With 2:57 left to play in a drowsy, scoreless first quarter, North Carolina Tailback Kelvin Bryant, the alpha and omega of the undefeated Tar Heels' offense, erupted through the right side of the Georgia Tech line last Saturday in Atlanta. Whoosh, glide, see you later. He gained 13 yards so smoothly that up in the stands of Grant Field the parallels between Bryant's graceful style and that of Gale Sayers were being drawn again.
Then, on the next play, a sprint draw right with Fullback Alan Burrus nailing a linebacker to clear the way, Bryant elegantly flowed upfield for 27 more yards. Surely he was on the way to another big scoring day; after all, this was just North Carolina's fourth game, and already he had 15 touchdowns—and the major-college record for a season, held by Penn State's Lydell Mitchell, is 29. Oh my, yes, this lad is special. No wonder that, as the Tar Heels entered the Tech game, they were ranked fourth by SI.
But, suddenly, there was Bryant struggling off the field, dragging his left leg after taking a hard, twisting hit on the outside of his knee, and the Georgia Tech fans, who had already seen their Yellow Jackets upset Alabama, were cheering the prospect of dumping another Top 10 team. Three plays later, after Carolina had stalled and given up the ball, the offense repaired to the sideline where Bryant sat with his leg propped up on the bench, an ice pack on his knee. It was originally announced that he had a bruise, but anybody who knows Bryant knows bruises don't sit him down. Bryant, who had five carries for 46 yards, obviously was hurt badly. "I'm a little disappointed," he said softly.
A little? Bryant, a 21-year-old junior from Tarboro, N.C., already has been lionized by Tar Heel fans, and he admits he's a little uneasy with all the attention. It came so suddenly, after two seasons of playing in the shadow of Famous Amos Lawrence, now with the 49ers. As Bryant sat in his sparsely decorated dorm room one night last week, he acknowledged his new responsibilities, saying, "I know if I get hurt, I'll let the team down. That would be the worst thing."
October 11, 1981
But beyond the dispirited Bryant, how about dispirited Carolina? A season that had started with so much promise surely had, on the first weekend of October, ended in pain. Down the drain. So long, Tar Heels, see you in the Bottom 10.
Wrong! For as the afternoon progressed, North Carolina showed that, with Bryant or without him, it's a team bordering on terrific. Gil Brandt, the director of personnel development for the Dallas Cowboys, who had come to Atlanta to take a close look at Bryant, said at game's end, "This is an impressive football team."
Indeed, don't write the Tar Heels' obituary yet just because of serious illness in the family. That Carolina went on to wreck Tech 28-7 isn't final proof that the Heels can survive indefinitely without Bryant. It is, however, a good start in that direction. North Carolina's young defense—only four seniors—seemingly gets a year tougher each week. And the offense, quarterbacked by Rod Elkins, believes in itself. There are those who say what the Tar Heels really believed in was Bryant, but that may not be true. Coach Dick Crum, it turns out, has molded a team that has depth, talent and, you better believe it, resolve.
Shortly after Bryant was hurt, Burrus ran over and said to him on the sideline, "Hey, when are you coming back in?"
"In that case we'll just win without you," responded Burrus.
And that the Tar Heels did, in a manner that should have eased Bryant's fears about letting his team down. With 3:47 to go in the second quarter, Elkins faked beautifully to the left, kept the ball on a naked bootleg around right end and raced clear for 15 yards before ducking his head and bulling for four more, down to the Tech one. Following a penalty, Tyrone Anthony, the third-string tailback, blasted in from six yards out.
After the Yellow Jackets tied the score early in the third quarter, a pass-interference call again gave Carolina the ball on the Tech one, whence Elkins bolted in. And moments later, Tar Heel Strong Safety Bill Jackson pounced on a Tech fumble, and it took Elkins just two passes to cover the 31 yards for a score—the touchdown toss being hauled in by Anthony, who said, "I didn't really think I'd play today, but the coaches tell us always to be ready, so I was ready."
North Carolina got its final score midway in the fourth quarter when Elkins hit Burrus, who had drifted out to the left flat, with a pass. Burrus then streaked 34 yards down the sideline, juking by one potential tackier and breaking out of the grasp of another, as he barged to the one. On the next play, his substitute, James Jones, punched over for the TD.
It was fitting that Burrus, a junior who carried 18 times for 81 yards, got his moment in the sun, because he generally sacrifices his body to block for Bryant. He's good natured about his usual subordinate role, saying, "Oh, I have a choice—I can either block or not play. And I have a fear of not playing. What I like most about blocking for Kelvin is I can block poorly and he still makes me look good."
But Saturday, it fell to Burrus to look good all on his own. "Alan did a very good job in taking up the slack," said Crum. Further, Burrus was the leader in making sure the Tarheels didn't fall to pieces after Bryant's injury. That he was an unlikely hero made those accomplishments even more delightful.
Recruiters had not flocked to Burrus' Shelby, N.C. home, and even when former Tar Heel Coach Bill Dooley signed him up, Burrus knew that he wasn't exactly the No. 1 Tar Heel recruiting coup of 1978. Dooley said, "Congratulations, Chuck, you've made a wise decision." Then Dooley gave Chuck, er, Alan, the pen they had used to sign the letter of intent, but, says Burrus, "When I tried to use it to sign autographs, it ran out of ink." From this unprepossessing beginning, things got worse. Burrus was tackling fodder as a freshman. In North Carolina's 17-15 Gator Bowl win over Michigan at the end of his sophomore season, he broke his right thumb. Along the way he also sustained two stress fractures in his right foot and one in his left. Then he missed the 1980 season with a hamstring pull. Finally, last spring, Burrus tried to hoist 315 pounds in the weight room but dropped the bar on his head, breaking three neck vertebrae. Now he's fine—if you don't count the broken big toe on his left foot. Burrus doesn't.
All of which can make a guy a little weird. Which might explain why Burrus just up and took a wandering seven-week, 700-mile bicycle trip from Salt Lake City to Billings, Mont. this summer. "I got to thinking," says Burrus, "that 50 years from now, if I just worked, what would I remember about the summer of '81?" Now he has memories, and says, "I found out this country is a good place. People helped me; they cooked for me; they invited me to sleep in their backyards and living rooms." He plans a trip to Brazil this summer where he'll go hunting.
Which is what the North Carolina football team may feel like it's doing as it faces life without Bryant. On Sunday morning, orthopedist Timothy Taft operated on Bryant for 2½ hours in Chapel Hill after finding knee cartilage torn in two places. That in itself might have kept Bryant down only a couple of weeks, but the more dire discovery was that there was ligament damage, too, which will slow his recovery. Taft considers it "unlikely" that Bryant will play again this year, but "maybe he'll fool me."
Ironically, in 1980, Crum had two superior, healthy tailbacks, Lawrence and Bryant. While the coach got high marks for his diplomatic handling of that situation, so, too, did Bryant, who played second fiddle with no squeaks. Lawrence rushed for 1,118 yards, but Bryant rushed for 1,039 yards on 52 fewer carries. His problem in getting headlines may have been that Kelvin rhymes only with Elvin, Delvin and Melvin.
Which may be a good omen, seeing as Burrus rhymes with nothing. He may have to become more famous than either Amos or Kelvin if North Carolina, which seems talented enough to finish in the Top 20 even without an outstanding runner, is to match its most successful season ever, 1948, when the Tar Heels finished third in the polls.