A red-painted locker room, a crying running back, people hugging people they don’t know, and redemption — why Gio’s return was about more than football.
Stop. Close your eyes. Open your ears. Do you hear it? The anticipatory roar? The running back thundering down the sideline toward an oasis of open field and adoring fans? The delirium that ensued — it was deafening. Does the hair still stand up on your arms?
Our memories are so fickle, so capricious, that there is a difference, however slight, between what we can remember and what we can’t forget. There are moments, plenty of them, from the Oct. 27, 2012, football game in Chapel Hill between North Carolina State University and North Carolina that have already dissolved into the ether. But on a quiet day, when the wind catches the bleachers at Kenan Stadium and harnesses the acoustics of aluminum, the echoes of 62,000 people, screaming as they’d never screamed before for Carolina football, can be heard.
For what did they scream? To blot out NCAA sanctions and vacated wins and paper classes? To overcome a disparaged reputation for what their school, in the eyes of so many others, no longer was — dignified, respected, trusted? To avenge five years’ worth of frustration against an in-state rival who had not just become relevant, but also a red-tinted irritant? Perhaps they screamed for all of it, and more, just because sports can make us feel feral in the most wonderful way.
But more important, maybe, was for whom they screamed. An undersized running back, a sparkplug, a quiet workaholic content with breaking tackles and not the airwaves: No. 26 in blue, a blur down the sideline, an antidote to all things academic scandal and State-induced aggravation. Unexpected, yes, but even more sublime for the students who watched. And yelled. And leapt.
It was on Oct. 27, 2012, that Giovani Bernard returned a punt with 13 seconds left on the clock for a game-winning, 74-yard touchdown against N.C. State. To say the UNC students there that day will always remember it isn’t enough.
Here’s why they’ll never forget.
"He was going to be special"
In late October 2009, Giovani Govan Bernard, 18 years old and a four-star recruit, verbally committed to play football at Notre Dame, over offers from Alabama, Florida State, Nebraska and several other major college football programs. In early December 2009, Fighting Irish coach Charlie Weis was fired. In late January 2010, Bernard — a 5-foot-9, 192-pound running back who ran for 2,603 yards and 29 touchdowns in four years at St. Thomas Aquinas High, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and led the Raiders to two state titles and the 2008 national championship — committed to UNC. “They said, ‘Get ready to have a good time and experience,” Bernard said at the time. “That’s what I’m really looking for in a college.”
He arrived in Chapel Hill later that year, expected to contribute to the preseason No. 18 Tar Heels as a true freshman, despite having missed most of his high school senior season with a hamstring injury. Instead, on the third day of fall practice, he tore his right ACL during a one-on-one drill on UNC’s Navy Fields. He would redshirt the rest of the season.
He returned in 2011 as the Tar Heels’ starting back, rushing for a UNC freshman-record 1,253 yards and 13 touchdowns. Bernard entered 2012 as UNC’s most dynamic offensive threat. Here is where our story begins.
Isaac Presson, UNC junior track and cross country runner (class and title reflect standing in October 2012): More so than the team itself, I remember Giovani Bernard slowly making his way into the hearts of millions of the Carolina faithful as the most memorable and greatest running back to ever play for UNC.
Joseph Jacobs, UNC sophomore and first-year football equipment manager: He’s probably the best running back that we’ve ever had in my lifetime. Anytime Gio touched the football, in space, he had a chance to take it for a touchdown. He’s very compact, which you think is weird for a football player, but I think it’s really important. He had a low center of gravity. He’s unbelievably balanced. That was something you always noticed about him. He never went down on first contact. Incredibly quick. I think he’s quicker than he is fast, and I think for a running back that’s almost better.
Tommy Guy, UNC junior and running backs manager: He always falls forward. If you gave Gio the ball, he’s a patient guy, he’s not one that forces anything. He’s not the fastest kid on the field, and he’s not the biggest kid on the field, but his vision is absolutely phenomenal. Every day during practice, Gio would break two of every four carries for a long run. His vision’s that strong.
Kelvin Anthony, UNC junior and third-year football manager: After that first season, you could tell he was going to be special.
Laura Fellwock, UNC freshman and Carolina Fever member: If you don’t have any other play, just give it to Gio, and he’ll figure it out.
Clay Sutton, UNC freshman: He’s smaller, undersized, which I think people kind of are drawn to, somebody who doesn’t fit the stereotypical nature of the football game. But the dude was just exciting. He’s electric.
Guy: He kept to himself — some of the other guys, they’d play around, cut up. It’s not that Gio wasn’t friendly. He was a pretty quiet, ‘I’m gonna do my work’ kind of guy. He led more by example than with his mouth.
Sutton: I actually met him once in person. He’s just an extremely humble guy. Right away, I just feel like he’s a very likeable person off the field, which obviously makes him a student favorite on the field.
Fellwock: He made himself a very easy figure to attach yourself to and feel like, Hey, this guy is really gonna be something special.
Guy: During his offseason, he put on so much muscle mass. The kid was just dedicated. It was clear that the kid was a football player, and his ACL tear didn’t slow him down at all. When he came back he was twice as good as he was before.
But Bernard still couldn’t shake his injury-laden past: He missed UNC’s second and third games of 2012, close losses to Wake Forest and Louisville, with an unspecified knee injury.
Jacobs: The week before the Wake Forest game, he got a little banged up, and everyone knew he had pro aspirations. Understanding that, I think he was rightfully so protecting himself. But then I think people felt by Louisville he should have come back, but he didn’t feel comfortable.
Guy: A knee surgery is something you don’t play with. I don’t think he cared about what all the critics were saying. I think he knew the best decision for him.
Brandon Moree, sports editor of The Daily Tar Heel: I remember that I had Gio in an ACC fantasy football league, and I just crushed everybody ’cause I had Gio. You couldn’t ask for a better fantasy football player than Gio Bernard in 2012.
Ethan Green, UNC sophomore: With Gio, you didn’t necessarily have to see, Oh, wow, that’s a nice gap that the O-line created for him. Gio would pop out from behind three or four defenders and get 10 yards. Gio created a lot of something out of nothing very frequently.
Ryan Spalding, UNC sophomore saxophone player in the marching band: You always thought he was going to get tackled a little bit before he did, and then somehow he makes it five yards further than you thought he would, every single time.
Green: I really never turned away the second I saw them hand the ball off to Gio. This could go for two yards because he was a little undersized, or he could break this for a touchdown in the most inconceivable way possible.
Evan Benkert, UNC sophomore: He could just do anything at any given point. At any given point, some big play was waiting right around the corner for him.
Kelly Parsons, senior sports writer for The Daily Tar Heel: You knew anytime he touched the ball, he had the chance to make something happen. He was one of those players that just have that ability to be explosive, find a hole and just be gone. A game could change with one play. I think that kind of gave people hope if UNC was trailing, it was never over with a guy like Gio on the team.
Green: I think it was really good theater as a fan to always be like, ‘Gio’s going to touch the ball, and there’s always a good shot something pretty absurd is going to happen.’
In March 2012, the NCAA levied a 2012 bowl ban on UNC and rescinded 15 football scholarships through the 2014 season, citing the university for nine significant violations, namely “academic fraud, impermissible agent benefits, ineligible participation and a failure to monitor its football program.”
Facing an imbroglio under former head coach Butch Davis, the university imposed its own football-related sanctions prior to the NCAA’s ruling. UNC vacated all 16 of its wins from 2008 to 2009 and placed the football program on probation for two years.
Amid growing pressure to salvage the school’s reputation, UNC fired Davis a week before the start of training camp in 2011. Interim coach Everett Withers led the Tar Heels to a 7-6 record that year before first-year athletics director Bubba Cunningham hired Larry Fedora from Southern Mississippi in December 2011.
Under Fedora’s aggressive, high-octane offense, the Tar Heels entered the 2012 season with the bowl ban but also renewed vigor.
Guy: It was a fun season: high-powered offense, Fedora’s first year, we were winning, we were scoring points. It’ll never be in the books because of the postseason bans, but we were Coastal Division champs1.
Sutton: There was a lot of energy on campus with Fedora’s first year. They did a really good job of hyping up the season. We had some close games, some tough losses, but the team was exciting to watch.
Green: I think we probably didn’t live up to our potential, but we also had games that were really enjoyable to watch.
Fellwock: People were really hopeful.
Parsons: Gio was pretty much one of the only exciting things about that season. I was excited every Saturday just to see what Gio would do. He kind of made things bright when the whole investigation and postseason ban brought things down.
"They think they own this rivalry"
After a 5-3 start, the Tar Heels played N.C. State, whom they hadn’t beaten in five years. Fedora was not discreet in his desire to thump the Wolfpack. He knew, when asked in April 2012, the exact number of days until the State game: 184. “I don’t want to talk about (the rivalry) too much because I don’t want to legitimize their program,” Fedora told the News & Observer then.
N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien responded soon after: “Here is a guy that’s on a football staff that ends up in Indianapolis (where the NCAA’s headquarters are located) … If you take three things that you can’t do in college football, you have an agent on your staff. You’re paying your players. And you have academic fraud. That’s a triple play as far as the NCAA goes. So I don’t know that he has anything to talk about or they have anything to talk about. If that’s what people want in their flagship university in North Carolina, then so be it.”
Before the season, N.C. State also started a ‘This is Our State’ campaign, which it unreservedly borrowed from Mississippi State University, posting billboards with that motto throughout North Carolina and irking UNC’s fan base. It gave Oct. 27, 2012, a little more meaning, a little more juice, than past rivalry clashes.
Michael Cunningham, UNC freshman and first-year quarterbacks manager: The coach-speak thing was, ‘It’s the most important game on the schedule because it’s the next game,’ but I definitely think there was a little more emphasis put on that game. Leading up to that game, you could tell: (Fedora) wanted to win this one because it would kind of set his place at Carolina. It’s something that Butch never did. He’d probably never say it publicly and probably never say it privately, but in the back of his mind he wanted to beat these guys so he could start his legacy at Carolina.
Green: Didn’t he have the quote saying he had circled the game all year?
Sutton: He circled it as the game on the calendar. That made it a little more special.
Green: Fedora really hung a lot on that game, and I think by him talking so much about it, a lot of people decided to make that the criteria for his season, almost like, ‘Oh, we can go 1-11 so long as that one win was against State.’ I think he kind of made it bigger than maybe people would have naturally made it. He had a lot on it.
Jacobs: That year was the year he had the operations staff hang up a bunch of N.C. State banners, like ‘5-0 against North Carolina,’ ‘Five Years,’ ‘This Is Our State.’ And so that was hung up all over the locker room, starting ‘State Week,’ as they called it. And so the players tore it down.
Guy: They got the ops guys to put banners and pictures and all this red paint all over the locker room, and basically it was to keep the players on edge.
Jacobs: Coach played it up saying he had nothing to do with it, that State had come in and put all the stuff up. They all knew, but they also all understood the message that he was trying to send.
Cunningham: I walked into the locker room and saw a big pile of it in the middle of the floor. I think (wide receiver) Erik Highsmith that game fumbled it or something, and they had a picture of him with the ball next to him and the N.C. State player picking it up. And he put that up in his locker.
Jacobs: (Fedora) wanted the attitude of ‘They think they’re better than you are, they think they own this rivalry, and you need to show them differently.’
Cunningham: The guys definitely used it as motivation. I remember Gio was saying, ‘Leave it up, leave it up.’
"A chance to redeem ourselves"
Green: It felt like the best chance in a while to beat State. The year before we had just laid an absolute egg over in Raleigh.
Jacobs: It was one of the most putrid offensive football games you’ll ever watch. We played a terrible game.
Green: (The 2012 game) felt like a good chance for us to get a win, get the rivalry back on our side and have a nice finish to the season.
Jacobs: But we knew we had the postseason ban, so coming to the State game having lost to them five years in a row, it was a pretty big deal.
Parsons: I could still kind of grasp how important that game was to everybody on campus. To go through what we’ve gone through as a collective fan base, just with the investigation, the sadness, I think people kind of viewed the State game as a chance to redeem ourselves.
Jacobs: People are used to State being a school that we don’t go on a losing streak to. But they were a driving force behind (fueling the scandal2) and they really relished that. So throwing in the NCAA stuff on top of the fact that they were beating us every year in football, people really wanted to beat them. Probably even more so than I can remember. Maybe even more so than a Duke basketball win that year.
Presson: Until probably junior or senior year of high school, I honestly didn’t even know it was a rivalry. I knew it was kind of the big football game. I had no idea until I started looking at both schools my junior year that N.C. State had so much hatred for UNC.
Benkert: Wasn’t that when State had posted the billboard saying ‘Our State’? That was their big middle finger to us.
Spalding: We just wanted to shut up the State fans.
Parsons: I think especially for the seniors it was big because we had only ever seen UNC lose to State while we were students. I just remember campus buzzing and everybody excited.
Green: I’ve always had a little bit of a disdain for State, kind of like an annoying little brother that you don’t want to respect and pay any attention to, but they get under your skin just enough where you have to acknowledge them. I have a lot of disdain for them. Losing five in a row to State is like, ‘Wow. Are you kidding me? Of all the teams to lose to?’
Moree: I remember thinking that in my four years, surely they will not beat us four consecutive times.
Green: My dad went to State. I actually should like State more than I do, and I really had a lot of respect for them until I came to college and had to deal with or saw on social media a lot of their fans. They made me hate them. I was like, ‘I’m predisposed to kind of like you guys or at least tolerate you, and you made me hate you.’
“It set the tone for what we were ready to do”
Oct. 27, 2012. Game day in Chapel Hill. 12:30 p.m. kickoff. Sixty-five degrees, cloudy … and a chance of chrome helmets.
Guy: It was the first time in a long time that Carolina’s done anything like (the chrome helmets). So we arrive on game day, everyone’s pumped. We turn off our cell phones just in case someone gets happy fingers and decides to take a picture, somehow gets sent somewhere and leaked on the internet. Then we set up the locker room — we went through the traditional locker room set up: We put pants out, we put jerseys out, we put white helmets out, players come in — it’s no big deal. We did have new cleats, though, navy cleats, and we wore the navy jerseys, and they thought that was the big surprise. They came in all pumped up about these navy cleats. ‘Oh, we knew we were doing something!’
Jacobs: The players had suspicions that something was gonna happen, but then when they showed up on game day, they were all extremely excited about it. I remember when they came out on the field everyone was like, ‘Holy crap. What are they wearing?’ And everyone was stoked. And it looked awesome.
Moree: The sickest chrome helmets that I had ever seen.
Jacobs: I don’t know what it is. I think it’s not just football players, I think it’s any young college student, they get something new and it looks good and they get a little bit more amped. And I think that was just an extra incentive.
Guy: We leave pre-game duties early to come inside and pull the whole switcheroo and put the chrome helmets on each and every player’s seat. And then the players huddle up — the last pre-game routine is a punt, break down and run into the locker room. They all have their white helmets on and they see the chromes, and the locker room went off. It was a lot of excitement. I think it kind of set the tone for what we were ready to do that day on the field.
Jacobs: Carolina (fans don’t) have the best rep for showing up on time. I thought rain was really gonna hurt that. I was like, I can’t believe we’re about to do this really cool thing with the helmets, and we’re playing State, and it’s gonna rain — people aren’t gonna show up.
Anthony: When you go outside and see it was a dreary day, I was like, Man, this would happen. It’s already a 12:30 game on ACC Network, it’s not nationally televised, and we’re going to break out these helmets — and now it’s going to rain. The last time we did something special with the helmets was the American flag against Idaho that year, and it poured down rain. We can’t catch a break.
Jacobs: But people showed up. I remember thinking that clearly before the game, that people were definitely there in droves.
Parsons: You kind of know when you walk through the gates through the press entrance what kind of day it’s gonna be like, because sometimes it’s easier to get there than others. It’s super packed, lots of red.
Benkert: There’s this one group of State students in our student section, and they were just kind of fueling the fire. A lot of jawing going back and forth.
Camden Freeman, UNC sophomore and Carolina Fever member: There were State fans scattered in our student section, and I was not feeling that at all. It was a semi-slap in the face that they had the audacity to come in our student section and try to take our spots.
Cunningham: There was way too much red in the stands for me. I remember before the game (secondary) Coach (Dan) Disch and I were just kind of standing by each other, and Coach Disch goes, ‘There’s way too much red in this stadium. You think if we win this one, Mike, you can get some blue in here next time?’ I just kind of laughed and was like, ‘Yeah, maybe, coach: Let’s win the game first.’
"The best crowd I can remember"
Fellwock: I actually went to the game by myself because my roommate was not a huge football fan, and a lot of the people I lived with didn’t care as much. I didn’t have a lot of close friends at that point coming from out of state.
Green: We get there crazy early, an hour-and-a-half before the gates open. It’s three hours before game-time. The student section is definitely into this game more than usual.
Parsons: UNC football is hit or miss with the crowd excitement, but I know that one — in my time, at least — probably was the best crowd I can remember in my four years.
Benkert: I think we had to be (at Kenan Stadium) at 10, so we met at Joyner (residence hall) at 8 or 9 (to paint up). Everyone’s just standing in the bathroom throwing paint at each other, getting ready to go, figuring out what word we were gonna spell, which ended up being ‘REDEMPTION!’
Ben Trachtman, UNC sophomore: My buddy was in town from Appalachian State. He came over to my dorm, and he didn’t have a ticket. I said, ‘Well, I’m pretty sure we can scalp a ticket for the game.’ We ended up asking a handful of people what they were charging, and they were asking for 40, 50 bucks. We’re like, ‘No, that’s too expensive. All we need is a $20 ticket, a $25 ticket.’ Kickoff’s about to happen in about 10 minutes, and we’re not inside the stadium. We find a guy right outside the student gate selling tickets. ‘All right, what do you want?’ ‘30 bucks.’ ‘20.’ ‘I’ll meet you at 25.’ Get my buddy a ticket at 25, and we’re in the stadium. The rest is history.
“Here we go again…”
UNC, on the strength of its chrome helmets and a hungry crowd, raced out to a 25-7 lead near the end of the first quarter, punctuated by Bernard’s second touchdown of the young afternoon. But the Wolfpack stormed back on the arm of Mike Glennon, who threw four straight touchdowns to put his team ahead 35-25 by the end of the third quarter. Bernard, who would end the day with 304 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns, sprained his ankle in the third quarter, and UNC’s running game atrophied. It was, again, much harder than it needed to be for the Tar Heels.
Anthony: Same old, same old stuff. I knew we were going to put up 20 points on the board quick with the energy level, you know? But we can never step on their throats and end their games. It’s frustrating. You always have in the back of your mind, Man, they can come back. And of course they come back.
Guy: It was a classic Carolina game. We pulled all the cards out in the first half. You go up big, and then next thing you know things start going the opposite way. It looks like they’re gonna come back and it’s like, Man, I’ve seen this before. Not this again.
Parsons: Knowing our track record with State, you kind of felt like, OK, you can’t really be too comfortable with this. You kind of felt like something was gonna happen, and it did. You just sort of shake your head like, OK, here we go again…
Jack Vynalek, UNC junior cheerleader: We started off that game really really well and then state chipped away and got back and … is it gonna happen again?
Sutton: First we were playing, really, really well. Then State comes back and ties the game, and you’re kind of thinking, Oh, boy, here we go again. Classic my-favorite-team nature: We’re going to lose it right at the very end after playing phenomenally in the first part of the game. I was kind of preparing myself for the worst.
Jacobs: The N.C. State defensive line coach was really amped when they’d score. He’d kinda like look our way, at UNC personnel, and be super excited about beating (us).
UNC’s battered defense stanched the bleeding enough to let the Tar Heels’ offense climb back into the game. Bryn Renner threw a three-yard touchdown to Sean Tapley with 10:23 left to cut N.C. State’s lead to 35-32. After almost nine scoreless minutes, UNC drove into the red zone, but the drive stalled.
Cunningham: We’re driving and we had the perfect play call. They were about to bring a blitz. We have a little tunnel screen called the ‘Ebron,’ and he dropped it, and we end up kicking a field goal and tie it up.
With the game tied at 35, N.C. State got the ball back with 1:24 left, plenty of time to inflict more heartbreak on the team it had so often devastated. But the Tar Heels’ defense did what it had struggled to do the whole game: It stopped Glennon and forced a three-and-out, buoyed by a first-down sack by Kevin Reddick.
Jacobs: I was a pessimistic observer and thought they were gonna do down and score. Reddick played huge on the series.
Green: We really need to get a stop here and maybe get a quick stop so we have good field position and time to get something back. We do get the stop. That was huge. So they punt the ball from pretty deep in their own territory, which of course was punting with the student section right behind them. We were going crazy.
Vynalek: Once we stopped them and forced them to punt, it was like, We really have a chance to win this game.
Moree: I’m thinking from my Madden experience, with 30 seconds left, don’t put the ball in bounds. Punt it out of bounds. If I’m N.C. State, I punt this ball out of bounds.
Green: My dad would always say that State has always been snatching defeat from the jaws of victory since 1983. I think I still say that now. I remember watching Marcus Paige beat them last year3. It was looking grim. And I said, ‘Guys, State’s gonna find a way to screw this up. They’re snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.’ They do usually find a way to mess it up.
“Put 26 back there”
Thirty seconds left. N.C. State’s Wil Baumann lines up to punt from his own 25-yard line. Back to receive for North Carolina is sophomore return specialist Roy Smith.
Presson: I’m friends with Roy — he’s on the track team — and it was funny seeing he might have a chance and being scared for him.
Cunningham: I’m standing next to Joe, and out comes Roy Smith for the punt, and Joe looks at me and goes, ‘Put (No.) 26 back there. You gotta put 26 back there. Let him make a play.’
Jacobs: That’s the way the biggest players make the biggest plays in the biggest moments. He has to go back there.
Parsons: Someone else was supposed to field the punt, and (Gio) was one that was like, ‘I want to make this happen.’
Jacobs: He went up to Roy and got back in the game. And when Gio tells you he’s fine and you have the opportunity to get the ball in his hands, you typically try to do that.
Cunningham: We called timeout. And after the timeout here comes Gio.
Guy: Next thing you know Gio says, ‘Nah, I got this,’ and the next thing is history, man.
“I wish I would’ve been on the field to see it”
Trachtman: We were sitting in Section 119 where the basketball team usually sits. I can still see in my head Gio running it in from where I sat.
Freeman: I’m at the top of the tunnel for every game.
Green: Where I stand, I’m not very high up, so I can’t really see over the field. That’s one of the disadvantages of being on the front row and painting up: You don’t have an angle, really.
Sutton: We were front row to the left of the tunnel where they run out — it was myself and a lot of my closest friends. All six of the guys who I live with now were there.
Fellwock: I always loved being on the tunnel so every football game I would stand to the left side of the tunnel near the top of it.
Ian McLin, UNC junior: I was sitting in section 121.
Vynalek: I was in the end zone.
Benkert: It was my birthday. (He was also in the front row.)
Anthony: I’m in the press box during the game.
Presson: We had just had ACCs in Blacksburg, Va., at Virginia Tech, and we’re driving back through the mountains. I was trying to watch the game on my laptop on ESPN3, and it was cutting out every few seconds.
Spalding: About halfway through the student section on the lower level. I think I was in the first or second row because that was where the tenor saxes sat.
Cunningham: We might’ve just been lowest guys on the totem pole and they say, ‘Hey, rooks, you guys are over there on N.C. State’s sideline.’ Joe and I are probably standing at the 50-yard line or so.
Parsons: We usually go down to the field for the last few minutes of the game because I think you can go down with less than five minutes to go. But because it was tied, I think everyone was expecting overtime, and so I wasn’t down there. I was kind of kicking myself, like, Damn, I wish I would’ve been on the field to see it.
“You imagine your life as a sports movie”
Moree: I had said all year long that I hated the fact that Gio was returning punts. I thought it was a terrible idea. I remember thinking, Hey, this guy is our best offensive weapon: Why are you trotting him out there on some of the most dangerous plays in the game? I just didn’t think that was good strategy. And I remember even talking to Kelly about it, saying the reward does not outweigh the risk of a knee injury or a concussion. And I could not have been more wrong.
Jacobs: All I was thinking was a good return. Obviously, it played out a little bit differently.
Anthony: You’re like, Well, he could probably take it to the house, but no one’s thinking it. We’re all just sitting there trying to get the drive ready, how we’re going to go down and kick a field goal and win it.
Guy: The first thing I think is, Wow, this could actually happen. You’ve got to entertain the possibility. Gio could take this to the house.
Trachtman: We need a big return here. Six points would be ideal, but you can’t expect anything too big. Hopefully one, don’t muff the punt, and two, be smart with the ball, and hopefully try to get some yardage on the return.
Vynalek: I was hoping we’d get a decent return out of it to have a shot to win the game there, but not mess up so we could go into overtime.
Presson: Honestly, I wasn’t even really considering the thought that he would return the punt. I was surprised that they actually did punt to him.
Parsons: I was preparing for overtime.
Freeman: I’m thinking we’re gonna get a game-winning drive.
Fellwock: Nowhere in my mind did it ever cross that he was gonna run it back. Not at all. No clue.
Green: I’m not going to act like, Oh, he’s going to take this back. I really didn’t think that.
Spalding: We had been there for seven hours doing band-related stuff. We did not want this game to go into overtime. We just wanted the game to end. I think for a lot of band people, when it’s two minutes to go and it’s tied, you don’t really care who wins anymore — you just want to go home.
Fellwock: I remember thinking, This is one of those moments where you want something great to happen, and you imagine your life as a sports movie. And you know at the end of the sports movie they’re gonna do what they need to do, but this is no sports movie: It’s not gonna happen.
Anthony: It felt like a movie.
Fellwock: And I actually remember just crossing my hands. I was so anxious and I had already lost my voice at that point screaming during the game … Just get close.
Spalding: I was thinking, It’s probably not going to happen. Gio’s good, but he’s not that good.
McLin: I had my buddy Anthony on one side and my girlfriend, Lauren, on the other. No joke, just before the play, Anthony turns to me and says, ‘Just you watch: Gio’s taking this one back.’ Someone else yelled for him to shut up and not to jinx it.
Benkert: I remember thinking, This is about to be a big deal, because all of the sudden, out of nowhere — and we didn’t even consider the possibility of us winning at that point; we were all getting ready for overtime — 20 security guards just walk out and stand right in front of us. And that’s when we were like, ‘Holy shit! We could win. They’re trying to prevent us from storming the field. That means something crazy could happen.’
It felt like a dream"
Cunningham: The guy kicks it, he kicked it really well, outkicked his coverage by far. The return was set up to come right down the N.C. State sideline. When Gio catches it he starts running basically right at Joe and me. He gets the edge and starts taking off down the sideline. As soon as he cut the corner, Joe was running stride for stride with him. Like Joe was sprinting down the sideline.
Jacobs: I just take off because, I don’t know, I was excited. I didn’t know what I was thinking. I was psycho. So I just start sprinting down the sideline. And just in case he gets tackled, the referee needs the ball, and I thought for some reason if I got the ball to the ref faster — I don’t know, it might have helped. So I just start sprinting down there — Gio’s a little bit faster than I am.
Anthony: I remember three things: Coach (Blake) Anderson, who was sitting in front of me, just hops up out of his seat and he’s like, ‘He’s about to take to this to the house.’ Then I see Joe sprinting with Gio. And then Tre had the block that pretty much sent him to the house.
Presson: I remember (junior safety) Tre Boston specifically laying out two dudes on the play.
Jacobs: The moment that we knew it was big was when Tre Boston blocks this guy. When Tre got him, as soon as he got there, even if (freshman running back) Romar (Morris) wasn’t able to make the block, he was still getting over the 50 and we were gonna have the chance to run a couple plays. Everyone else did their job fantastically, but if you had to talk about the two that really sprung him, they’re Tre and Romar.
Cunningham: I remember seeing Tre’s block and thinking, Oh, that might have been a block in the back. So before I start chasing after Joe, I remember I stepped out onto the field, and I’m looking for a flag. As soon as I looked behind the play and I didn’t see a flag, that’s when I took off after Joe.
Jacobs: We had stepped back, because the last thing we needed to do was hit one of the refs and have a penalty and come back. That’s the easiest way to get in a lot of trouble.
Green: All I watch is a lot of running, a lot of chaos. And then eventually as Gio comes around on his right side, I finally see, ‘Oh, wow. He’s got space. He’s open. This might be something.’
Trachtman: Gio fields it, pretty sure he makes one cut, decides to take it up the right side of the field. I remember just seeing the hole. I was like, ‘Go.’ Everyone around me was like, ‘Go! Go!’ I grabbed my buddy. We’re jumping up and down. ‘GO! GO!’ You see everybody’s pom-poms are starting to fly in the air. The whole right side of the field is open. He’s got two men to beat. And then all of a sudden, it’s nothing but grass.
Fellwock: I don’t even know if I actually watched him receive it because I was too nervous to look. And I remember as soon as he starts running, everyone starts to get louder and louder. And I’m looking, watching him, going, This isn’t happening. This isn’t real. It felt like a dream.
Presson: He was running down and I guess the last guy he outran was the punter, who dove and tried to tackle him. After that it was clear field. I remember my feed cut out right there, and I knew he had scored, but I didn’t know if there was maybe a flag on the field. So I was freaking out in the back of the bus pretty sure that he had just won the game for us but not 100 percent sure. I was refreshing Twitter to see and finally it got confirmed, and the feed came back on and I was shouting — because no one else was even watching it with me; I was watching it alone with my headphones — and I started shouting, ‘Gio returned the punt!’ And everyone came back and watched the replay on my laptop.
Moree: You’re just kinda like, Oh, my gosh, this is gonna happen. I remember being so stunned by it. Mouth agape, looking at Kelly, she’s got the same look on her face, and the place is just going nuts.
Parsons: I think when moments like that happen — I covered the Austin Rivers 3-pointer4 — your mind is just kind of like, What? Did that just happen?
"A massive UNC love fest"
Jacobs: The defensive line coach who was talking a little bit the entire game is standing there right as I’m passing him, and he’s looking at Gio dumbfounded like, Are you kidding me?
Moree: The general idea about a press box is that it’s a working area and you’re not supposed to cheer. But when Gio broke free and it was obvious that he was gonna score and it was a walkoff touchdown, that place erupted.
Trachtman: That’s probably the loudest I’ve ever heard Kenan Stadium in my life. It’s hard not to get excited thinking about it right now.
Benkert: It was one of those things that the stadium was so loud that you couldn’t tell how loud it was.
Spalding: We play the fight song after every time we score, and we totally weren’t prepared for it that time. It was one of the times when we had all put our instruments down because we weren’t ready to start playing it. We just all started screaming and hugging each other. The band director is like, ‘Oh, no. You gotta play. You gotta play.’ We ended up playing it and putting our instruments down and going back to screaming.
Anthony: We’re all going crazy in the coaches’ box, slapping each other around, jumping around. I had torn my ACL: I just had knee surgery a month ago, so I really couldn’t do too much. Everyone else in the coaches’ box was going wild, beating on the windows, going crazy.
Freeman: I was friends with any and everybody in my vicinity at that point. Like, I don’t care who you are: If you were wearing Carolina Blue, I was jumping up and down, hugging people. People, myself included, were hopping up on top of the tunnel.
Green: I just remember absolute pandemonium. Everyone’s shoving everyone, but in that ‘Holy crap, what just happened?’ type of way and just yelling. They have so much energy, they don’t know what to do with it, so they’re just blurting it out and expressing it in any way possible.
Sutton: It was just intense in a beautiful way.
Vynalek: We were about ready to do push-ups for (the touchdown), and then the whole UNC sideline ran down, and that just wasn’t gonna happen because they were all jumping around. And they’re a lot bigger than I am, so I was afraid I was gonna get knocked over. They were just going crazy.
Sutton: We almost jumped over the ledge, except there were 20 officers right there. One officer told us that we could run on the field and go, and then three were like, ‘No, don’t do it,’ and they started reaching for their tasers. I wasn’t exactly in the mood to get tased. But I do kind of regret not jumping on the field because that’s the one time you could ever get away with that.
McLin: At games, my friends and I were constantly yelled at by the security staff for standing on the bleachers. After Gio took it back, they must have just given up. We toppled over the bleachers high-fiving and hugging each other and spilled over to the column of steps. I guess security was either too mesmerized by what just happened or just too scared to try to tell a bunch of emotional college students to follow the rules.
Fellwock: (Gio) immediately embraced the crowd. He immediately went to celebrate with the people who were celebrating with him.
Green: He runs along the student section all across the end zone, saluting them, getting hype. And then without really any rhyme or reason, he kind of stops when he gets toward the end of the end zone. I thought he’d turn back around. But he runs in our general direction. There’s probably about 14 or so of us in the group. I don’t even realize what’s happening before I turn around and he’s basically done this quasi-Lambeau Leap5 without turning around.
Benkert: I’m not even facing the field, I’m facing the stands at this point. And then all of a sudden he runs all the way across and stops directly in front of me and Ethan. And we were like, ‘OH MY GOD!’ And all the players come in and they push Gio into us basically.
Green: It’s Giovani Bernard in front of me, literally to the point where I can hug him. That’s basically what I do. I kind of just embrace him and start hitting him in the helmet, and then I’m like, ‘Wait, that’s a bad idea.’ So then I start smacking him on the shoulder pads. I just don’t know what to do. And everyone, of course, is mobbing me because of Gio, and I’m right there. There are trees of arms all around me, people going nuts.
Benkert: Like a massive UNC love fest.
Green: I turn and I’m like, ‘Here’s the guy who made the most memorable play of my UNC sports-watching history up until that point, and he jumped into my arms.’ He jumped into the wall right in front of me, and I lost it.
Benkert: My friends call me ‘Batman’ after football games because I yell so much that I lose my voice. I was in ultimate Batman form.
“Complete emotional release”
Final score: UNC 43, N.C. State 35.
Parsons: I still have this photo on one of my Pinterest boards — it’s after the punt return, and it’s a picture of Bryn and Gio crying on the bench.
Presson: The manliest tears I’ve ever witnessed.
Parsons: They had Gio at the podium just because he was the guy everyone wanted to talk to. He was still on a high from that moment — I could see his hands shaking. I had done a feature on him earlier, my junior year — he was just always one of my favorites to talk to. From a human perspective, kind of getting away from the sports writing part of it, you just kind of felt happy for the guy.
Moree: You could tell that he had been crying, and that was the first thing he said. He was being swarmed after the game by all of the media. Somebody asked him, ‘What do you see?’ And he said, ‘I was crying. As soon as I realized I was gonna score, I started crying.’ And I was just like, Ya know, I guess that makes perfect sense. That complete emotional release.
Guy: Normally when the game’s over it’s, Let me get my trunk wheeled to where it’s supposed to go so I can get out of here and watch a game. This time it’s completely different. The team’s celebrating right in front of the student section.
Guy: Oh, man. Whaddaya say if you’re Coach Fedora? Everyone wants to thank Gio. Fedora gave a speech at the end: ‘Every play counts.’ Not a lot of words had to be said.
Jacobs: When you play, State brings their footballs, we bring our footballs. State punted with their ball, and so it was just funny (because) one of the biggest plays in North Carolina football history was made with a North Carolina State football. To me that’s a piece of irony that I always just laugh at.
So sorry to the North Carolina State athletic department. We might owe them a football.
“Best moment of my college career”
Sutton: The moments afterward were kind of cool, just reliving the moment with people, getting to see what their experience was like. That was one of the things I remember for the week after: ‘Oh, I was on the other side.’ ‘Oh, I was in the Blue Zone.’ ‘Oh, I was up high with my parents watching everything happening.’ It was cool to hear different people’s perspectives and stories on what they were doing and how they remember the moment.
McLin: As some obnoxious State fans were exiting at the end of the game, some fraternity brothers near us were, naturally, talking trash. One of the State fans reared back and spat in a brother’s face. I then saw about five sets of Carolina blue-clad arms reach out and pull the guy into the stands. Never saw that guy again, but I can’t say he didn’t deserve what likely happened to him.
Trachtman: It’s kind of like you’re on this high and you don’t want to come down. You want to stay in the stadium for as long as you can. I went home and watched the run-back probably 50 times on my computer.
Presson: I got back and it was still light out. I went straight home and my roommates had all been at the game, and they keep telling me the story over and over — they knew that I had seen it, but they just kept telling me how I didn’t understand. Just reliving it over and over.
Green: I walked back to my dorm. I think I composed a snarky Facebook status because I was a sophomore and I thought that was cool. I remember almost not being able to do anything else because all you could think about was, That just happened. I can’t tell you a single other notable part of that day because it was spent recapping: ‘Thirty minutes ago, Gio did that to State.’ ‘An hour ago, Gio did that to State.’ It took me a while to wash all the paint off, but the rest of the day, I was just dumbfounded by what had happened.
Trachtman: You can see a team win a Super Bowl. You can see the Tar Heels win an ACC championship. To win a game against an in-state rival on a last-second play, it doesn’t really get much better than that. Absolutely.
Guy: Those 10 seconds were the best moment of my college career.
Green: That day, that weekend, is defined entirely and exclusively by the Gio punt return.
Cunningham: After the game, I actually met my girlfriend that night. That game gave me a little something to talk about so I wasn’t just sitting there awkwardly. So I can thank the game for that.
“Everyone’s brought together”
Presson: Football players would walk into their classroom, and some people would start clapping for them. Much to their chagrin, they take a bit of a backseat to the basketball team, but I think for that week at least, they definitely had everyone’s attention and were the beloved team on campus.
Benkert: That was kind of the turning point of ‘We have a real football team that can do exciting and fun things. Let’s not use the ‘It’s almost basketball season’ mantra.
Green: Football made a huge stride forward in commanding the attention and love and focus of the student body and everyone on campus. It was cool to see that much excitement around Gio and the play and the team, and of course it was the most heartbreaking way for State to have lost. Everyone was a part of it.
Sutton: It was just one of those moments that really sticks out as a Carolina moment where everybody’s kind of brought together by one incidence of time. It was a connecting thing. We really rode that high on the sports wave throughout the rest of the season.
Fellwock: It was this moment that everyone suddenly came together. Whether you liked football, whether we were good or not, we felt like we just won the national championship. I didn’t care what we did the rest of that season. That moment solidified, This is exactly why I came here. This is exactly why I wanted to be involved in sports. This is exactly why I knew that coming here would be something special. It was like, This is exactly why Carolina means so much to so many people.
Pete Ward, a British high school student visiting a friend at UNC that weekend: I still remember the guy who did the punt return thing for the game-winning play. Gio Bernard, I think.
Cunningham: It’s one of those things that I feel like everyone who was here for that game knows where they were when that happened. Like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember when Gio took it back.’
Green: He became a folk hero, almost.
Sutton: He was a cult-hero symbol.
Trachtman: Gio was all of a sudden running for president in the eyes of the university — for chancellor, for president, everything. He was the man.
Fellwock: I remember right after it happened, I was walking by Greenlaw (Hall), and Gio was out there and people were asking for his autograph. He had become an instant celebrity.
Guy: You see all these ‘RUN GIO’ shirts come out. You obviously hear from all your State friends that didn’t get into Carolina about how there were 14 penalties on that play that they didn’t call, that it was rigged.
Green: Everyone and their mom had one of those shirts. I saw guys wearing V-necks that were clearly made for girls, and they were just wearing them shamelessly anyway, so power to them.
Sutton: He was the player everybody kind of gravitated toward. He was one of the few jerseys sold in the Student Stores. They had hoodies made and everything. A lot of time when players graduate, it’s maybe not cool, not hip, to wear their jerseys because they’re not current players. People don’t give a damn about wearing Gio stuff anymore: They’ll gladly walk that around. I would, too. I don’t own anything personally of his, but nobody is ashamed to wear a Gio jersey. That moment is going to live on forever and ever.
Parsons: One of my high schoolers recently, I asked him who his NFL idol was or what NFL player he tries to emulate with his game. And he said, ‘Well, there’s this rookie running back for the Bengals — his name is Giovani Bernard.’
Fellwock: What made him so special, what made him such a great character, (was that) he didn’t want to celebrate it as his accomplishment. He wanted to celebrate with the university. It wasn’t about him; it was about this successful uniting of a football program that had gone through some scandal and had gone through a new coach and had gone through years and years and years of little to no success. Finally there was a glimmer of hope that maybe we turned the corner.
Moree: That’s kind of what was so epic about the way the game ended, that it was like this epic release. North Carolina has finally conquered that demon of N.C. State. This is not your state: This is our state.
Jacobs: People will always remember, will always remember, the Gio punt return.
[FOOTNOTE 1]: UNC finished the season 8-4 (5-3 ACC) and atop the Coastal Division. But because of the bowl ban, the Tar Heels couldn’t play in the ACC Championship game.
: Pack Pride.
: The tradition of Packers players launching themselves into the crowd behind the end zone at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field.