There’s not much to see when driving into Ayden, North Carolina.
Except for tobacco fields, cell towers, and the occasional strip mall, there was little excitement for band members outside the bus. Most found other ways to entertain themselves. Some didn’t even notice the police escort that helped navigate the bigger buses down smaller side streets into town.
It was a seemingly random, yet minor detour on our way to the Tar Heels’ football game against Eastern Carolina University later in the day. Traveling in reduced numbers, we planned to visit Ayden because their mayor is an alumnus and die-hard fan of UNC, who insisted we make a pit stop through his town on the way to Greenville.
As the bus pulled up to a church just three blocks down from the center of Ayden, our host stepped outside to greet us. Mayor Stephen Tripp smiled and waved, wearing a Carolina blue Town of Ayden shirt and Tar Heels baseball cap. He ushered us inside to a full barbecue lunch, complete with all the fixings. By the time we were finished, not an empty belly was in the room.
Before everyone had cleaned their plates and started looking for second helpings, UNC band director Jeff Fuchs called for everyone’s attention and explained why we were visiting Ayden. The Marching Tar Heels have had a great relationship with the town since 2008, when Mayor Tripp asked the marching band a favor. Ayden hosted its Collard Greens festival the same day as the UNC-ECU game and he wanted the band to participate in the town’s parade before heading to Greenville.
Fuchs agreed, and said it was ultimately one of his favorite moments he’s had with the Marching Tar Heels.
“When we came into town with the police escort, like we did today,” recalled Fuchs, “every church, restaurant, and front yard had some kind of signage welcoming the Carolina band cheerleaders into town. That day is still one of the very special memories for myself and that group of students.”
Since then, every time the Heels play away against the Pirates, the band has made an effort to perform in Ayden. The game was earlier in the day this year and although Fuchs said there wasn’t time for a performance, Tripp told him he would still host us for lunch.
After Fuchs finished, the mayor took time to address the room too, thanking us for simply taking the time out of our day before sending us back on the road.
“You help make my town feel very special,” Tripp said. “We come from the greatest university, one that’s a place of family. I graduated in the 1980’s, but here we are in 2018 and I still feel like I’m one of you.”
The football game that followed our lunch left a much worse taste in our mouths than the eastern-style barbecue. ECU outperformed UNC in nearly every element of the game, winning 41-19. It all went downhill for the Tar Heels once the referees (rightfully) ejected a player after he seriously injured a Pirates defender in the second quarter.
During the extended injury timeout, a fight broke out between a UNC fan and ECU fan behind the band. The two toppled down some stadium steps before crashing into and injuring a bystander. Both were led out of the stadium as paramedics removed the bystander on a stretcher. It was an awful moment during what was meant to be a fun game.
The band witnessed two different types of UNC fans on Saturday. We saw the welcoming, kind compassion of Mayor Tripp, who works to leave his best impression on everyone each day. We saw the ugly, unnecessary confrontation that likely left everyone in our section with a worse impression of Carolina fans.
Before we left Ayden, Mayor Tripp left us with some words of wisdom, reminding us it wouldn’t be long before we were in his shoes as alumni.
“When you’re attending Carolina, it’s not just about the education.” he said. “It’s about learning the skill set to make the world better. You use your talents and journey in life to shape society. We take the Tar Heel name and help people become better citizens.”
It’s a very true message for all UNC students, fans, and alumni to keep in mind. And one that made the band’s trip through Ayden very worthwhile.