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Record crowd, historic win for Braves football


In the hours before UNC Pembroke’s historic win over nationally fifth-ranked Winston-Salem State, the excitement was electric. In the days and weeks before the nationally televised game on September 5, preparations for the nationally televised game were thorough and resulted in a flawless night of football and fun.

By game time, the temperature and humidity turned pleasant at Grace P. Johnson Stadium, and a beautiful Carolina sunset framed the pre-game skydiving show. A record crowd of 7,948 lined the fences five deep. They witnessed a 25-21 victory over a team whose last game was for the NCAA Division II national championship.

At the Braves Club pre-game dinner, Bob Caton, one of the program’s biggest fans, said the Braves had a chance if they didn’t turn the ball over. The Braves were not perfect, but they forced Winston-Salem to turn over the ball at key moments, including a second interception with 37 seconds remaining.

Closer to game time, Diana Saulnier, wife of assistant head coach, called it when she said: “On any given night.” This victorious night was played out on a national stage thanks to CBS Sports.

It appeared as if the Rams of Winston-Salem were in charge as Pembroke trailed 21-12 late in the third period. Out of a clear black and gold night, Mike Lawrence soared high for an interception and took it 44 yards for a touchdown.

Defense ruled the night for the Braves, especially in the fourth quarter. They held the vaunted Winston-Salem offense to 91 rushing yards and picked off two passes and recovered two fumbles, one of them to thwart a late drive.

The upset shattered a 20-game regular season win streak by Winston-Salem that dated back to 2010. The Rams last two losses came deep in the NCAA tournament.

To produce the Division II “Game of the Week,” CBS brought a large staff with eight cameras, a satellite uplink and production truck. The Braves will make a second television appearance this season in a regionally broadcast game at Valdosta State on November 7.

In the hours leading up to the game, the university’s staff and students played key roles in the perfect night of football. Tony Chavis, a network technician with UNCP’s Division of Information Technology, was logging in laptops on press row.

“We started planning for this day when we heard about the game,” Chavis said. “CBS got here two days ago, and we’ve been helping them every way we can. I am not sure how many people they brought, but they have parking passes for 40.”

The wireless Internet was upgraded and everything connected, including to the scoreboard. CBS brought their own power, extra lights for the field, and a control room that looked like something from a science fiction movie.

“Our IT department may be small, but we rock,” Chavis said.

Students also prepared diligently, said Student Government President Emily Ashley. Ashley was busy making signs in hopes they would be seen on television.

“We’re trying to get everyone hyped,” Ashley said. “We’ve got songs and cheers ready. I’ve never seen so much buzz on social media. Twitter is blowing up.”

Students participated in several ways. CBS hired six broadcasting students to work on the field and in the press box. Game of the Week Director Mike Grant lectured broadcasting majors in Dr. Jamie Litty’s classroom.

Fans found plenty to eat before the game. The Braves Club hosted dinner for a large group in the Dobbs Oxendine Lobby of the Jones Athletic Center. Special guest was NFL great Roman Gabriel.

Gabriel’s driver for the night was Steve Martin, assistant vice chancellor of Facilities Management. “When they were looking for a driver, I said ‘are you kidding.’ Roman Gabriel was my childhood hero.”

UNCP Police Chief McDuffie Cummings was more sunburned than usual late Thursday afternoon. He was directing a far bigger staff than usual with 15 auxiliary officers, from the Robeson County Sheriff’s Department and Red Springs and Pembroke police departments, augmenting 12 university police and four private security guards.

“There’s going to be a crowd of folks here tonight,” Chief Cummings said. “We’re here to make sure they have fun safely.”

As UNCP’s football players danced in celebration, the record crowd danced with them in the stands.