With 2:57 left to play in a drowsy, scoreless first quarter, North Carolina Tailback Kelvin Bryant, the alpha and omega of the undefeated Tar Heels' offense, erupted through the right side of the Georgia Tech line last Saturday in Atlanta. Whoosh, glide, see you later. He gained 13 yards so smoothly that up in the stands of Grant Field the parallels between Bryant's graceful style and that of Gale Sayers were being drawn again.
Then, on the next play, a sprint draw right with Fullback Alan Burrus nailing a linebacker to clear the way, Bryant elegantly flowed upfield for 27 more yards. Surely he was on the way to another big scoring day; after all, this was just North Carolina's fourth game, and already he had 15 touchdowns—and the major-college record for a season, held by Penn State's Lydell Mitchell, is 29. Oh my, yes, this lad is special. No wonder that, as the Tar Heels entered the Tech game, they were ranked fourth by SI.
But, suddenly, there was Bryant struggling off the field, dragging his left leg after taking a hard, twisting hit on the outside of his knee, and the Georgia Tech fans, who had already seen their Yellow Jackets upset Alabama, were cheering the prospect of dumping another Top 10 team. Three plays later, after Carolina had stalled and given up the ball, the offense repaired to the sideline where Bryant sat with his leg propped up on the bench, an ice pack on his knee. It was originally announced that he had a bruise, but anybody who knows Bryant knows bruises don't sit him down. Bryant, who had five carries for 46 yards, obviously was hurt badly. "I'm a little disappointed," he said softly.
A little? Bryant, a 21-year-old junior from Tarboro, N.C., already has been lionized by Tar Heel fans, and he admits he's a little uneasy with all the attention. It came so suddenly, after two seasons of playing in the shadow of Famous Amos Lawrence, now with the 49ers. As Bryant sat in his sparsely decorated dorm room one night last week, he acknowledged his new responsibilities, saying, "I know if I get hurt, I'll let the team down. That would be the worst thing."
But beyond the dispirited Bryant, how about dispirited Carolina? A season that had started with so much promise surely had, on the first weekend of October, ended in pain. Down the drain. So long, Tar Heels, see you in the Bottom 10.
Wrong! For as the afternoon progressed, North Carolina showed that, with Bryant or without him, it's a team bordering on terrific. Gil Brandt, the director of personnel development for the Dallas Cowboys, who had come to Atlanta to take a close look at Bryant, said at game's end, "This is an impressive football team."
Indeed, don't write the Tar Heels' obituary yet just because of serious illness in the family. That Carolina went on to wreck Tech 28-7 isn't final proof that the Heels can survive indefinitely without Bryant. It is, however, a good start in that direction. North Carolina's young defense—only four seniors—seemingly gets a year tougher each week. And the offense, quarterbacked by Rod Elkins, believes in itself. There are those who say what the Tar Heels really believed in was Bryant, but that may not be true. Coach Dick Crum, it turns out, has molded a team that has depth, talent and, you better believe it, resolve.
Shortly after Bryant was hurt, Burrus ran over and said to him on the sideline, "Hey, when are you coming back in?"
"In that case we'll just win without you," responded Burrus.