WILSON — The dark clouds that turned Friday into a dreary washout gave way to bright sunshine and unseasonably warm temperatures as Barton College prepared for the inaugural game of its new football program Saturday.
“That’s divine intervention,” school president Doug Searcy said, pointing up at a sky the color of his bright blue jacket. “We’re excited that this is going to be a good venue and a great day for our students as well.”
It’s a day for which Searcy and others at Barton had waited a long time to see. And not just because it was delayed for six months when the NCAA postponed the 2020 season for FCS and Division II teams until spring over COVID-19 concerns.
Saturday’s game against fellow startup program Erskine was the first on the Wilson campus in 71 years. The school was known as Atlantic Christian back then, and the program faded from existence without fanfare when it was disbanded following the 1950 season.
The atmosphere welcoming Saturday’s return was anything but quiet.
There was a rally at the bell tower on campus at which the school’s pep band serenaded coach Chip Hester and his players before sending them off to battle. When they arrived at Truist Stadium, a still unfinished facility with a FieldTurf playing surface, they were greeted by cheerleaders, blue and white balloons and many other traditional college football trappings.
The only downside was that the crowd was limited to a small gathering of socially distanced parents and students. But even they still managed to enhance the already electric atmosphere of the occasion.
“This is just a huge moment for our college,” athletic director Todd Wilkinson said. “For me, when I think about a college, football tends to complete the college experience for many others that are on the campus, whether it’s students that aren’t involved in athletics, faculty, alumni. Football seems to bring a rallying point and an energy to a campus, and that’s what we’re expecting to happen.
“The other thing I like about football for Barton College is that it fits our mission. There are many, many young men very near to us that would not come to college without the opportunity to play. There’s been some tremendous football for a long time in eastern North Carolina, and we’re another avenue to continue that success. There’s just so much excitement about this.”
As perfect as things seemed in those moments of anticipation leading up to kickoff, they got even better once the game began.
On the first snap from scrimmage, the Bulldogs surprised Erskine — and everyone else in attendance — by executing a trick play that saw wide receiver Kameron Johnson take a handoff then throw a pass back to quarterback Tyler Flippen.
It was a play Hester said he’d been planning to use since the day he was hired to build the program from the ground up nearly three years earlier, in July 2018, and it went for a 58-yard touchdown that provided a memorable first chapter to Barton’s football story.
“It’s a trick play, but we always talk about them just being football plays, and I thought our guys did a great job of executing it,” Hester said. “Our guys didn’t know that was the first play,” Hester said afterward. “As they came off the field, I said, ‘I bet you didn’t think I’d call that first.’”
While the early razzle-dazzle was scripted, what happened next was purely accidental. Freshman defensive back Mike Webb recovered a pooch kick on the ensuing kickoff to give Barton a second straight offensive possession.
The problem with starting on such a high note, though, is that it’s tough to maintain the same level of intensity and excitement throughout the remainder of the game.
Or, as Hester noted: “It all went downhill from there.”
The Bulldogs produced plenty of highlights after allowing a touchdown and a safety that forced it to play catch-up for most of the afternoon and turned out to be the decisive margin in the game.
Quarterback Flippen threw for one touchdown and rushed for another, while his backup, Jaquan Lynch, completed a 47-yard pass to Jackson Perrell to set up another score. Dionte Osbey recorded three sacks to lead a defense that also limited the Flying Fleet to 68 rushing yards.
“These kids have been putting in so much work. We’re so excited and proud,” said Cindy Phaby, whose son Christian — a redshirt freshman defensive tackle from Wilson’s Hunt High School — was credited with two tackles.
“It’s been two years since we’ve seen him play,” added Phaby’s father, Chris. “So it’s been a long time.”
Despite playing with a roster made up almost exclusively of freshmen playing their first college game — none of whom were made available to the media on a postgame Zoom — Barton battled to the end, staging a late comeback that fell just short.
The 30-28 loss may have put a damper on the opening day festivities, but it did little to curb the enthusiasm Hester, his players and so many others associated with the small private liberal arts school have for their fledgling program.
“Our athletic director Todd Wilkinson said that just being able to play a football game was a win,” Hester said afterward. “It sure doesn’t feel like a win right now. But I’ll tell you what, I am proud of our guys. It was a challenge to get to this point with all the protocols and the things these guys have had to endure to get on the field and play. So it was gratifying to see it out there.”