nine yard line with the clock winding down. A first down pass went incomplete making it second and goal. Another incomplete pass and it was third and goal. By that point I was thoroughly on the side of the White Shoes. Somehow I felt that the underdog Pack and my Dad needed this victory more than the Dawgs, besides, they were wearing white shoes, and for cryin' out loud, that should have counted for something in the eyes of the football gods. Georgia quarterback Kirby Moore dropped back to pass again, and once more it fell incomplete. Now all that remained was one damned play. The entire game had come down to one gut-wrenching play. Fourth and goal, God wouldn't gut the White Shoes now would He? We both held our breath as Moore dropped back to chuck it one final time. They didn't have slow motion back then, but it seemed as if the play was in slow motion, and when at last the ball fell harmlessly to the ground, we erupted in the supreme joy of victory and camaraderie, and then of course, we shared a well deserved victory beer. The Pack had won its first Bowl game ever by a score of 14-7. I'll never forget that day, or that game, and I'll never forget the two goal line stands, the absent Head Referee, and those legendary white shoes, but I think that what I remember most about that bright crisp December afternoon was that not only had N.C. State won the game, but they won me over as a fan for life. Best of all though, my Dad had won too, in more ways than one, because after all was said and done, the recruiting was officially over.