CHAPEL HILL — Charlie Heck isn’t the fastest player on the North Carolina football team.
Far from it.
At 6-foot-8 and 315 pounds, Heck is used to seeing the backs of his teammates’ jerseys during conditioning runs and post-practice sprints.
Saturday was different, however.
After waiting four long years to beat archrival Duke, the All-ACC offensive tackle wasn’t about to let anyone beat him to the spoils of victory. So as soon as the final seconds of the Tar Heels’ 20-17 win ticked off the Kenan Stadium clock, Heck made a mad dash to the sideline so he could finally get his chance at ringing the Victory Bell.
“I wanted to be the first one over there,” Heck said. “I sprinted right over there and grabbed the bell. It got a little heavy as people started sitting on it. But it was such a good feeling. This is why you play football.”
Ringing the Victory Bell hasn’t always been such a rare treat for players in Carolina blue. There was a time, in fact, when it almost seemed as though it was a Tar Heel birthright.
UNC won 20 of 21 meetings with the Blue Devils from 1990, during coach Mack Brown’s first tenure in Chapel Hill, through 2011. But the balance of power has shifted in recent years, with Duke winning five of the last seven — including three straight.
“I asked our kids on the field with the travel squad the other day, “How many of you had the bell before?” There were five,” Brown said immediately after Saturday’s game. “So this is really an emotional time for them and a fun time for them, too, for beating their rival and getting the bell back. They may be ringing it all night down there.”
Going into the game, Heck and his fellow seniors were in danger of becoming the first class of Tar Heels to go their entire careers without beating Duke since 1987-89.
But that didn’t happen, thanks to the instincts of an alert assistant coach and a redemptive upperclassman who was in the right place at the right time to save the day on the game’s next-to-last play.
It was defensive coordinator Jay Bateman, whose Army team was beaten by Duke on a jump pass near the goal line in 2016, that sniffed out the trick play the Blue Devils were about to try on a first-and-goal situation from the 3-yard-line with 18 seconds remaining.
He told his players to watch for it as they returned to the field following a timeout.
Junior linebacker Chazz Surratt heeded the warning and intercepted the pass from running back Deon Jackson to seal the emotional victory and earn a measure of personal vindication.
Two years ago on the same field, UNC saw its chance at victory end when then-quarterback Surratt had a pass of his own picked off and returned by Duke for a clinching touchdown. But that was the furthest thing from the junior’s mind as he basked in the glory of a well-deserved postgame celebration.
It was a celebration initially marred by a postgame scuffle, prompting both Brown and Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe to suggest a revision in the way things are handled when the Victory Bell changes hands.
“We needed to beat Duke,” Surratt said. “We needed to send the seniors out the right way. That’s the main thing I’m happy for.”
As much as the outcome meant to the most experienced members of the team — including linebacker Dominique Ross, who forced a fumble and intercepted a pass, and defensive end Jason Strowbridge, who had 1.5 sacks among his 10 tackles—- it was just as momentous their new/old leader.
Brown now has 73 victories at UNC, vaulting the 68-year-old coach past Dick Crum as the winningest in school history.
“I was asked yesterday by the TV people, and my first thought was it’s such a credit to all those guys that have played for us here,” Brown said. “The second thing was I think this can possibly be a significant point in our program right now where we won a really tough game where we didn’t play well all the time and we won it on the ropes at the end, which is something that we haven’t done as well the last couple of years.
“So the significance of getting the bell back, of beating a good Duke team that we’ve had trouble beating over the last number of years, and giving credit to all of those kids that have played for us and all those coaches that have coached for us, that’s the cool part.”