School and conference administrators did everything they could last fall to help college football soldier through the unprecedented challenges of a worldwide pandemic.
But despite their best efforts, the more they tried to make things look and sound as normal as possible — including the use of canned crowd noise and faux fans in the stands — the more unnatural it seemed.
Surreal is the way Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman described it.
“We opened up with College GameDay (at Truist Field) and my parents couldn’t even go to the game, but the cutout picture of my dog was there,” Hartman said. “I’m really excited about having fans back. It’s probably the biggest thing I’m looking forward to because you work so hard and when you go out there, you want to have somebody there to celebrate with.”
After a season played in a virtual vacuum, fans will be welcomed back at full or near-full capacity to college stadiums throughout North Carolina.
None of the state’s seven FBS programs — North Carolina, NC State, Duke, Wake Forest, East Carolina, Appalachian State and Charlotte — are requiring proof of vaccination or for fans to wear face coverings in outdoor seating areas, but they are encouraging masks while frequenting indoor or confined facilities such as restrooms, concession areas and first-aid stations.
It won’t exactly be business as usual because of restrictions brought about by delta variant and the recent COVID-19 spike it has caused.
But it still beats the alternative.
Like Hartman, NC State linebacker Payton Wilson is looking forward to hearing the roar of a real crowd as he and his teammates run out of the tunnel at Carter-Finley Stadium for the first time next Thursday for the Wolfpack’s season opener against South Florida.
“Having everybody back in the stadium, playing in front of Wolfpack Nation is going to be awesome,” he said. “Having the band, my parents out there, that means the world to me. Having everybody out there is just going to be awesome.
“It was weird last year, the first couple of games and nobody’s cheering. You could hear everybody on the field. You can hear your coaches talking to you. It had its pros and its cons.”
As much as the quiet made it easier for coaches to communicate with their players on the field during games, even they are looking forward to having fans back in the stands.
“One of the most exciting experiences in my life was us coming into a full (Kenan) Stadium for the Miami game two years ago, and one of the worst moments in sports was walking into the Syracuse game last year with 25 in there,” UNC’s Mack Brown said. “We’ve had more at scrimmages. And then Dazz Newsome returns a punt 50 yards and nobody moves. There wasn’t anybody there. We all have to handle COVID so we can get back to the point we need to be, but it will be great to have fans back, the media, everybody back.”
The home-field advantage isn’t the only reason players and coaches are looking forward to having fans back in the stands.
According to Duke teammates Mataeo Durant and DeWayne Carter, there’s just as much satisfaction in quieting a hostile crowd by playing well on the road as there in gaining energy from revved-up fans at home.
“You know how the crowd can play into momentum swings in a game and everything else that goes into it,” said defensive tackle Carter.
“The crowd factor is a big thing, especially when you’re going into stadiums like Virginia Tech and Miami,” added running back Durant. “The crowd is always lively.”
The atmosphere figures to be especially electric at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte next Thursday night when in-state rivals East Carolina and App State face off in a neutral site opener.
That, however, pales by comparison to what Pirates coach Mike Houston is expecting when his team plays South Carolina the following week in its first home game with fans in the stands since 2019.
“I think it’s one of the best game day environments in college football,” he said. “Our fans have not been able to be out here and see our team in almost two years. I think it’s going to be a rowdy bunch, and I think they’re going to be excited to have Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium back open.”