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September 18, 2009When North Carolina and East Carolina kick off their in-state battle Saturday afternoon in Kenan Stadium, there will be plenty of connections tying the two sidelines together.
Several Tar Heels have former high school teammates or friends that play for the Pirates, while UNC strength and conditioning coach Jeff Connors was East Carolina's strength coach in the 1990s.
Aside of the ties between the players on each team, there are also the ties between the UNC players and their family members, which in the case of East Carolina, often cross over.
"As far as this game, it's particularly good because my mom, she's an ECU alumni, so it's kind of hard for her," said freshman defensive end Donte Paige-Moss. "She's my No. 1 fan, but she's always going to be ECU alumni, so she's like, 'Oh man, I'm rooting up against my school.'"
"My aunt, she lives in Greenville, so during the summertime I would go up there, me and my brother," said UNC junior safety Deunta Williams. "She lived probably about two or three minutes away from ECU, so we would go on their basketball courts outside and shoot around and run around on their field and stuff."
Many of the UNC players will know someone on the opposing sideline when the teams take the field Saturday.
In some cases it's a former teammate. In other cases it's a former high school rival.
In a lot of cases, it's someone they met and became friends with through the recruiting process or participating in an event such as the Shrine Bowl.
"I think (Sunday) in the team meeting, Coach (Davis) had everybody raise their hand that knew somebody that played on ECU, and just about 75 percent of the guys raised their hand," said UNC junior quarterback T.J. Yates "It's kind of the in-state thing. A lot of the guys know each other as friends from high school and such. It's a big game for us and for them."
"There's a lot of my friends that go there (to ECU)," said Moss, "Like (former Jacksonville (N.C.) Northside teammate) Joe Womack, Dekota (Marshall) (a former teammate of Kendric Burney at Jacksonville (N.C.) Southwest Onslow), and Covair (Frost) (a former teammate of Moss's at Trenton (N.C.) Jones Senior)"
"I grew up with him (Frost)," Moss added. "I talk to Joe every now and again. I talk to Covair when we're both home. They both said it's going good for the both of them. There's a lot of people that go to that school that I know."
"I know a lot of people that I played against that go to ECU from rival schools, New Bern," said freshman wide receiver Erik Highsmith. "Pierre Bell, he just graduated from there. That's my close friend. He went to my high school. He called me and told me about this week and stuff, tried to give me a little scouting report to help me out."
"I'm not really from North Carolina, but I know a lot of guys, especially Deunta and Kendric, are from that area," said Yates.
For Williams, who spent so much time in Greenville as a youth, this year's game against the Pirates is one that he's been waiting two years for.
Given his ties to the eastern part of the state and how much pride this game invokes within the borders of North Carolina, he knows that this one will carry with him far beyond the final play on Saturday afternoon.
"It's more than a game. This is one of those games, me personally, I'll probably remember for the rest of my life," Williams said. "They (ECU) got us last time, and since then I've kind of had that on the back of my mind. When people have asked me about it, no game is bigger than another one, but to me, this is one that will always stick out in the back of my mind."
"It's definitely personal," he added. "Like I said, it's one that I'll always remember for the rest of my life. There's certain games that stick out in your head as an athlete, and I think this is going to be one of them. Not to say that it's more important than any of the rest of them that we're going to play, but this is the only one that matters right now. It's a little personal for me, and I'll make sure that I get that message across to everybody else.
As a freshman, Moss doesn't have the past experience like Williams with East Carolina to carry a chip on his shoulder into the game, but he is smart enough to know that when the Tar Heels and Pirates come together on the gridiron, it's something to get excited about.
"I just think about all games as being a 'big game' because me being a freshman and getting playing time every game, it's a big game to me," he said.
While the Tar Heels faced a hostile purple-clad audience in Greenville's Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium back in 2007, things will be a little different this time around in the friendly confines of Kenan Stadium.
While the majority of the crowd will be on their side Saturday, the Tar Heel veterans know it's going to be an electric atmosphere, and plenty of Pirate fans will find their way in given the close proximity between Greenville and Chapel Hill.
"It's going to be a little bit different feel than the first game (we played against ECU)," said Yates. "We know that this place is going to be filled as much as possible with people from Greenville, so you've just got to not pay attention to it as much as possible."
"It was a little bit different when we went down there. It's a very hostile environment when you play in their stadium. But we know they're going to travel well. They're going to try to fill this place up with as much purple as possible," Yates added. "We just have to tell the young guys just to kind of zone out and not worry about the fans or anything else going on around the game."
"When we went to ECU it was live down there, and I liked it a lot," said Williams. "I think N.C. State is another kind of rivalry like that. It's funny---they (the ECU fans) can be the nicest people in the world but once they come to that game, they transform a little bit. But the fans are going to be a little bit juiced up and all that good stuff. I think it will be a fun crowd out there."
Naturally, given all the connections between the two schools and all the friendships crossing the lines of the rivalry, there were plenty of text messages, emails, and phone calls talking some friendly trash back and forth this week, but those on the East Carolina side were probably wise not to have sent such a message to Williams.
"They know who I am. I don't do too kindly to stuff like that," said Williams. "We're friends and we can respect that and after the game we can be friends again, but as far as trash-talking and stuff like that. I go a little bit extra harder on stuff like that."
"Of course we talk trash, and I've got a lot of friends that went to Jones Senior and Northside that go to ECU just as students, so we talk a lot of trash, but I'm just looking forward to the game," said Moss.