I delivered a short talk about my upcoming book on Kenan Stadium to a group of Tar Heel football aficionados in early June and showed them several of the noteworthy photographs that will be contained within the book’s 240 pages.
The gasps were audible around the room as I clicked the shots that Boone photographer Jordan Nelson captured with a camera mounted on a drone surrounding the stadium as the Tar Heels played Miami back in mid-November.
Typical of the comments I’ve heard since the shot taken from the south corner has appeared in mock-ups of the front of dust cover is this:
“I had to sit back and take a deep breath! I’ve never seen a more beautiful photo of the stadium.”
I am confident the words contained in this one-of-kind treatise to the home of Tar Heel football will be enlightening and entertaining.
I am positive the photos and memorabilia will be worth the price of admission.
Among the many interesting images in the interior of the book are probably two dozen by Charleston, W.Va., photographer Michael Switzer, whose son Ryan is a receiver on the team. The vast reservoir of Hugh Morton’s mid-1900s black-and-whites today archived in the North Carolina Collection in Wilson Library was tapped extensively, and grandson Jack Morton contributed a reel of shots of Giovani Bernard’s punt return against N.C. State in 2012.
I actually wanted to write and publish this book during the 1996-97 apex of the Mack Brown era, and for the Virginia game in 1997 I asked veteran sports photographer Bob Donnan to look for a particular shot. Bob was positioned on the Cavalier sideline aiming across the field, focusing on the Tar Heel bench area and the student cheering section behind it. The idea was to capture an instant of time when the players, coaches and fans were exploding in celebration and put that image on the cover of a book titled Rock The House, the name taken from a popular cheer and band routine at the time.
That book never materialized but now, nearly two decades later, I was able to use one of Bob’s 35 millimeter slides from that game—a shot of the Tar Heel bench celebrating a touchdown during the Tar Heels’ 48-20 landslide win.
Two of the most noteworthy images are the ones adorning the front and back of the dust jacket. One is about beauty and aesthetics, the other about passion and emotion. One took a little planning, the other a little luck.
Though I began planning this book in the summer of 2015, I didn’t know for certain it could become a reality until early November, and there were just two home games left in what was turning into a memorable season for the Tar Heels. I had used and been impressed with the aerial images from Nelson on a golf club commemorative book and thought capturing Kenan Stadium from a drone circling the stadium during a game would provide a perspective never seen before.
Nelson came to Chapel Hill on Nov. 14 for the home finale against Miami. A clear forecast and 3:30 kick-off insured there would be outstanding opportunity for dramatic sunset shots, and Nelson certainly delivered with the front cover shot shown looking north with the campus and town in the distance. There are a handful more terrific photos from Nelson’s drone that afternoon and evening scattered through the book.
“The key was to find the best angles of the stadium in relation to the lighting while also keeping a safe distance from the stadium itself,” Nelson says. “I walked around the stadium and did my flights from directly below where the images were taken to minimize flying. We hit it just right—the shots turned out incredibly well with the evening time frame and near-peak of the fall foliage.”
The back cover came quite by accident. Twenty-two-year-old William Greene works as a web-designer at UNC Creative. He’s never been credentialed to shoot a Carolina game but brought his camera to the Duke game and even rented a telephoto lens for the occasion. He was sitting in lower bowl in the east end zone, near the Blue Zone, and with time left in the first half for one snap, Greene trained his lens on QB Marquise Williams. Out of the corner of his eye on the left he saw Bug Howard burn his man and streak toward the goal line. He adjusted his lens to Howard, honed in and starting clicking the shutter.
“Between the releases of my shutter, I could tell that this is what it was all about,” Greene says. “Frame after frame, the magnitude of it all started to sink in. When you put on the jersey of a University as old, as renowned, and as honored as Carolina, you dress yourself in a legacy that is worlds bigger than you. You do everything in your power to live up to, and grow that legacy, for those who will come after you. And in the moments where you do something truly incredible, the University stands with you in celebration.
“That’s what we have in this photo.”
I found several of the kids from the Tar Pit and talked to them about the experience of the 2015 season, the Duke game in particular and, of course, that instant captured by Greene.
“That was the exclamation point on a half of Carolina football that showed the potential we’ve all been waiting for,” says Josh Mayo, the young man with the frizzy hair in the lower-left corner of the frame. “We were up at 8 a.m. every game painting ourselves and the first in line to get in the stadium. That game was the kind of validation we’ve wanted. I think that’s why there’s so much excitement and joy in the photo. You’ve heard it so many times about Carolina being the ‘sleeping giant.’ This is finally the sleeping giant waking up.”
”Football in a Forest—The Life and Times of Kenan Memorial Stadium” is due out in early August and will be available on-line and in retail and book stores around the Chapel Hill area. Stay tuned for more details.