By Lee Pace
“Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Steve Streater lived the heroic life in Chapel Hill during his time from 1977-80. He rocketed punts 45 yards downfield with 4.5 hang times. He laughed to the crowd returning punts and interceptions for touchdowns. He and Lawrence Taylor whipped all challengers in eight-ball at the Student Union and in cards at Ehringhaus Dorm. He screamed in his teammates’ faces standing in the orange paint of the end zone that they would not, under any circumstance, allow Clemson to score a touchdown late in a 1980 game that would secure the Tar Heels the ACC championship.
“Lord, what a team,” Streater said in 2005 of that 11-1 juggernaut. “I loved the fellas. That’s what I called them, ‘The fellas.’ When we stepped on the field, everyone was on the same page. We’d knock your mouthpiece out. I called it ‘cow-pasture football,’ just a bunch of guys out having fun.”
Kelvin Bryant too was nonpareil in his days sporting jersey number 44 between the hedges of Kenan Stadium from 1979-82. He was built like a thoroughbred, tall at 6 foot 2, fast with a 9.29 clocking in a high school 100-yard dash and athletic with a 24 foot, 8 inch long jump. Tar Heel assistant coach Cleve Bryant was nearly paying taxes in the burg of Tarboro he spent so much time wooing Bryant back in the days of unrestricted schoolboy courting. Kelvin could power inside, motor outside, stop on a dime, glide like a swan one moment and turn 240-pound linebackers to pudding the next. He was modest and unassuming, later in life accepting jersey number 24 as a newcomer to the Washington Redskins because some teammates might have taken umbrage that he was imposing on the memory of the recently retired No. 44, John Riggins.
“I never saw a back break 11 tackles on one run, but Bryant broke seven against Duke,” Arkansas coach Lou Holtz noted during Gator Bowl preparations in December 1981. “If the other four could have caught up to him, he’d probably have broken those, too.”
By the beginning of the 1981 season, however, their respective fortunes had diverged. Bryant still retained all the abilities most of us take for granted—to walk and run and jump, for example. But Streater was bound to a wheelchair, the tragic victim of the spinal injury resulting from an automobile crash on a rain-slickened road one night in April. He would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, and that’s exactly where Bryant encountered him on a steamy September afternoon as the 1981 season dawned. Twice after scoring fourth-quarter touchdowns, Bryant looped from the left corner of the east end zone to the area behind the goal posts and handed the ball off to Streater, the second offering captured in this photo from the files of the UNC Athletic Communications Office.
“Steve was a good football player and a good person,” Bryant says today. “To have something like that happen to him, being an ex-teammate of mine and a guy who had just signed with the Redskins, my favorite team … it was hard to take. He was such a strong person. I’ve never been in that situation, but I don’t think I could have handled it as well as he did.”
Chapel Hill bristled with kinetic energy that first week of September as a variety of plot lines took shape. It was the season opener for the defending ACC champions; there were six starters to replace on defense, and Bryant was now the headliner at tailback following the departure of Amos Lawrence. Jack Nicklaus was in town to play in the UNC Executive Cup at Finley Golf Course and visit his namesake, a UNC sophomore. Two men believed to be on the football staff at ECU were caught watching Carolina’s practices and drawing Xs-and-Os from the UNCLawSchool library, creating a media firestorm.
And ECU administrators and fans lamented the end of the eight-game series that had commenced in 1972—all the contests being held in Kenan Stadium—with Carolina winning five, ECU one and another ending in a tie. Continuing to play an ambitious younger sibling from within the consolidated UNC System was contrary to Carolina’s mission at the time, as Cleve Bryant noted: “It was a no-win situation. If you win, you were supposed to. If you don’t, you hear about it for 12 months.”
Which is exactly why the games were so important to the Pirates—the fact that they weren’t as important to the Tar Heels. “The ECU folks have long been looked down upon by the Carolina folks,” Pirate head coach Pat Dye said before the 1975 game. “That makes this game so important to our alumni.”
Every nook and cranny of Kenan Stadium was occupied on Sept. 12, this the era of the customary 1 p.m. kick-off; of the “stair-stepped UNC” logo at midfield and on the Tar Heel helmets (the creation of coach Dick Crum to give the football program an identity of its own); of the “UNC” topiary in the east end zone; of the stand-alone press and Chancellor’s boxes tucked between the upper decks on either side of the stadium; and of the wooden west-end bleachers, where a button-down shirt and tie and flask of Old Crow were apparently requisite for admission.
The game’s climax came quite early, though. Pirate coach Ed Emory said he expected a verdict “in the last eight minutes of the game. Instead, it was the first eight minutes.” Bryant scored on runs of one and 45 yards on the Tar Heels’ third and fourth possessions, the second dash a work of art as he took a handoff, started left, juked right and then weaved back across the field, no fewer than four Pirates waving at the vapor of the blue ghost.
The score was 35-0 at halftime and there was no drama left. Instead, Tar Heel fans were introduced to a pair of sophomore linemen—on defense William Fuller, who made 11 tackles and was instrumental in stopping the Pirates’ wishbone offense, and on offense Brian Blados, who joined returning starters Dave Drechsler, Ron Spruill and Mike Marr on another in a long line of crackerjack blocking fronts.
But Bryant was the centerpiece as he assumed the mantel of the Tar Heels’ premier position—that of tailback in the vaunted I-formation. Bryant had gained 1,039 yards the year before playing in the shadow of Lawrence, but now the job was his as a junior. For the day, Bryant scampered for 211 yards and six touchdowns, the latter still a school record. For the year, he would rush for 1,015 yards and 17 touchdowns despite suffering a knee injury at Georgia Tech and missing five games. His skills were indeed something to behold.
“Kelvin is abnormal,” running backs coach Randy Walker said. “By that I mean he keeps his feet going after contact. The natural instinct for anyone is to stop after you’ve been hit. After he gets hit, he keeps on churning. His leg drive is tremendous. That’s not something you coach. God gave him that ability.”
“What I like most about blocking for Kelvin is I can block poorly and he still makes me look good,” fullback Alan Burrus added.
Carolina fell short of successfully defending its league title, posting a 9-2 regular-season record with losses to South Carolina and Clemson, both mishaps coming in mid-season while Bryant’s knee was still mending. But it was an era to behold with the likes of Bryant, Fuller, Blados, Drechsler, Mike Wilcher, Calvin Daniels and Darrell Nicholson earning scads of post-season awards and eventually graduating to the NFL.
Streater was hoping for an NFL career as well—most likely as a punter—and had just signed a free-agent deal with the Redskins when he flew back to Raleigh-Durham and was injured driving home from the airport. He was in rehab at UNC Hospitals and remained a fixture around the program as a new season evolved. Crum said there was no official effort before the opener to dedicate the game to Streater or otherwise recognize him, and Bryant says his gestures were ones that simply struck him in the warmth of the moment.
“I saw Steve in the end zone and I just took him the football,” Bryant remembers. “I don’t really know what made me give him the ball. But he got a kick out of it, he was pretty excited. On the first one, I gave him the ball and he spiked it and had a big smile on his face.”
Bryant spurned the NFL following his Carolina career and joined Herschel Walker, the Georgia tailback and Heisman Trophy winner, in opting for the fledgling USFL. He played three seasons and then, when the USFL folded in 1985, joined the Redskins for five more years, earning a Super Bowl ring following the 1987 season. Today he lives in his hometown of Tarboro and is a fixture along the sidelines of all Tar Heel home games.
“The East Carolina game was a big one for me,” Bryant says. “I grew up 25, 30 miles from their campus. I think that’s one reason I didn’t want to go there—it was just too close. Plus, when I went on my visit to Carolina, I fell in love with the place. I still love it today.”
Meanwhile, Steve Streater was laid to rest in June 2009, having spent an active 28 years in his wheelchair. He always believed he would find a way to walk again. He became a father. He lobbied the State Legislature to pass a seat belt law. He directed the state’s Students Against Driving Drunk program and gave dozens of talks to high school and youth groups, emphasizing that he was sober the night of his accident but warning about risky behavior.
“It just shows you why you have to live each day to the fullest—you never know when something might happen to change your life,” Kelvin Bryant says.
This story originally appeared in 2009 on Goheels.com as part of Lee Pace’s “Extra Points.”