The throne has been prepared at North Carolina, awaiting only
the crowning of the newest member of college football's elite.
There's a $47 million addition to Kenan Stadium that includes
not only 8,000 new seats in the west end zone but also a
marble-floored hall-of-fame atrium, a locker room so opulent
that Martha Stewart could throw dinner parties in it and a
weight room with nine television sets and a monstrous stereo
system. The Tar Heels could sell health club memberships and pay
for the whole shebang by the millennium. There's a team on the
field, flush with late-1990s necessities like blinding speed and
attacking defense. There's widespread applause, in the form of
Top 10 preseason rankings and the hosannas of opposing coaches.
Everybody knows North Carolina is ready.
Nine seasons have passed since Mack Brown succeeded Dick Crum as
the Tar Heels' coach and slowly pointed North Carolina--which
did cameos in the Gator and the Peach bowls and occasionally
sent a Lawrence Taylor to the NFL but didn't threaten to win any
national championships--toward the high ground where its
basketball program has long lived. His efforts began with
consecutive 1-10 seasons ("I thought, What on earth have I
gotten into?" says the 46-year-old Brown) but showed real
promise a year ago when the Tar Heels went 10-2 and lost to
Florida State narrowly, 13-0, in Tallahassee. North Carolina was
ranked seventh before this season began, with a chance to
supplant the Seminoles as the ACC champions and play in an
alliance bowl. After a blistering practice on the day after
Labor Day, linebacker Kivuusama Mays, an emotional senior known
across the campus simply as K (for obvious reasons), chewed on
these expectations and smiled broadly. "I see people wearing
football jerseys around here instead of basketball shirts," said
Mays. "All the hype, all the attention, this is what we've been
trying to get for ourselves. This is our year."
Every season brings a comet or two, teams that win 10 games then
slide back to mediocrity. "We don't want that type of thing,
where people say, 'North Carolina has a pretty good team this
year,'" says Brown. "We want to be an every-year team." The Tar
Heels listlessly dumped overmatched Indiana 23-6 in their season
opener on Sept. 6 and last Saturday night hosted Stanford, a
team also on the rise. The Cardinal came to Chapel Hill with six
consecutive wins, dating back to last November, and cared not in
the least what destiny was planning for North Carolina.
With 2:36 left in the third quarter, Stanford led 17-14, despite
having gained just 135 yards against the Tar Heels' defense,
which had played as advertised. At that juncture Brown inserted
junior quarterback Oscar Davenport into the game for the second
time, replacing more-publicized senior Chris Keldorf. The first
time Davenport had come in, early in the second quarter, he had
taken the Tar Heels 99 yards in 17 plays to tie the score 7-7.
Davenport had also played briefly in the season opener. This
time the circumstances were far more pressing. North Carolina's
offense hadn't made a first down in the second half. Davenport
ran in from the sideline, stuck his face into the huddle and
shouted, "We've got to go here, so why don't you guys get your
heads out of your butts."
He would know about urgency and about patience. In 1996
Davenport sat on the bench, watching Keldorf flourish in the job
that Davenport had thought would be his. Late in the '95 season
Davenport, a redshirt freshman from Osceola High in St.
Petersburg, Fla., had begun to earn small slices of quality
playing time behind senior Mike Thomas. But in a loss to
Clemson, Davenport tore the anterior cruciate ligament and
sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee.
Reconstructive surgery ended his season.
With Thomas gone and Davenport injured, North Carolina needed an
experienced quarterback to work spring practice in 1996.
Assistant coach Cleve Bryant looked through a junior college
scouting sheet and found Keldorf, a second-year player at
Palomar Junior College in San Marcos, Calif. Bryant and Brown
were intrigued. Keldorf was big (6'5") and strong, but players
are usually in junior college for a reason: bad grades, head
problems, whatever. "We thought, There must be something wrong,"
says Brown. He had only brought one junior college transfer to
Chapel Hill, but the Tar Heels were desperate. In the spring of
'96, while Davenport hobbled around in a knee brace, Keldorf ran
the first-team offense. Last fall, even with Davenport able to
play, Keldorf won the job and threw 23 touchdown passes and just
What's more, Keldorf was a story, a rags-to-riches quarterback
straight from central casting. He had gone from a low-key
program at St. Bernard High in Playa del Rey, Calif., to Utah
State, the only Division I-A college to offer him a scholarship.
Lacking proper mechanics and short on experience, Keldorf was
told by none other than former Seattle Seahawks quarterback Jim
Zorn, then an assistant at Utah State, that he would never be a
quarterback and that he should move to tight end. "He was right
about my skills, and he had six other quarterbacks to worry
about," Keldorf says. "I wanted to play quarterback, and I
didn't care about anybody else at Utah State." He transferred to
El Camino Community College in Torrance, Calif., where he found
the quarterback position occupied by future Brigham Young star
Steve Sarkisian. Stymied again, he prepared to pack it in.
Keldorf's father, Russell, persuaded him not to. "He told me,
'You don't want to be 40 years old and wish you had given it a
shot,'" says Keldorf. He went to Palomar and then came to North
Carolina, where he became a star. Newspapers and magazines
profiled him. Mel Kiper Jr. rated him as the No. 2 senior
quarterback in the country. He injured his ankle in the Tar
Heels' regular-season finale against Duke last Nov. 23 and
missed their 20-13 Gator Bowl victory over West Virginia, a game
in which Davenport was named MVP. But after Keldorf showed in
spring practice that he had recovered from ankle and back
surgery, he was reinstalled as the starter. Davenport would be a
junior, and he would sit again.
"I'm the type of person who has faith in his ability, and I
never wanted to be a quitter, but it wasn't easy," said
Davenport after last Saturday's game. To wait his turn he would
need the perseverance he learned from his mother, Patricia
Reynolds, who raised him and four siblings and step-siblings
until he was 12 years old. He would need the discipline he
learned from his father, also named Oscar, a hospital cook with
whom he lived from seventh grade through high school. The elder
Davenport would occasionally take away young Oscar's phone
privileges for two weeks at a time for misbehavior. "That's
punishment, I'm telling you," says Oscar Jr.
Davenport was called during the third quarter against Stanford
to breathe life into a stagnant offense. North Carolina gained a
yard on each of two running plays. But on third-and-eight,
Davenport created magic, racing out of a collapsing pocket for a
20-yard gain. After five more plays, two of them pass
completions, the Tar Heels faced second-and-12 on the Cardinal
15-yard line. Davenport sprinted right, twice froze defenders by
tucking the ball as if to run, then drilled the go-ahead
touchdown pass to senior wideout Octavus Barnes. North Carolina
later returned a blocked punt for a touchdown, sealing the 28-17
It is obvious what the 6'4", 194-pound Davenport brings to the
Tar Heels: an evasiveness that Keldorf lacks and the ability to
make a positive play from a negative one. Never mind that
Davenport completed 12 of 14 passes for 116 yards and two
touchdowns and that Keldorf was eight for 12 for 42 yards.
Davenport created action. Close your eyes and you can see him
escaping Florida State's pass rush on Nov. 8.
Coaches constantly agonize over having two good quarterbacks at
their disposal. Brown promised last Saturday only to "reevaluate
the position," but surely he sensed the leadership his players
felt when Davenport was in the game. "Oscar has this energy in
the huddle," says senior running back Jonathan Linton. "He runs
onto the field, and you just feel him in there."
So Davenport kept North Carolina's season of high hopes from
falling apart. "I guess it was on my shoulders, wasn't it?" he
said long after the game. A small boy handed him a baseball cap.
Davenport signed his name and jersey number, handed it back and
laughed at the gods.