WINGATE — Hurricane Matthew took a hold of Robeson County and left it ravaged a year ago, but helped bring together The University of North Carolina at Pembroke football team.
The community was hit with massive flooding that displaced thousands, and UNCP players and coaching staff were more than 100 of many evacuees of Hurricane Matthew from the county, making an 82-mile trek westward down Interstate 74 to Wingate University.
With their thoughts back in Pembroke, the Braves pressed on in a new environment prepping for a game after campus and the surrounding community were torn apart from the storm. While the scenes of flooding and destruction were back at UNCP, the result of the week on the road built the team closer through a different landscape — and a lot of McDonald’s and Golden Corral.
Lumberton native Josh Sheridan remembers how that trip brought the unit as a whole together and showed how close-knit the players where when it came to checking in on him, knowing that Lumberton took the brunt of the damage that Matthew left in the area.
“We stuck together. We were basically surviving off McChickens and bottles of water. It brought us together. We figured out that the whole community was behind us and we had to play for the whole community,” Sheridan said. “A lot of my teammates were checking up on me and making sure that my family was good. It really showed that it was more about my well being and it was more than just football. It showed that we were a real family.”
It was strictly by coincidence with the scheduling with the South Atlantic Conference alliance to have the Braves back in Wingate a year to the day the hurricane hit, according to coach Shane Richardson.
But the thoughts of last year came to the forefront of his mind on Saturday before Wingate’s 31-28 win over the Braves.
“It felt like we knew it well. Felt like it was not too long ago that we were spending a lot of time here,” Richardson said. “It was good to think back to the reason we came here. We came here because we were still trying to fight through a season and give a community and county something to hang on to and rally around.”
Wednesday marks one year since the UNCP football team had its first practice since Hurricane Matthew hit Robeson County forcing the team to spend Wednesday through Friday practicing at Wingate preparing for its game that Saturday against Kentucky Wesleyan. That game was moved from Grace P. Johnson Stadium to Pate Stadium at Scotland High School.
The team stayed in hotels in Monroe and commuted to Wingate where they were housed in the visitor locker rooms in the Plyler-Griffin Athletic Center and shared time on the practice fields and the weight rooms at Wingate and at Forrest Hills High School — where former UNCP quarterback Cory Smith coaches now — with other teams over the three days. Richardson was in his third year as head coach last season and said the challenge that came that week was something he had never faced.
“It’s the most unique challenge. I think it was very unique on a logistics and planning standpoint,” he said. “There’s a lot of challenges you face as a coaches that you wish were more ideal, but certainly something like this is unforeseen and you can’t prepare for it until you go through something like this.”
Plans to find a new home for the Braves that week started on the trip back from Lenoir-Rhyne the Saturday the hurricane first made landfall. The team stayed another night away in Greensboro with no one being allowed back on campus. Sunday afternoon the bus rolled back into the Bob Caton Fieldhouse parking lot and the team dispersed to their families with no set return time or location. The coaches then went right to work.
The Monday following the storm, Richardson and his staff reserved a conference room at a hotel in Pinehurst. Essentially there were two game plans being made, one for what the team was going to do off the field, and one for the game in five days against Kentucky Wesleyan.
“It was just a long day of planning and trying to figure out what was going on and phone calls,” Richardson said.”We’re trying to come up with a game plan at the same time because we were playing Kentucky Wesleyan that week. It was just a lot of chaos that week.”
With the accommodations on campus and in the area, that was in the vicinity, Wingate was the fit for the Braves. After two days off, the team congregated there with players getting there by themselves and carpooling with others. Between the hotel and Wingate facilities, that served as a makeshift fieldhouse, it was an experience that Khalil Vance won’t forget.
“It brought our team closer, but it was one of those things where we were worried about the community here and making sure that everything was all right,” Vance said. “It brings back good memories, especially with the good year that we had last year. It was one of those things where you never forget it.”
Vance returned a fumble for a touchdown against Kentucky Wesleyan.
Coming off the extended time off, the Braves showed rust that first day, but it was the resiliency they showed in the short time to prepare for a win that struck Richardson.
“The guys just committed to it and made it work,” he said “That’s one of the things I remember most, guys really knew the importance of staying together and just doing what they needed to do to make it work.”
For Wingate coach Joe Reich and Smith, a former player, opening their doors to the Braves showed something to Richardson.
“It’s a testament to the good hearts that are still around. We all need to lean on each other in times of trouble like this,” Richardson said.
The Braves and Wingate were able to share the practice facilities with some alternating, and sometimes overlapping, schedules. Wingate was also prepping for game week against Lenoir-Rhyne that coming Saturday.
“We saw Wingate practicing and we had to separate ourselves. We were on the soccer field and they were on their practice field,” Sheridan said. “We had to watch film in the hotel rooms. We would go to Rontonio’s (Stanley) room to watch film and it was different because we usually watch it in the meeting room and we had to do what we could with it.”
The extended road trip for the Braves built camaraderie for the year that went two games past the regular season into the NCAA playoffs. After the three days spent in Monroe, the road-trip food diet became a routine for the players, and became a joke with the team for the rest of season.
“The guys got really sick of McChicken sandwiches from McDonald’s and that was a little bit of a joke the rest of the year. Golden Corral became a restaurant of choice there too. Those are two funny jokes the guys used the rest of the year.”
Vance said he hasn’t ate at McDonald’s since that trip.
“I ate about 20 (McChickens),” he said. “We ate a lot of McChickens and I tell coach (Richardson) that we need to be sponsored by Golden Corral because we eat there a lot.”
Fighting adversity and what the program calls “Murphy,” based on Murphy’s law that says whatever can go wrong will go wrong, is constantly a factor in practice and anything the Braves take a part of. The Hurricane was an unexpected source of Murphy, but Richardson said he feels his team was well prepared as compared to most for adversity to strike like it did.
“When we came up with a plan and told them what it was going to be,” Richardson said, “I think they were so used to getting thrown curve balls and used to us trying to challenge them on stuff out of the ordinary that this was preparation for this. They responded well to this.”
Between continuing to work toward the next game no matter what the circumstance was and the focus of the team on what was happening in the area was what Richardson said was a big part of what made the trip so special to him. He said that what he and the team went through was something he will never forget, and the players won’t as well.
The following Saturday in the 43-20 win over Kentucky Wesleyan, and for the rest of the season, the Braves donned golden ribbon stickers on their helmets with the wording “#RobCoStrong” on them.
“What it did was put a little sweet touch on it. It was something where we knew Robeson County and the area had suffered from it and wanted to dedicate that game to it,” Richardson said. “The guys took it serious and knew that there were ramifications that came from it that caused people to lose their homes, their cars and everything they owned. They certainly could see that from a real world perspective. It added to how much that season was.”
The Braves went on to go 10-2 last year with the program’s first NCAA playoff win and the first 10-win season in program history. Maybe it was the McChickens or the hotel positional meetings, but the Braves will tell you that something changed for the better on those three days in Wingate that helped build a team from a community that was broken after Hurricane Matthew.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.