If that really was Drake Maye’s last game in Chapel Hill, it provided a fitting full-circle ending

UPDATED NOVEMBER 13, 2023 2:49 PM Here was Drake Maye in the middle of it all late Saturday night, in the middle of the kind of moment that he had to have imagined countless times as a kid, coming to Kenan Stadium with his brothers and his mom and dad, Mark, who set all of this in motion 40 years ago. Here was Drake Maye in the middle of the mob, somewhere, after North Carolina’s 47-45 double-overtime victory against Duke. With people swarming him.

With his classmates celebrating with him. With the eventual chant, after Maye finally found himself doing a postgame interview on the ACC Network, of “one more year! . .

. one more year!” Loud enough for Maye to hear it. Loud enough for everyone to hear it.

Imagine what it must’ve felt it like for Maye, who spent many a Saturday inside Kenan Stadium with his family, who grew up wearing UNC gear and rooting on the Tar Heels, first fantasizing about one day playing for them and then, as it became more and more of a reality, planning for the moment. And then here he was late Saturday night, “just soaking that in,” he said of the scene. “Fairy tale” is the phrase Maye used, a couple of times, to describe it, and indeed this was something out of a children’s storybook, especially for someone who grew up in the Maye home — especially, as he said, for “a North Carolina kid who grew up going to Kenan, grew up as a fan.

” “It’s a fairy tale ending,” he said a little later Saturday night, well past midnight now and early into Sunday morning. “I’m glad it ended this way. I would’ve been heartbroken if not, if it went the other way.

And like I said — no better way, against a rival, with the fans storming the field, senior night. “Just, a lot of emotions . .

. It’s a dream come true for me, right here. ” There were a couple of layers to the catharsis.

For one, as that “one more year” chant underscored, this is very likely Maye’s final college season. And if it is, that was his final home game, one in which he passed for 342 yards and one touchdown, ran for two more and made the winning plays, late, after the Tar Heels defense faltered in the fourth quarter (now there’s a familiar set of circumstances). Maye has been fantastic, again, in his second season as UNC’s starting quarterback, though some of his numbers (like passing touchdowns, for instance) aren’t quite as eye-popping as they were a season ago.

The Tar Heels’ unexpected defeats against Virginia and Georgia Tech pushed UNC out of the national college football conversation, and likely doomed Maye’s Heisman Trophy chances. The losses didn’t, though, do any damage to Maye’s professional prospects. If anything, his NFL Draft stock has only continued to rise — so much so that, now, he’s among the favorites to be the top overall selection in the 2024 draft.

As much as Maye loves UNC, it’d be stunning – and, one could argue, unwise – to return to school and turn down what awaits him next spring. And so that was one reason for the emotion Saturday night – the realization that this was probably, almost assuredly, the last time he’ll walk onto that field as UNC’s quarterback. But then there was a deeper part of it, too.

Maye alluded to it when he referenced his upbringing, the Saturdays he’d spent in Kenan Stadium, growing up a UNC fan. And growing up a fan because of what his dad started all those years ago. Mark Maye, of Charlotte’s Independence High, was perhaps the nation’s best quarterback prospect when he committed to UNC in 1983.

He seemed destined for great things, in all the ways. But then a shoulder injury derailed his football prospects. He could barely throw in his first season as a starter, in 1984.

Major off-season surgery forced him to miss the entire 1985 season, and he couldn’t throw a football at all for a year. When he returned, at last, that right arm that’d portended such big things was never quite the same. Mark’s final college game, in November 1987, came against Duke.

Another injury forced him out in the third quarter, and as he stood on the sideline and watched the end of the Tar Heels’ 25-10 defeat, he pleaded with UNC coach Dick Crum to let him back in, to no avail. “Glory and pain,” Ron Green wrote that day in the Charlotte Observer, of Maye’s college years. “I wanted to help,” Mark Maye told reporters later, of his desire to go back into his final college game, even when injured.

He tried to keep his football dream alive for as long as he could, later playing for the last time with the Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks of the World League of American Football. But then, another injury, and never played again. Mark and his wife, Aimee, turned their focus toward their shared future.

They started a family. The oldest of their four boys, Luke, became a UNC basketball player who grew up to make one of the greatest shots in school history. Their youngest, Drake, became the Tar Heels quarterback, just like his father.

If that really was his final college home game Saturday night, it came against the same rival school that Mark faced in his last college game. The ending, for Mark, was one filled with anguish and pain, and a longing to go back in even after he couldn’t; a longing to help. For Drake, it was an ending of jubilation.

A family story had come full circle. A childhood dream had become real. .

Filed 11.14.2023

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