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During the final 49 weeks until Kickoff 2013, we will take a moment each week to look at various aspects of the football program.


The Tunnel

Aug. 29, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

Months ago, head coach Brad Lambert was asked about his favorite part of Richardson Stadium.

Often times the answer to that, among the coaching staff, was the weight room.  The weight room, with all it's machinery, all the shine off the metal, all the space and tools.  You can't help but get excited to work out -- and the more excited the team is to work out the stronger the team will be. 

The weight room has the dumbbells and barbells and benches and ropes and chains -- and it is all about toughness.  You look at the 49ers weight room, and it screams football.   

Coach Lambert, on this day, though, didn't mention the weight room. 

He mentioned The Tunnel.

For the team, that's where the excitement builds.  That's where the team gathers one last time before taking the field.  That's where the team will huddle as one with a world worth of possibilities in front of them.

That's where the dream literally becomes reality.

Remember the movie Field of Dreams.  Moonlight Graham was a young kid full of baseball dreams who got a chance to play them out on that Iowa cornfield.

At one point, though, he crossed the invisible plane into reality. Moonlight became Doc with a whole new set of goals and objectives.

That's what the tunnel is. It holds all those dreams close with the team huddled together, jumping and shouting.  Step out out of the tunnel and into the sunlight -- and it all becomes real.

It is no longer dreams and possibilities.  It is execution and performance.

To be honest, this whole six-year process has been the tunnel.

We've waited, we've anticipated.  We have longed to get to the day when it finally became real.

Just like the team, we have bounced up and down in eager anticipation.  We've jumped and screamed and worked ourselves into a frenzy waiting for it all to become real.

Players and coaches talked about it all the time.  The first practice in pads -- now it's real.  The spring game -- it's real now.  The first preseason training camp - this is for real.

But through all that, we have still been huddled in that tunnel.  

Saturday we break the plane.  Saturday we leave our hopes and dreams behind and emerge into the sunlight.

Lambert knows that feeling.  And he treasures it.  The team, as one, ready to explode onto the field.  Ready to put all the work of the last two years into action. 

It's a magical place --  where you love that feeling of getting fired up with all your brothers around you -- but you also love that feeling of finally crossing that plane.

If you could bottle excitement, the tunnel's the spot the grab it.

But what a sight it will be on Saturday to see the team finally breaking out.




Ticket Treasures

Aug. 22, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

Less than two weeks from the opening kick. 

And its getting busier and busier for the team, the coaches, the staff and the fans.

School started Monday as did the period in which students could start requesting tickets. 

In less than six hours, about 6000 tickets had been requested.

People sometime ask what the student reaction has been to football.  Over 5,000 came out for the spring game.  About 6000 requested tickets to the inaugural game the very first chance they got.  That number has since risen, of course.  

Those numbers speak for themselves -- and indicate that this campus is hungry for football.

The campus is alive and excited and game day will be like no other day this campus has seen.

At the same time, FSL Account holders began to receive their season ticket packages.

Following twitter to see the reaction of Niner Nation was priceless:

"tix just arrived. it's real now" tweeted one fan.

"Put your tailgating pants on" another tweeted after opening her mail.

"Best day ever."  "Can't wait for kickoff!"  "Sweet!"  "@ Charlotte 49ers football is getting closer".

Most tweets included pictures of the ticket package -- as proud alum, proud fan, proud ticket holder showed off their ticket treasures.

One in particular stood out.

"THEY'RE HERE!!" one fan tweeted along with a picture of himself holding the tickets and his young child.

Meanwhile, the media attention has been substantial.  Head coach Brad Lambert found time around practice prep to hit the studios of WFAE and News 14, this week with an appearance on WCCB's Got Game slated for Saturday.  The Charlotte Observer will put out a special section dedicated to Charlotte 49ers Football in Sunday's newspaper to complement the front page preseason coverage they've already rolled out.  Radio appearances, interviews at practice and regular requests continue to roll in.

In the meantime, plans are made for the game broadcasts on both ESPN 730 AM and WCCB-TV Charlotte.

So while the team practices within campus, plenty of noise reverberates off campus.  A sportscaster sports the 49ers football cap she received at a Media Reception.  A student clicks online to request his game day ticket.  A fan, waiting patiently at home, celebrates the arrival of the family's ticket package.

The inaugural season is upon us, with the opening kick less than two weeks away -- and that package that arrived on the doorstep today is a treasure -- but it will pale in comparison to the one that awaits a week from Saturday.




Dream Team

Aug. 14, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

This past weekend the Charlotte 49ers football team gathered for a team photo and met with members of the media.

It was just another in a long line of events that have carried us over the past two and a half years as the team has been formed, molded and prepped for opening day.

The 49ers first team photo.

Photographer Wade Bruton thought it would be neat to put the 2013 image next to the one from 1947, back when the 49ers predecessor, the CCUNC Owls, fielded a team. 

That team photo included about 25 players.

This year's team photo has closer to 95.

That team was seated on a stairwell that overlooked their practice field at the high school they were using for classes.

This year, they were seated in their own stadium on their own campus of nearly 1000 acres.

The size of the team, campus and players has changed dramatically in those 60-plus years.

In talking with one of the team members from the 1947 squad, though, both teams share that basic dream and desire.  Both teams, made up mostly of first and second year players, just wanted to play. 

Our fans can relate to that. 

That's what they've wanted for so long.

They've wanted the 49ers to play football.   Now that we are less than a handful of weeks away, every practice, every passing day -- every moment celebrated and passed by brings us closer to seeing that wish granted.

The eyes of the players in the team photos -- from both 1947 and 2013 -- are full of hopes and dreams.

And the eyes of the fans looking at the pictures? 

Those eyes are full of a dream come true.




Light That Fire

Aug. 5, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

Saturday morning practce.  Just Day 3 of preseason workouts.

The pads went on.  The intensity went up. 

Game day was only 28 days away.

“Too much talking, not enough doing” a coach yelled.

It wasn’t full pads – just shoulders after a couple days of helmets.

But there was still pounding.

Lineman going at lineman in O-Line coach Phil Ratliff’s “Winner’s Circle”.  Take the challenge.  Step up. One-on-one.  Man-to-man.  

So, who won?

In Ratliff’s world, they all did. 

 “You guys are competing today!" he fires out.  "Everyday.  Compete.”

The O-line is a source of pride for the team. Head coach Brad Lambert set out to build the team from the inside-out, with a focus on the offensive and defensive lines.

So while we have heard a lot about the playmakers, they love to talk about the linemen.

We love the breakaway run and the long bomb.  They love the guys who make it possible.

Remember guys like Blitch and Sledge and La Bianca and Book and Covington – the ones who opened that hole or protected that pass.

When the O-Line had a barbecue, it’s no accident that some folks like QB Matt Johnson and SR Austin Duke were there to show their appreciation as well.  They understand the importance of that group.

At Saturday’s practice, the O-Line circled around each other – with two players battling each other in the middle. 

They encouraged each other.  They pushed and pushed back.  And, as Ratliff noted, they competed.

Moments later it was back to the blocking sled.

Back to mechanics and footwork and technique. 

But that period in the Winner’s Circle, going head-to-head, gave them a chance to go against another body, to fight to the end, to light that competitive fire. 

It gave them a chance to win a battle, to lose a battle and to get back up and go at it again.

Just like on those Saturdays that are right around the corner.




August Rush

July 31, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

Not exactly the quiet effort the storm. 

The Wednesday before the first day of preseason practice, the coaching staff enjoyed a luncheon with media members and the players took care of video headshots.

Inside the Rose Football Center activity still buzzed.  There's still plenty to be done -- plenty of preparations to be completed.

But outside was noticeably quiet. A lone tractor groomed the stadium turf.  There was a peace that belied the energy bounding inside -- and ready to storm the field in short order.

Since football first was broached as a possibility, Niner Nation has waited seven years for Aug. 2013.

And now it is here.  Practice starts up immediately.  The inaugural game waits just over four weeks away.

Head coach Brad Lambert was telling the media how he appreciated their help in telling our story over the last few years.

Players were telling the video camera that they couldn't wait to see the crowd on opening day.

Throughout this whole process it has seemed so far away.  

When Lambert was hired, Aug. 2013 was still 30 months away.

Now it is here. 

Thursday's first practice is different than the other firsts the 49ers have documented.  This first leads directly to the big first -- Opening Day.

It was cool when the calendar turned to 2013 --  and our football team began its spring practice --- just like every other team in the country.

But this is different -- when the calendar flips to August and our football team begins preseason practice -- with opening day just weeks away -- it all takes on a new intensity.

So many questions have been answered.  The uniforms unveiled.  The helmet displayed.  The schedule completed.  The stadium constructed.  All the questions that surrounded the start-up program that we were so eager to ask, have been answered.

Now it's all about what will take place on the field. 

It's August, 2013 -- and the rush is on!




State of Charlotte

July 23, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

his past week, the Charlotte 49ers announced a three-year deal authored by IMG College with WCCB-TV Charlotte to broadcast home football games.

Back in 2008, when Chancellor Philip Dubois first recommended the addition of football to the university Board of Trustees -- that recommendation came based on a three-prong impact.

Build school spirit among the existing student body.

Engage alums.

Create greater ties with the Charlotte community.

In a variety of ways we have seen positive results in each area. 

Even though we have yet to play our first game, the energy and excitement on-campus is noticeable.  The student body was energized during the Spring Game.  Former Dean of Students Michelle Howard commented after the game about the pride she felt when she saw such a diverse group of students in attendance.  The entire campus was represented -- and that is a key to true school spirit.  More of that will be seen during the inaugural season.  More green and white on-campus.  More spirit.  More ownership.

The same could be said for alums.  About 70% of the 49ers FSLs were sold to alums.  Football was bringing them back to campus.  They came back to see the stadium construction.  They came back to choose their seats.  They darn well came back for the Spring Game. 

That leaves the community.  Throughout town.  At restaurants.  At the airport.  At youth games  At speaking engagements.  At receptions.  At the grocery store.  49ers officials continually are approached and asked about football.   

That has been eye-opening.  Folks in the community without a tie to the program were becoming more than interested -- they were becoming excited.  You could sense it.

Last week, with the WCCB announcement, the 49ers extended that reach to the television-viewing audience.  To have a regular presence in the nation's #25 ranked television market is a huge coup for the first-year program -- and it speaks to the excitement around the program and it speaks to the impact the program can have on building those community ties.

The same week, another announcement sent the same message.  At the groundbreaking ceremony for the Blue Line, which will bring light rail from center city to the UNC Charlotte campus -- Governor Pat McCrory commended Dubois for helping push the project through, with a "Bring it on" attitude.

"This connects us," added McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor. 

Day by day.  Project by project.  That connection between city and school is getting stronger.

And 49ers football is doing its part -- from its community outreach, to the naming McColl-Richardson Field and Jerry Richardson Stadium to the twitter hashtag popularized by the 49ers coaching staff: #stateofcharlotte to the announcement that 49ers football will be accessible in living rooms throughout the region -- 49ers football is doing its part.




GOLD Standard

July 16, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

When you walk into the Rose Football Center you are met by four oversized posters, depicting images of a player fighting for extra yards with defenders draped over him, the stadium field, the coaching staff and weight room.

The images represent the four elements of the GOLD standard:  Grit, Opportunity, Leadership and Determination.

Each image is adorned with an appropriate quote -- from the likes of Ali, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Lombardi.

The Charlotte 49ers players will walk past these images on a daily basis.  Some days they will stop, read and think.  Other days they will pass on by.  But each will come to understand the expectations in front of them.

"The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym, and out therre on the road, long before I dance under those lights." - Ali

"I will prepare and someday my chance will come." - Lincoln

"In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing.  The worst thing you can do is nothing." - Roosevelt

"Football is like life.  It requires perseverance, self-denial, hard work, sacrifce, dedication and respect for authority." - Lombardi


Head coach Brad Lambert and his staff have been able to start from scratch.  Some would look at that as a negative.  So much to be done.  So little in place.

They looked at is an opportunity. Set the standard.  Establish habits.  Run the program the way they wanted from the start.

They established the precedent from the very first practice.  Three weeks of conditioning workouts greeted last year's incoming class.  Footballs were rare sights.  Sprints were not.  Effort was demanded.  Coaches were hard on players from the start.  They were not about to cut corners or let the student-athletes do the same.

In the weight room, structure followed.  And a whole lot of sweat.  Strength coach Jim Durning keeps his sessions lively -- but they are nothing if not orderly.  The players run through the workouts like clockwork, moving from machine to machine quickly.  Working with each other to make sure everyone stays on schedule.  They work as a team, they work hard and efficiently -- something they want mirrored on the field. 

When practice began -- repetition carried the day as the team went through drill after drill to complete it, to understand it and finally to master it.

The G-O-L-D standard, it could be said, is in the details. 

Dig deep and you'll find Grit and Opportunity and Leadership and Determination.

Dig deep and you'll find your potential.

Dig deep and transform simple ability into excellence.

The 49ers will pass by four posters on a daily basis.  Each time they stop to read they will be reminded what is expected.

It's the same standard that greeted the team when they first stepped foot on the practice field.

Dig deep.  You just might find gold.




Quality Character

July 8, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

Preparing materials for the coming season and reviewing some coaching bios, a few things stand out.

First, a quote from Jim Grobe on the 49ers hiring of Brad Lambert:  “You’ve hit a home run with Brad Lambert.  There is not any aspect of Brad that you won’t love.”

That was back in March of 2011.  It’s been over two years since that statement was made and absolutely nothing has happened to prove it wrong.  From his coaching style, his recruiting ability, his interpersonal skills – he has helped the 49ers look and feel like anything but a start-up program.  Much like the Stadium built around him, he has supplied fine-tuned details that have helped the 49ers establish their presence before playing a single game.

Some of those details have been in the coaches he has hired. 20+ years of experience in his first hire:  Offensive Coordinator Jeff Mullen.  Nearly 30 years from his defensive coordinator, Bruce Tall.  The two have coached in 11 college bowl games.

James Adams has a bowl trip in his three years of coaching experience, Drew Dayton played in two bowl games, Damien Gary was a member of an SEC Championship team, Phil Ratliff coached and played for a couple NCAA I-AA National Championship teams, Napoleon Sykes coached in a bowl game, and Joe Tereshinski was also a member of that SEC Championship team.

All in all, Lambert was able to attract quality coaches – but the quality he most actively sought was character.

And, several clinics and camps, hospital visits and school trips, speaking engagements and social gatherings later, it’s obvious he’s found the right men.

Not only have they carved out certain areas of expertise in recruiting circles and contacts, but they bring a good blend of experience, energy and intensity to the program.

Time and again Lambert said of a coach, “he’s the kind of guy we want working with our young men,” or “he knows how we want players treated.”  So often, Lambert talked about the “type of guy” his coaches are.

And that’s where the details come in.  Lambert and his staff have a myriad of prior connections.  They worked together or played together or coached together.  They know what each other is all about and that has made for a strong staff with a single purpose.

Judy Rose said of coach Lambert upon his hiring that he’s a relationship guy.  She noted the several former players that showed up in support at his introductory press conference.

Those relationships are what built the 49ers coaching staff.  And it’s those relationships that will build the 49ers football program.

And it's Lambert’s intent to build the program on quality – and that quality is character.




Conference Call

July 1, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

July 1, which signalled Charlotte's move to Conference USA, was a big day for the 49ers football program.

No, the 49ers football team isn't joining Conference USA this year.  They won't join Conference USA until 2015.  But they will join.

A program that has yet to play a game already has its sights set on FBS football.

So, after two years as an FCS football independent, Charlotte football will join Conference USA.  

The logo is on the field.  Recruits have been signed with FCS football in mind.  Operations are gearing up under the expectation of FBS football.

Today, on the Charlotte 49ers pages, there was reason to talk about league partners that participated in bowl games last year.  Just like noting NCAA Tournament teams in various sports, there was reason to give props to those programs that won bowl games. 

Bowl games.  

To think that the Charlotte 49ers are concerned about bowl games shows how far this upstart program has come in a very short time.

In 2008, we were looking for approval from administration.

In 2010, we were looking for approval from the state.

In 2011, we were hiring our first coach and breaking ground on our stadium

In 2012, we were signing our first class and holding our first practice.

And in 2013, we are talking about bowl games?

Sure it may be years before the 49ers compete in their first bowl game -- but much like the stadium, the first practice, the first game -- that which seems so far off in the distance is often closer than we think.

There's no telling when that first bowl game will come -- but it is a lot closer than it was 5 years ago -- nevermind 15 years ago.

Five years ago we were hopeful to form a team.  We were hopeful to add a sport and wondering where on earth it would play.  Five years ago, we were all about questions and wishes.

Since then, questions and wishes alike have been answered.

The process has been swift, the progress substantial.

And on July 1, the 49ers officially moved to Conference USA.  On July 1, the 49ers officially found an FBS home for its start-up football program.

Before even playing a game.

Yes, July 1 -- a day celebrated by each of the 49ers 16 other sports programs as they prepare for an upcoming season of new opponents, new rivals and new destinations -- was also a very big day for the 49ers football program.

Conference USA won't hit the 49ers gridiron until 2015.  But they will hit it.

And, like everything else along this journey -- it'll come quicker than you think.




Camps on Campus

June 24, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

The past few weeks, the Charlotte 49ers have been busy hosting camps and clinics:  The Little Niners Camp in mid-June, the Elite Prospect Camp, June 19 and a first-ever Women's Clinic in between.  Earlier in May, the 49ers hosted a Belk Bowl Clinic tied into the city's headlining College Bowl Game.

Each of the camps catered to different audiences:  the Little Niners, for instance, focuses on kids aged 7 to 13 who may be just getting their start in football, the Elite Prospect camp is for rising high school juniors and seniors, who are looking to make their mark in the sport and the women's clinic is designed to allow the participating women to learn more about the sport.

The camps, like the other summer camps offered by the 49ers athletic teams, offer the fringe benefit of bringing people to campus.  Exposure.

During the Elite Camp parents and athletes wandered throughout the stadium and around the practice fields.  They passed by the 49ers baseball, softball, soccer, track and field and tennis stadiums.  With lunch at Crown Commons, the athletes enjoyed  the short walk along the brick pavers from the football stadium to the university's Student Union.  They were here for football, but they saw a whole lot more.

Parents took pictures of the 49ers football statues, posted images of the stadium and marveled at the facilities they passed along the way.

The women's clinic gave participants and inside look at the sport of football, while showing off the Rose Football Center.  Attendees learned about the gear and pads the players wear and the safety measures they address, they took in a presentation from referees to learn about the penalties, calls and signals and they took part in some of the on-field drills they players go through on a regular basis.

Comments from the Little Niners camp mentionned that it was among the best sports camp that parents had sent their children to, both in terms of the organization and efficiency and also in terms of the guidance and development.

All brought different folks to campus -- but all focused on three keys:  Education, good will and exposure. 

As a start-up program, the 49ers need as many people to experience its program as possible.  The 49ers needs as many opportunities to create strong connections with the community -- whether it be an aspiring high school senior, a wise-eyed kid who is getting his first chance to run on the stadium turf or a parent who has never before been to campus.

Head coach Brad Lambert and his staff, for the way they conduct these camps, for the way they participate in these camps and for the way they engage the attendees, have earned rave reviews from those who have visited.

People may have come here intending to learn about football, which they did, but they also learned a great deal about the 49ers -- the staff, the facilities, the campus.

The 49ers camps and clinics may enhance many a physical attribute -- they can improve footwork or build arm strength -- but they are definitely going to open eyes.




Thank You, Thank You, Thank You

June 16, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

Jerry Richardson's 10 million dollar gift to name our football stadium is worthy of many thanks.

Mr. Richardson is the owner of the Panthers -- and he credits college athletics and college football for helping him enjoy success as a college student-athlete, NFL player and now NFL franchise owner.  

He wanted to give back.  He wanted to say thank you.  
And, despite knowing some would object, he wanted to do it in a public way that might urge others in the community to back the local university.

UNC Charlotte is a young school.  In fact, the school only joined the UNC system 48 years ago. 2013-14 will be year number 49 in the university system.

So, not surprisingly, the three donors to the football program whose gifts named the stadium, the field and the football center -- Richardson, Hugh McColl and Dale Halton -- are not alums.

Certainly, plenty of alumni stepped up to purchase FSLs and their support steadily increases -- but to continue to grow as quickly as it has, the university needs the backing of the community it serves.

Jerry Richardson understands this. And Jerry Richardson was not afraid to step up and say that Charlotte's university -- Charlotte's college football program -- are important to him.

So this week, Jerry Richardson feels good about what he has done.  He feels good that he made a gift to a strong university that needs it and gifts like it to continue to grow.  He feels good about standing up in front of all of Charlotte and proclaiming his support.

There are many ways that Richardson could have done this -- but he opted to do it in the way that would make the greatest impact on the 49ers football program.  He wanted to help make it successful, just as college football helped make him successful. 

Obviously, the financial impact is huge.  A 10 million dollar donation is the largest single gift to the 49ers from an individual.  

The impact, however, is equally as strong in ways that can't be as easily measured.  He's pronounced his support in a very public way -- and in so doing has urged other community leaders, alums and football fans to do the same. 

Take note of the Charlotte 49ers.  See what is happening on this campus.  Check us out.

Mr. Richardson did -- and he liked what he saw.

And for that we say, thank you.  One time, three times or 10 million times. 




History Knocks

June 10, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

It’s not often that history walks through the front door.

So it was several months ago, when Carroll York came to meet Director of Athletics Judy Rose.

York, you see, was a member of the school’s first-ever football teams.  He played in 1946 and 1947, and brought with him team pictures and posed pictures – and memories of teams that won’t be forgotten.

UNC Charlotte’s roots date back to 1946, when Charlotte Center of the University of North Carolina (CCUNC) was established to handle the influx of servicemen returning from the war.  The center was housed at Central High School and students attended night classes, once the high school had dismissed for the day.  The athletic teams were aptly nicknamed “Owls” in light of the night school status.

Carroll York had attended Tech High School in Charlotte and several of his teammates were also from Charlotte schools.

Like the 2013 edition, the 1946 Owls were a start-up program.  The school was a two-year school but that first year was made up entirely of freshmen.  The football team played other schools’ B teams or JV squads.

They practiced in an open field close to Central High School (now CPCC) and played home games at nearby Memorial Stadium.

During York’s visit, we took him to the football stadium, where he met head coach Brad Lambert and scanned a scene he found hard to believe.

After his visit, I took a trip to the university archives to dig through any information they might have on the early football teams.

The football team played for three seasons: 1946, 1947 and 1948.  In 1949, as the school worked to turn the corner on becoming a permanent institution of higher education, numbers waned and the football program was stopped.

Little documentation was available about the 1946 season – but the 1947 campaign was covered regularly by the student newspaper.  A team photo, game programs and clippings have allowed us to piece together rosters, schedules and results from 1947, with partial info about 1946.

We shared the articles with York – and even took him to the site of the 1947 team photo, a stone staircase adjacent to what was then the practice field.

We wandered the grounds, there, which have changed dramatically – and relived some moments with one of the 49ers first football players.

The interview is part of the latest 49ers Football Now documentary (link attached).  And Carroll York and his teammates are part of the history of Charlotte 49ers football.

A couple of the images he supplied are part of the Wall of History graphics package that now adorn the Rose Football Center.

York, who attended the Spring Game and plans to attend the Aug. 31 inaugural game – on his birthday, no less, is beyond excited about the relationship he struck up with the 49ers.

And we are equally excited – as we reach back into our past even as we forge forward into an incredible future.




The Green and White

June 2, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

Saturday night was all about the unis.

Four players, decked out in four combinations of the 49ers full uniforms, modeled the unis for the first time at the Athletic Foundation's annual Great Gold Rush Auction.

It is a gala event the regularly attracts 500+ and it's been going on for 30 years.  It is the most important single-day fundraiser hosted by the 49ers Athletic Foundation, with proceeds going to the 49ers student-athlete scholarhsip fund.

This Saturday, attendees got an extra bonus to what is always a special evening.

They got to see the unveiling of the 49ers historic 2013 football uniforms.   The uniforms for this fall's inaugural season had never been seen before.  The 49ers unveiled them during the auction, with Lambert introducing the various combinations to stage.

With TV cameras shooting the action and photographers circling the stage, the four players emerged from behind a silhouette screen to the ovation of the auction attendees.  They waved.  They posed. 

And then they took it a step farther.

Because while it's one thing to see a player outfitted in a uniform up on a stage, it's quite another to experience it.

Helping Niner Nation become a part of the action, the four players stepped down off the stage, posed for the cameras, and then made their way through the sea of attendees.

Many had already come to the front to take pictures.  Others watched from a distance, only to see the players coming to them.

Camera phones were waving like bidder paddles.

One family asked a player to pose with its newborn baby.  Others quickly rushed up beside the players to get photos taken.  Images quickly popped up on twitter and facebook. 

"Just one more," the fans said as the players were being called away to meet with the media.  "Just one more."

So the players stopped, and took just one more photo, shook just one more hand and let just one more fan get up close to the 49ers first football uniforms for the first time.

Talk about an exclusive -- head coach Brad Lambert had not even seen his players in their uniforms prior to bringing them out on stage.

Saturday night was all about the unis.  But, like many of the other steps along the way, it was also about letting Niner Nation share in the experience.

Thousands of fans will remember coming out to campus for the groundbreaking ceremony of stadium construction.  Thousands of fans will remember heading onto the stadium turf to get player autographs following the program's first Spring Game in April.  And hundreds more fans will remember being their Saturday night for the very first sighting of the Charlotte 49ers football uniforms.

This fall, the 49ers will make history when they debut their brand spanking new football team.  And while they'll be making history this fall, they're certainly not waiting that long to start making memories.  




Coming This August

May 27, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

Today, Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer.

But for 49ers fans, all eyes are on its end.

Graduation has come and gone.  We just passed the 100 day mark till Kickoff 2013.  We have the annual Great Gold Rush Auction coming up this Saturday.  

This past weekend the 49ers hosted the 2013 Atlantic 10 Baseball Championship -- notable because while track and field's Jake Deaton moves on to the NCAA Championships in Eugene, Ore., it was the last home event of the 2012-13 season.

With its conclusion, Niner Nation now awaits the coming August and the next home contests for the 2013-14 year.

Soccer, volleyball, cross country -- and, yes, finally, football.

The university sprang from humble beginnings in 1946 -- when the Charlotte Center of the University of North Carolina was established for the influx of servicemen returning from the war.

From 1946-48, the school fielded a football team but in 1949, as Bonnie Cone and others urged community leaders to make the school a permanent institution of higher education, interest in the football program waned.

Sixty-three years later, the team is back. 

In 1946, they were the Owls, because CCUNC was a night school, housed at Center High School. 

In 2013, the 49ers take the field for the first time.

Oddly, the 49ers are named as such because of the importance of the year 1949 and the pioneering spirit that made the school permanent -- a spirit that would lead the school to join the University of North Carolina system in 1965 -- a spirit that would lead to the return of football in 2013.

Fans who cheered the 49ers and Cedric Maxwell and Lew Massey and Melvin Watkins at the 1977 Final Four, hoped to cheer on a football team.  Fans who welcomed Jeff Mullins and  Byron Dinkins and a 1988 Sun Belt Champion team, longed to cheer on a football team.  Fans who greeted the likes of DeMarco Johnson and Rodney White and Jobey Thomas and Curtis Withers and Eddie Basden, Conference USA crowns and NCAA Tournament games wondered if the 49ers could add a football team.

And now, as the 49ers look to the likes of Pierria Henry and Willie Clayton and a return to Conference USA, the 49ers have, at long last, their football team.

"I never thought I'd live to see it," many a fan echoed at the Spring Game and seat selection process.  "I've dreamed of this."

Fans from the 60's and 70's and 80's and 90's and 00's alike have dared to dream -- and waited.  Some have waited longer than others -- but all have waited -- wondering if and when the 49ers would play football.

This past weekend at Hayes Stadium, Niner Nation had its last chance to turn out en masse for one final time in 2012-13.

Their next chance comes in 2013-14.

At soccer, volleyball, cross country and yes, finally, football.

Finally, football.




Going Bowling

May 19, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

Saturday morning, head coach Brad Lambert and the bulk of his staff were back out on the stadium field running players through drills.

It was not an additional chance to get extra practice time in for the 49ers.

The 49ers were hosting a free youth clinic in conjunction with the Belk Bowl and NCAA football.

This was the third year that Lambert and his staff have participated in the clinic, but the first that the event could be held on the stadium turf, which was completed in October.

The previous two years it was held on the campus recreational fields off John Kirk Drive.  This year it was held in the center of the university's CRI campus, just beyond the baseball stadium.  It was yet another opportunity for the 49ers to connect with the community and attract additional people to a key section of campus.

Several of the campers, and the parents that brought them, had been to the stadium for the Spring Game.  Several had not.

So the cameras were out in force, once again, unlike the previous two clinics at the recreational fields.  When the entire group of campers came together at midfield for a large team photo, staffers took the photo from the back of one of their equipment-carrying ATV's.

Lambert then asked that the ATV be moved, so that parents in the stadium seats could get a good, unobstructed picture as well.

Then the fun began.

The crew was broken into age groups and circled through stations:  throwing, tackling, running, footwork.   Coaches pushed them to complete the drills correctly, to concentrate on details, and to not take shortcuts.

There was plenty of conditionning, plenty of water breaks and plenty of attaboys. 

Along the way, the 49ers made more friends and more fans,  the university opened more eyes and both the program and the school got just a little bit stronger.

Who knows when the 49ers will play in their first bowl game.  Regardless, the 49ers have a already found a bowl partner.  One that comes with a lot of kids' smiling faces -- and a greater appreciation for the program that is growing in their own backyard.




Living Social

May 12, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

The Charlotte 49ers football coaching staff has made it a priority to be out and about.  To be seen.  To shake hands.  To greet fans.

They have taken student-athletes to elementary schools.  They’ve attended athletic events on campus and throughout town.  They’ve been open and accessible.

They have, as a staff, helped bring Niner Nation into their program and along for the ride that is a start-up program.

And it doesn’t stop outside stadium walls.  Through social media, they continue to be active and engaging on the road, from home or about town.

Assistant coaches Napolean Sykes (@CoachPoeWins), James Adams (@49erCoachAdams), Johnson Richardson (@CoachJJR87)and Drew Dayton (@CoachDrewDayton) among others are particularly active on twitter and they are helping define the culture that surrounds the 49ers football program.

“Don't miss out on a chance to be a part of HISTORY! We are looking for purpose driven men who aspire to be great”, Richardson tweets.

“What city has the fastest growing campus in NC, 26k students, 1k acre campus, 5 Pro teams & oh major COLLEGE FOOTBALL? #stateofcharlotte”Adams knowingly asks.

You would think that one of the best ways to get know a coach is at any of those face-to-face meetings at receptions, games, practices, special appearances.  But reading through a twitter timeline can also give a substantial glimpse of a coach and his personality.

Sykes’ energy and attitude, for instance, comes through loud and clear in his tweets.

“We're coming for you! Doesn't matter what your offer list looks like. Never met a list I couldn't handle. Lock it down!”

Adams’ personality, likewise, lives in every tweet and retweet.

“What a tremendous opportunity a couple hundred young men will have earned before weekend's end. #2013Draft stay #hungry stay #humble”

And it’s certainly simple to see what Dayton values:

“No one ever said they regret the time they spent with their kids #dadswag”

The team has adopted hashtags, including the aforementioned #stateofcharlotte, #The 9, #TeamNoGloves.  And they’re building a following.

They engage fans, other coaches, student-athletes – and they bring the energy, the attitude and the swagger with them. 

“@cconsuegra @CoachMajor49 @CoachKLange @49erHall They'll come find you too! Ballers be on the look out for the C-Pick! #stateofcharlotte”Sykes wrote, starting a chain of tweets regarding the growing presence of the C-Pick.

Fans can join the coaches on their recruiting trips.  Adams posts a twitpic from the road in south Georgia and talks of gas prices in Virginia.  Richardson recommends a BBQ joint in N.C.  Sykes sends shout outs to some local areas as he heads out on the recruiting trail.

Fans have responded by wishing them luck and tireless energy – the former of which never hurts, the latter seems abundant.

As a start-up staff, the 49ers coaching experience is noteworthy.  The staff has coached for over 100 years and in over 20 college bowl games.  

But there still exits a youthful energy that complements that vast experience.

The message is clear. 

This is who we are.  This is what we are about.  Here’s a closer look.

Or as Sykes puts it:

“Come grab an ax and shovel. Get your nose bloodied. Callus those hands. Be a part of something great. Be the foundation! #stateofcharlotte”




Run This Town

May 5, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

This past week, the 49ers hosted their annual All Sports Banquet, handing out MVP and other teams awards for the 2012-13 season.

Football was recognized at the event, with a cool video set to "Run This Town" by Jay-Z, Kanye West and Rihanna. But, there were no awards to hand out, just plenty of award-winning moments.

"Only thing that's on my mind 
Is who's gonna run this town tonight"

The moments started in August, heading out to the practice field for the very first time for early season conditioning -- with no pads, no gear -- just teammates -- ready to work.

Less than a month later -- with cameras rolling to record the moment -- gear was added and the 49ers held their very first real football practice.

Once the stadium was completed, the team ran out onto the game field for the very first time, with some players rolling around on the turf like little kids.

Nearly 3,000 fans came out for a Fall Finale at the end of the fall season -- to watch the team's last practice and pay tribute to the effort put forth by a team with plenty of practices and no games.

"Im addicted to the thrill"

After a winter in the weight room, the team emerged again in the spring -- bigger and stronger and ready to join the rotation of every other program around the country by preparing for an upcoming fall season.

The spring season was capped by an extraordinary April 20 - with over 13,000 fans enjoying a Spring Game that included touchdown passes and runs, sacks and interceptions and plenty of pre- and post-game tailgating.

For Niner Nation, it was a day like no other.  It was a 49ers Football Game Day.

"Feel it comin' in the air. 
And the screams from everywhere"

Of course, this coming fall, the stadium will bustle like a hornet's nest as true Football Game Days are welcomed to campus.  Fans will file in and out of Gates 1-5, congregate on the concourse and settle into their hand-picked seats around the stadium.

The excitement around the program has continued to climb through each phase of the start up program -- with new fans buying tickets, visiting campus and talking about the 49ers.

To go along with the practices and scrimmages, there have been public appearances, alumni gatherings and community service projects.  There have been tours of the stadium, media interviews and plenty of good old-fashioned conversation.

Next year, we will have awards.  We will have record-setting plays.  We will have lines of stats and results and plays that will live on in our minds.

This year, we didn't have awards or record-setting plays -- but we did have many of those same magic moments.

"Victory's within the mile 
Almost there, don't give up now 
Only thing that's on my mind 
Is who's gonna run this town tonight"




April's Powers

Apr. 28, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

A week after the 49ers first-ever Spring Game, excitement still abounds about the program, the crowd and that memorable day in April.

On Monday of this past week, the 49ers Athletic Foundation hosted its annual Golf Outing -- and last Saturday's Spring Game was a hot topic.  Conversation centered on the crowd, but included the players, the style of play and the overall excitement.

An operations debriefing on Wednesday followed -- and across the board departments talked about issues and concerns, but communicated great success for how the operations were carried out.

A dry run for everyone involved, parking and traffic routes were met with high marks.  The video board, despite its recent installation, was well-used.   Even the communication from the coaches' booths to field level went well.   And, of course, tailgating brought plenty of smiles and laughs.

After the game, the 49ers hosted a 45-minute autograph session -- allowing fans to come down on the field to meet players and coaches.  The access afforded Niner Nation was just as valuable as the access FSL holders enjoyed as they picked their own seats.

Be part of it.

Choose your own seats.  Come down on the field.  Meet the team.

As much as the month of April was a chance to work behind the scenes on the operations necessary to entertain over 13,000 fans at the Spring Game, the month of April was also a chance to bring Niner Nation up close and personal with the 49ers football program.

Some fans were given tours of the stadium.  Some came out to the team's open practices and scrimmages. And as the month rolled on more and more poured into the stadium for the seat selection process which led to last Saturday's Spring Game -- when just about everyone had access to a post-game field pass.

The coming summer months will include fine-tuning of the preparation efforts to help make the coming fall's inaugural season special.

But April already had its own magic.  Niner Nation was treated to a live dress rehearsal of 49ers football, with all the tailgating, touchdowns and tackles included.

It wasn't a full season.  But it sure was fun. 

And August is only four months away.




True Value

Apr. 21, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

Somewhere between the huge crowd and the great plays, the true value of the Charlotte 49ers football Spring Game lives.

Maybe you loved the camraderie.  Maybe you loved the football.  Maybe you just loved the brilliant sunshine.

There was tailgating and 49er Pride, there were cheers and chants and there was plenty of green.

And as the team raced out of the tunnel, through the smoke and rows of cheerleaders, to midfield, there were many who couldn't believe there eyes.

The Charlotte 49ers were playing football.

"How about our fan base?" head coach Brad Lambert said afterwards.  "Just phenomenal. It was a real shot in the arm for our guys. To go out and play in front of a big crowd like that, it was a lot of fun for us."

For nosetackle Larry Ogunjobi, seeing was believing because he thought his ears were playing tricks on him.  As the team gathered in the tunnel, he thought the crowd noise was being piped in over loudspeakers.

And slot receiver Austin Duke:  "When we came back out, we were all like, “this is real”. It was time for us to show out and time to go out and do what we’ve been working so hard on since we got here. It was just a great turnout.  The fans were amped, they were live. It was just an overall exciting experience."

And that excitement was certainly not reserved for the players.  From the moment the lots opened at 9, to the moment the gates opened at 11:30, to the moment the team ran out out of the tunnel at 12:56 to the moment the 49ers kicked off at 1:00 p.m., "the fans were amped, they were live."

Reading the twitter timeline, you can feel the energy, excitement and pride that defined the day for many of the 13,950 fans.

Many included pictures.  Pictures of good friends and old friends, pictures of the stadium and game action -- and the most appropriate: pictures of families.

Especially, pictures of kids.

Proud parents eagerly posted pix of their kids at the stadium, some no older than a couple weeks.  Some of these kids will not know a time when the Charlotte 49ers didn't have football.  They will grow up with it.  For the parents and grandparents that pose with them, that, alone, is priceless.

Some tweets say it simply, as twitter is meant to do.

"Great day to be a Niner."

"Today was awesome."

Indeed many found the day "awe" inspiring.

"Awesome time at the spring game today.  Pumped for August 31st."

"What a great day for Charlotte! awesome crowd! awesome atmosphere! awesome football!"

Others wore their emotions on their sleeve, as it were:

"I definitely have sunburn in the shape of a heart on my chest. Now you can physically see my love for the #charlotte49ers"

"Our stadium is too beautiful," one fan tweeted, probably not even realizing that the most important word in the tweet was "our".

And then there is this:  one of my favorites, because it's so simple, yet speaks to the heart of why football was added in the first place:  "I love my school."

"I love my school."

You want to know the true value of football.  There it is. 

It lives in the smiles of little kids enjoying their first 49ers football game and in the smiles of their parents and grandparents doing the same. 

It lives in the words "our" and "my". 

And it lives in the love burned into your chest. 




Game Day is Coming

Apr. 14, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

Game day is coming.

This past Saturday, the 49ers' practice included two 15-minute running time periods of scrimmage.  The team approached the day like Game Day.  Stretching in units.  Following a pregame routine. Heading back to the locker room before taking the field.  It was good and necessary practice.

This coming Saturday will be as close to Game Day as anything Niner Nation will see between now and Aug. 31.  This coming Saturday will be the 49ers first-ever Spring Game.  Thousands of fans are expected.  Tailgating begins at 9:00 a.m., four hours before the spring's final practice/Spring Game begins at 1 p.m.

The newly-installed video scoreboard is expected to be operational, as is the audio system.  April 20 will feel like a 49ers football Game Day -- and that is music to the ears of so many 49ers fans.

This past Saturday was an opportunity for the team to prepare.  Referees on the field. Fans in the stands.  Stats in the press box.  So many people trying to get a chance to practice all that game day will include.

This coming Saturday, many, many more will get that chance. The Spring Game has been called a dry run for this coming fall -- and that is true for the team, administration and fans alike.

FSL holders will park in their designated lots.  Fans coming to the university will be directed to the proper campus entrance depending on their parking location.  Niner Nation will tailgate.

Just as the team goes through the process of game prep, and school officials go through the process of game operations -- fans will go through the process of their own Game Day rituals.

They will learn where to enter campus.  They will learn the lot that they will park in.  They will carve out their special tailgate location and then, they will make their path to the stadium, grab their seat and get ready for some football. 

This coming Saturday, when the 49ers take the field for their first-ever Spring Game, with thousands of fans in the stands, grills cooking across the campus, concessions and merchandise for sale on the concourse and the stadium operations in full swing -- Charlotte will get a true glimpse of 49ers football.

Things have come along way since 2007, when Chancellor Dr. Philip Dubois appointed a Football Feasibility Committee to look into the prosect of adding football.  Things have come a long way since 2008, when students and alumni marched through campus carrying a goalpost in advance of Dubois' recommendation to the Board of Trustees.  Things have come a long way since 2010, when the last hurdle was cleared and the path finally opened to bring football to the 49ers.  Things have come a long way since 2011 when Brad Lambert was named head coach and ground was broken on the coming Stadium.  Things have come a long way since 2012, when the 49ers signed their first class of football recruits and held their first football practices.

And, when Saturday April 20th hits, things will have come a long way since even this past month, when the video scoreboard was installed and the 49ers Fight Song first blared out of the speakers to test the audio system.

So much has happened.  So much will still happen.  We have uniforms to unveil.  New players to welcome.  Starters to name.  Opponents to measure.

Saturday may be a dry run or a dress rehearsal.  It may be a chance to work out some kinks.  It may be a practice or a scrimmage.

But in reality, it is still a Game Day.  A Charlotte 49ers Football Game Day.  And Niner Nation has waited a long, long time for this.

Niner Nation, the wait is nearly over.  Game Day is coming.




Spring Board

Apr. 7, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

Beneath the specter of the newly installed scoreboard, spring practice began again, with a little extra bounce, this week.

Under a brilliant sky that finally announced the season's arrival -- every thing about the practice cried "Spring!"

Due to the scoreboard installation, the 49ers were unable to practice Monday through Thursday of last week.  They were able to hit the weight room before scoreboard work began each of those days -- meaning early morning workouts -- but they weren't able to practice in the afternoons.

So on Friday, they were able to get back at it.  Which is kind of what spring is all about. 

It's the season of renewed energy, of coming back to life -- of shaking off winter's cold and dark and breaking free into the sunshine. 

Friday's practice felt like spring.

The coaches were animated, the players active and you could feel the team come alive, again.

"Make it happen," coaches encouraged. 

"Drive.  Drive.  Drive."

Down time didn't exist. 

After several days away from the field, practice was stuffed full of action.

Players bounced from drill to drill.  Coaches pushed them to race into postion.

"Be engaged - ready to work."

"Move.  Move."

The time to shake off rust - gone.  The time to slowly emerge from a mid-winter's nap - over.  Now was time for action, activity, energy.

And the team rarely stopped moving.

The practice was efficient and productive.  Players hustled in and out of the lineup.

The repetitions of hitting, throwing, running routes, cutting, footwork were much of the same -- but the energy poured forth like the sun that finally burst on the stadium.

Thursday, sleet pounded the seats.  Rain and chill. 

Friday, was spring.

You could feel it in the air.  You could see it in the effort.  And as you looked up, you were reminded of what this spring, in particular, will lead to.

A huge crane was on the grounds all week, putting the final touch -- the video scoreboard -- atop the Rose Center in the south end zone of the stadium.

That video board will come alive in the fall.  The stadium will be packed and cheers and chants will bound from every angle of the stadium.

And the energy you feel will radiate upward from the field.

Just like it's doing today. 

Spring is here.




Select Seats

Mar. 31, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

This past week, FSL seat selection began.  The process is pretty straightforward.  FSL members were contacted with a date and time to arrive at the stadium.  Those with the highest priority rank were invited to choose their seats first.  The process will continue in to April until all FSL members have chosen their seats.

So, this past week, the first group of 49ers fans came to the stadium.  They wandered through the stadium seats.  They sat in aisle seats.  They sat in seats up high, closer to the concourse.  They sat in seats down low, closer to the field.  They sat closer to the North End Zone and then tried out the seats in the South End Zone -- closer to where the team will run out. 

They pictured the view. 

Much like Goldilocks they found the ones that fit just right.

And, there they will sit for the inaugural season.  For the second season.  For the third season.  Forever.

Some fans decided to upgrade from the green FSLs to gold.  Many fans took pictures, of the seats or the view from their seats.

And many fans stopped to take in what was really going on.  They'd come to checkout, to receive their tickets to the April 20 spring game -- and they'd stand at the press box window and just stare.  More pictures.  More images.  More awe.

"I never thought I'd see this," they would say.

"I've waited a long time for this," others mentionned.

The days may have been cool last week -- but few seemed to care.

They were picking their forever 49ers Football seats, and that trumped any weather Mother Nature decided to dish out while keeping Spring at bay.

Those that got to pick late in the afternoon on days when the team was practicing on the turf got an added bonus -- an opportunity to see some 49ers football while they picked their seats.

Those that pick this week will get to watch as the scoreboard is installed on the frame above the Rose Football Center.

And all will feel as if they are a part of the process that has been at least seven years in the making.

And, of course, they are.

Many, I hope, took satisfaction in that.  Satisfaction in helping to bring football to the Charlotte 49ers. 

Now, it is their chance to get their reward.  They get to claim their seats.

Their forever 49ers football seats.

And that fits just right.




A Familiar Thrill

Mar. 24, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

"Period one.  Period one."

The horn sounds.  The voice carries across the practice fields.

And practice is underway.

Sure was good to be out at the first week of Spring Practice.

It was good to hear Offensive Line coach Phil Ratliff encourage players as he weaved in and out of the conditioning lines.  It was fun to watch Napoleon Sykes serve as a sort of tackling dummy and to listen to defensive coordinator Bruce Tall demand excellence.  And it was good to hear the horn blow, signalling the end of one practice period and the start of the next.

It had been four months since the team had practiced.  It has been a year and almost four months since many of these players last played in a regulation football game.

So getting the ankles taped back up, getting the pads back on and lacing up the cleats all brings back a familiar thrill.

Let's get ready to play. 

Even during a week that included a lot more rain, wind and 40s than sun and 60's, the excitement of spring practice was obvious. 

From the coaches, to the players -- even to the fans who tried to sneak peeks through the fence at the practice field, there was a certain combination of anticipation and urgency -- mixed with a taste of fun.

Each drill, though familiar, seems to have a heightened intensity - QB's hit receivers on short cuts while coaches wield pads after the catch is made.  Linemen power through blocking sleds.  Linebackers stay low as they cut and chase an imaginary ballcarrier.

As you watch, you picture the players on game day.  You imagine the holes they will create, the cuts they will make, the tackles they'll record.

The players, no doubt, imagine some of the same.  You can tell by the way they push themselves through drills and sprints.  There's some big games coming in the not too distant future.

The coaches, meanwhile, try to to stay grounded in the day at hand.

They spur enthusiasm, urge attention to detail and exhort hustle.

"Let's go baby."

"Finish strong."

"Get after it."

Game day may seem close enough to touch for so many of us.  But, for the coaches, it's not the time to look ahead.  It's time to drain ever drop of out of today.

"Period two.  Period two."





Mar. 17, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

Spring is about so many things, including March Madness.

Today, the 49ers men's basketball team earned its spot in the Madness with its first post-season bid since 2008.

Tomorrow, spring takes on another dimension for Niner Nation when the football team officially opens its spring practice.

Head coach Brad Lambert has moved the 49ers through their first fall practice -- concentrating on setting the tone and establishing the foundation for the program.   The 49ers have gone through a rigorous winter weight program -- taking greater steps during the off-season to build muscle and mass. 

And now the 49ers prepare for spring practice -- like so many other programs around the country.

Practices and workouts of the past did not have a game so directly in sight.  In the fall, the team practiced but didn't prepare for a game on the coming Saturday.  They practiced with a more vague goal off in the distance -- nearly a year away:  Aug. 31, 2013.

Now the 49ers are like every other program.  That game off in the distance is everyone's next game. 

And it doesn't seem so vague.

They have their team, they have their opponent and now is the time to practice in earnest for that first season.  The foundation has been set.  The weights have been hit.

Coach Lambert, his staff and his team will be playing on the next Saturday of college football.  It's not so vague.  It's pretty clear.

So, now is the time to start getting ready for that first fall kickoff.  That goal off in the distance is now coming into sight.  The focus is getting tighter.  The vague edges sharper. 

Spring is the season of new beginnings but for the 49ers, that new beginning will come in the fall.  For the 49ers, spring is the time to look clearly at what awaits in the distance.  It's coming and now is the time to get ready. 

Now is the time for spring practice.  It's happening around the country.  And tomorrow, it happens here.




Spring Break

Mar. 10, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

There was a calm about the Football Center this past week.

Coaches still bounded around -- talking football with each other or holing up in their offices.  Always plenty to do, what with the 49ers first spring practice just a week away.

But with spring break upon us, the football center seemed quiet. 

Quite similiar to the office setting a year ago.  Last year, at this time, the coaches weren't in the Football Center, which was still under construction, but instead in their offices on the second floor of Halton Arena.

But like last year, when the 49ers only had some names on paper from their first signee class, there wasn't the hustle and bustle of activity that exists when the players are around.

Head coach Brad Lambert gave a tour of the facilities to some local media members during the week.  The quiet was useful for the tour -- but so different from the normal daily schedule.

Some meeting rooms sat idle.  The weight room was empty, save for a visit from Defensive Coordinator Bruce Tall looking to get a work out in.  The training tables and tubs were unoccupied.   The academic center still.

The quiet was reminiscent of 2012, but the tour made apparent the differences a year can make.  The weight room, meeting rooms, academic center -- like the team roster -- existed only on paper a year ago.  In 2013 - even sitting empty - those rooms bring a certain excitement to the program.

Lambert told the media members how recruiting this year was different because the players could see and walk and touch the facilities.  Last year, they depended on renderings.

Last year, they looked at pictures. This year they came to practice.  Next year they could come to games.  The excitement in his voiced picked up steam.  The steps were getting smaller and quicker.  The season was getting closer.

March Madness buzzed just up the road from the stadium with the men's basketball team claiming its final two games to ready itself for the A-10 Tournament -- the first in OT on the road and the second on Senior Day over the league's preseason favorite.

At the stadium, however, all was quiet.  Madness still waits up the road a bit. 

The empty rooms waiting fill up.  The empty stadium waiting to open its gates.   The empty field waiting to accept its players.  And, in the quiet, excitement mounts.

This spring break, there was a certain calm about the facility.  A familiar calm.  But make no mistake -- the storm is fast approaching.




Spring Ahead

Mar. 3, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

We are getting closer and closer to Aug. 31, but before we get there we have to go through the spring season -- or more accurately, we want to go through the spring season.

Spring football starts, for the first time for the Charlotte 49ers, Mar. 18.  The 49ers will host a Green-White Spring Game at the conclusion of the spring practice season on April 20 at 1:00 p.m.

Between now and then, and awful lot of practice and planning still needs to take place.

From a truly administrative standpoint, this month includes the deadline for donations to the 49ers Athletic Foundation towards football seating priority.  For FSL holders, giving level and priority points determine where your seats will be and where your parking spot will be.

The 49ers are excited, for instance, that there are enough surface lots for all the FSL holders. Giving level, however, will determine which lot.  This month, that giving level will be set. 

By the end of the month and into April, the Athletic Foundation will invite FSL holders to campus to pick out their seats -- according to their Athletic Foundation rank.

The 49ers did the same thing when they opened Halton Arena in 1996. 

In the next month the whole process will be underway for football.

Of course, down at the Rose Football Center, coaches are concerned less with seating plans and more with practice plans.  On Mar. 18, spring practice begins in earnest.

The 49ers have been hitting the weight room with regularity.  They've gotten some time on the field -- but starting Mar. 18, it is on.  The team's first run at spring practice in preparation for a coming football season.

Football fans across the country start getting pumped for the coming season during spring practice, which culminates with the annual Spring Game.

Charlotte 49ers fans can now join in the fun.

Spring practice is just around the corner -- which means Kickoff, 2013 cannot be far behind.




Inside Out

Feb. 24, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

I checked out the roster the other day.

The 49ers have 66 players on the roster from North Carolina.  Roughly 31 of those are from the greater Charlotte area.

The 49ers added 20 new players on Signing Day, 2013 -- and 11 of those are from North Carolina, with six from the greater Charlotte area.

That gives the 49ers close to 40 players from right here in this area.

Head coach Brad Lambert has talked about his desire to to build his team from the inside out -- and that goal was two-fold.

He wanted to have strong offensive and defensive lines to build his team around.  Inside out.

And he wanted the 49ers to make a mark in the Charlotte area, and in the Carolinas as he built his team.  Inside out.

He and his coaching staff have worked tirelessly to make an impact in the Charlotte area.  And they have succeeded.  Not only have they been busy making visits and talking with coaches and making contacts, they've been participating in speaking engagements, taking players to local elementary schools and making sure they are out and active in the community.

It all starts at home, you might say, and whether its speaking at a Hall of Fame ceremony in Belmont, or visiting an elementary school at Weddington Hills, or signing kids from Mallard Creek, Vance and Porter Ridge, the 49ers want to make sure they are making their presence felt, first and foremost, in the Charlotte area.

At the 2nd Annual Signing Day Chalk Talk, they reached out directly to their hardiest fans -- letting Niner Nation get the first glimpse of the latest group of signees.  They have welcomed fans to practice and staged several scrimmages to allow fans to see exactly how the team looks.

Students and alums were out in full force.  But first-time fans also turned out from neighboring communities.

Spring practice will get underway March 18.  The 49ers first Spring Game will be held April 20.  More opportunities for the community to get to know this team better. 

They'll come out and see the multitude of players from North and South Carolina.  They may come out to cheer a kid they rooted for in high school.  And they will see a team that is building its program from the inside out.

From Charlotte, to Concord, to Matthews, and all points outward. 

Start with a strong core -- and build outward.   Be it entire programs, full rosters or individual players, strength comes from within and grows.

Inside out.




Field of White

Feb. 17, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

This past Friday, softball and baseball were both in action as winter tried to give way to spring.  Sunny skies.  60 degrees.  A beautiful day to enjoy games at the ballparks.

It was neat to see fans coming and going from baseball and softball -- and stopping to gaze at the football stadium.  They'd walk along the pavers to and from their cars.  They'd stop and snap a few pictures. 

And, in the fall, it will be neat when that is turned around and fans coming and going to the football stadium will stop to check out the baseball and softball stadiums.

On game day Saturdays, fans will park near Belk Track and Field Center and Transamerica Field and talk for a moment about the 49ers standout track and soccer programs.  They'll wander by Halton-Wagner Tennis Complex and think it would be cool to watch a match from the stadium seating.  And they'll pass by both the softball and baseball fields and think they need to return in the spring to catch more 49ers action.

That is one of the ancillary benefits of the football program.  Fans will see the 49ers fantastic facilities, they will learn more about the 49ers other athletic programs and they will come to appreciate the great college atmosphere and opportunities that live in their own backyard.

On Saturday, the weather took a turn as winter changed its mind and refused to yield to spring.  Baseball and softball went from 60's to snow.  Games were cancelled.

Still folks headed out to the football stadium.  They took pictures of the snow-draped facility and posed for pictures in front of the gates. 

There's something magnetic about a recent snowfall.   Folks love to take pictures of the great white north, south, east or west.  They love to go out and catch snowflakes and throw snowballs. 

It's not often that the campus is blanketed in snow -- and certainly for football fans, game days will more closely resemble Friday's bright sunny setting than anything close to Saturday's wintry takeover.

Still fans were pulled to the stadium. A unique opportunity for an original sight.  The 49ers football field covered with snow.  The football statues snowcapped.  While some students made snowmen across campus, others came to check out the grounds around the stadium.  This was, after all, the first chance to see the 49ers football stadium dressed in white.

It's amazing to see the natural attraction that brings visitors regularly by the stadium, on sunny days or winter nights.

And, if you think they loved seeing the stadium covered in a field of white -- just wait till its draped in a sea of green.





Feb. 10, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

The 49ers added their second recruiting class this past week.  Twenty student-athletes officially joined Niner Nation -- including four transfers: Devon Johnson, Martay Mattox, James Williams, Jr. and Mark Hogan. 

In December, the 49ers added three transfers: CJ Crawford, Mikel Hunter, Caleb Clayton-Molby.  In the fall, additional transfers like Desmond Cooper, Daniel Blitch, Duke Mosby and Danny Book joined the team.

That gives the 49ers start-up program a good dose of age.   Some are from junior colleges while others are from four-year institutions like Air Force, Wake Forest, Marshall, Albany and Georgia State. 

The 49ers are likely to add more transfers between today and opening day.

The goal is to mix experience into the young team -- in an effort to look little like a start-up program come opening day.

Those familiar with the program know the 49ers don't exactly look like a first-year program.  Though they haven't played a game, they do boast an eye-catching stadium complete with a rave-reviewed weight room.  They have a coaching staff with 100 years and 21 bowl games of coaching experience.  And they already have a spot waiting for them in an FBS Conference.

Head coach Brad Lambert wanted to be sure the roster also had experience that belied its age.  Not by accident, his staff secured age on the offensive line, the defensive line, the backfield, the receivers, the linebackers and the secondary.

In the fall, Lambert admitted you could tell which positions had veterans.  He wanted to make sure that leadership was spread across the board.

He was careful, though, not to take age for the sake of age.  He knew the veterans he brought in would be leaders, almost by default.  As such, he needed to be sure those transfers took that responsibility seriously.

He needed guys that would help set the tone and would lead by example.

Those transfers are much like the stadium, the weight room and the coaching staff.  They are, in a way, a cornerstone of this young program.  They'll be looked to for guidance.  They'll be looked to distinguish right from the wrong.  They'll show the younger players how to practice, how to prepare and how to perform. And they'll let the younger players know exactly what college football is all about.

Some of them are just now being introduced to the team.  A more important day will come later -- when they help introduce the team to college football.




Coming Home

Feb. 3, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

Saturday was the university's annual Homecoming Day. 

The alumni basketball game preceding the thrilling Homecoming Game may not have had the drama of the 49ers 66-65 Atlantic 10 win over Massachusetts -- but it was sure fun to watch.

It was fun to see the reunions, the smiles and the laughs.  It was fun to see Jon Heath, who starred in the early 70's, drain threes.  It was fun to watch Byron Dinkins, star of the 1988 Sun Belt Championship, bring the ball upcourt -- but truth be known -- it is always fun to watch Byron Dinkins bring the ball upcourt.  Dink never goes out of style.

This coming fall, the university will host its first football homecoming.  It will still be several years removed from a reunion of sorts for former players.  The 49ers only former players are Owls, as they were known when the school played football from 1946-48. 

For a while, football's Homecoming will not include long lists of former players.

For the first several years, football's Homecoming will be all about the many alums who didn't get to see football at UNC Charlotte, nevermind play football.

On Oct. 12, 2013, they will return to campus.  They will enter through a pillared entrance they may have never seen.  They will visit a Student Union that will absolutely amaze.  And they will walk to a stadium that they find hard to believe.

The reunions, the smiles and laughs will light up the university. 

No, they will not talk about that big football game a few years ago.  They won't watch a video of that football conference title.  They won't compare football stars from 20 years ago with stars from 10 years ago.

But they will talk.  They will talk about how the school has grown.  They will talk about how they had hoped for 49ers football.  Some will even tell their kids about the time they marched through campus carrying a makeshift goalpost.

Their stories may not include remarkable games -- but their stories will still be remarkable.

And in a few years, when the 49ers do have a list of former players coming back for Homecoming activities, the stories they will tell.

So picture this -- Homecoming 2017.  A group photo of former players gathered for the festivities.  It will include some of the 49ers' first four-year players. 

Stories of starting a program.  They'll tell their families that they remember when the stadium was still being built.  They'll tell their families about the first practice ever held there.  They'll tell their families about playing in that first game.

Their history is being made right now.  And it will include the first fall Homecoming.  Oct. 12, 2013.

And in time, we may talk of some of these current 49ers with the same reverence with which we speak of Byron Dinkins.   As Dink knows, making dreams reality never goes out of style.





Jan. 27, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

A year ago at this time we were anticipating the signing of our first class.

We had coaches but we didn't have a team.  Our program was taking shape.  Construction was well underway on the stadium.  Schedules were taking shape.  But we didn't have a team.

Now, we are about to officially sign our next class of football players.  We have a team - and it's about to get better.

An announcement went out last week to promote the second Signing Day Chalk Talk.  The reception is held on the Salon level of the Barnhardt Student Activity Center.  Dinner and beverages will be served.  The 49ers coaching staff will take to the mike to discuss the new class while photos and video of the players appear on the big screen.

For those who attended the function last year, the night not only provides that first look at the new class of players - but a welcome glimpse of the coaching staff.  Each coach will talk about the fresh faces at their respective positions.

Between the notes they will share about each player, the stories they may tell and the excitement they have, you're likely to learn as much about the coaches themselves as the players they recruited.

A year ago, we got our first look at first-ever signee.  We learned about some potential QB prospects.  We were introduced to players with names like Tank and Sledge.  Over 25 signees were paraded in photos and video in front of our eyes.

Head coach Brad Lambert had promised to build his team from the inside out - so several linemen, both offensive and defensive, began to take shape for us.  It was also important to the coaching staff to land players at each position to try build the very foundation for the program. 

Now, with a semester of practice under their belts, the 49ers are able to fill in the gaps.  The 49ers can add some depth, plug some holes and fill some needs. 

In addition, this second class will add age.  Lambert had a few upperclassmen at practice in the fall -- some transfers from four-year institutions who already had a basic understanding of the demands of college football.  Those upperclassmen provided the added bonus of coaches on the field.  The younger players could look to them for answers.  They provided basic leadership and, as Lambert said, you could see the benefits those players brought to their position meetings and drills.

Now, more upperclassmen will be added to provide another dose of that leadership.  Some already transferred in, mid-semester.  More will come in the 49ers second class - along with another promising freshman class anxious to be a part of 49ers history.

The new class will be introduced to Niner Nation, next Thursday night, Feb. 7.  It's a great evening that brings fans inside the recruiting process and up close with the coaches that our leading our team.  And of course it gives us a clearer picture of the players that we will be cheering in years to come.

Last year, we met our first-ever signee.  This year we meet our next.

For more information on the Second Signing Day Chalk Talk, contact the Charlotte 49ers Athletic Foundation at 704-687-1049.




Details Matter

Jan. 19, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

What you do see:

Goalposts.  Turf.  Players.  Coaches.  A stadium. 

What you don't see:

Meetings.  Documents.  Power point presentations.

There are six different campus committees that are looking at the wide array of issues created by or required for football.  They are made up of a combination of staff, faculty, students and community representatives.   

Each meets regularly and reports to an executive committee.  The structure was set up in August of 2010 - before we had goalposts, a coach or a stadium.

And since then, there have been untold numbers of meetings, documents and power point presentations.

This week, a cross-section of campus representatives met to see presentations from several committee members and review policies and progress.  Over 60 people crowded into a classroom to discuss things like campus scheduling, parking and traffic patterns, security, merchandising, concessions, facility support and, of course, tailgating.

It was an important meeting with good dialogue, designed to expose gaps in the planning. 

It showed, up close, how the university is embracing this initiative and coming together to work through its many issues.  How many cars are expected through each entrance?  What hours will be kept at the Student Union?  What will roving concessions carts carry to tailgate areas.

Issues big and small are discussed - and for an upstart football program, these meetings are as important to a successful game-day experience as position meetings are to a successful game-day result.

It's certainly not as glamorous as the stadium and practices and scrimmages, but it has its place and its purpose.

After attending that meeting one day - I headed down to the stadium the next.

The team had already had its weight room sessions and was now on the field conditioning.  Short sprints.  Shuffle left. Touch the line. Karaoke right. Touch the line.  Sprint through. 

Group after group after group.  Shuffle.  Touch.  Karaoke.  Touch.  Sprint.  And do it again.

The team has been practicing and working out since September - and they continue to get bigger, stronger and faster.  Along the way their attention to detail grows as well.

In their stance, awaiting the whistle, a player jumps a little early. 

"Get that group again!" a coach yells as they finish.  "It was fourth and one - now its fourth and six."

Earlier this year, during the Chancellor's convocation, he reminded the campus community, "Details matter."

At workouts, in their own way, the coaching staff reminds the team the very same thing.

And somewhere else on campus, a staffer reviews the 25 TCP's (Traffic Control Points) of the Security Plan.

Just like in practice, throughout campus, folks are sweating the small stuff.

Because details do matter.




Wake-Up Call

Jan. 12, 2013

By Tom Whitestone

You've gotta like some of those old, well-worn adages.

If you want it, work for it.

If you love it, work for it.

Nothing will come to you.  There's no substitute for hard work.  You have to push yourself.  Always. 

The phrases are popular, because they ring true.

So, when I stopped down in the weight room at the Rose Football Center this week to get some updated photos of that facility - it was impressive to hear that several local players had made use of the facility over break.  In fact, as players started to return to campus, the strength training staff let a few know that if they were around they could come by before classes started to get extra work in.

50 players showed up.

If you want it, work for it.

If you love it, work for it.

These next two months - before spring practices get underway, the 49ers will work for it.

Head coach Brad Lambert has already said how important these two months are to the development of the team.  The weight room will be their home away from home.  These months are key to the strengthening of the program and preparing it for competition this August.

Strength coach Jim Durning will use the wide array of toys available to him in his fully-equipped weight room.  He'll demand effort and work. He'll expect the team to push themselves harder than he does.  He'll expect the team to want it.

His schedules are set - alternating upper and lower body workouts.  And they'll be early.  Workout sessions will start as early as 6:00 a.m.

As Lambert has said:  "We are just like every other team now - we hit our weight training hard, now - then we move to spring practice and the spring game - then it's the summer and preseason and games."

Yes, the players hit the weight room in the fall -- but that was mixed in with practices.  Winter workouts will be different.  Whereas practices were a focal point this fall, weight training will be the focal point this winter.  It's sort of similar to the preseason workouts they took part in before fall practices began.  But only not.  That was a shorter time period, and more educational.  Productive, yes -- but not to this degree.

Now, the fun stuff starts.

Just like every other team, weight room sessions will be key - and they'll be amped up.

Hearing that about 50 players turned out to get started a little early is encouraging.  You can tell there is the desire, the expectation and the understanding.

Still, for some it could be a rude awakening. 

At 6:00 a.m.






Jan. 5, 2013

By Tom Whitestone


It's here.

It's finally here.

Back in 2006, when the Board of Trustees authorized the study of football, 2013 was seven years away.  When Mac Everett was appointed to chair the Football Feasibility committee in 2007, how distant that first snap must have seemed - for those that dared to imagine.

In 2008, when students and alums marched through campus carrying a makeshift goal post, how close, but yet so far 49ers football really was.  In 2009, as renderings of a stadium first appeared, football began to take shape - but 2013 was still four years away.

In 2010, as the 49ers celebrated the final hurdle in making football a reality, 2013 was, in truth, well off in the distance.

When Brad Lambert was hired in 2011, he must have wondered how he would manage two falls before he was back on the game sidelines.  And in 2012, as our first signees were announced, still, how far 2013 remained.

There was equipment to order, and practices to run and a stadium to complete.  So much to do.  A weight room to outfit.  Goalposts to put up.  Turf to install. 

The past year was a flurry of activity - which led us to now.


Opening day is less than a year away - less than eight months, really.

There is still plenty of work to be done - but Aug. 31, 2013 is no longer a distant vision.

You can see where the game will be played.  You know many of the players.  You've seen the teams on the schedule and the view from the seats.  You've probably pulled together a good share of your tailgating gear.

Now, it's all right around the corner.

This is the Year of 49ers Football.






Memorable Moments

Dec. 29, 2012

By Tom Whitestone

It's the final week of 2012.  A memorable year is coming to a close.  A historic year is about to begin.  

To close the year, I took a trip to the football stadium yesterday and, as expected, saw two couples park their car, wander towards the gate and peer in.  They stood and looked for a few minutes at the green turf, the yellow goal posts, and the stands surrounding McColl-Richardson Field.   Maybe they came to imagine all that would come in 2013.  Or, maybe they came to see all that had taken place in 2012. 

A great sight, either way.

With the year coming to a close, though, it's fitting to look back at some of the top stories of 2012, these coming at you in chronological order.  Cue "Auld Lang Syne".

  • 1.) The First Class. At 7:02 a.m., Feb. 1, 2012, the National Letter of Intent of Will Thomas came across the fax machine in the 49ers football office and the 49ers had their first football player. By the time the day ended, 23 more high school seniors would officially sign with the 49ers. With the addition of its first players, the Charlotte 49ers football program was now becoming a football team.
  • 2.) Conference USA: On May 4, the 49ers made an amazing announcement. Before holding even their first practice, the upstart 49ers announced that they had been invited and would be joining a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) league. The 49ers would play the requisite two years in the FCS as an independent and then take the fast track to the FBS level as a member of Conference USA in 2015.
  • 3.) The Helmet: The first part of the 49ers game day uniform was made public July 25 when head coach Brad Lambert unveiled a white helmet with 49ers green speckles - a favorite among 49ers recruits. He unveiled the helmet at a media and fan gathering overlooking the 49ers football stadium construction site.
  • 4.) The Goal Posts: Part of the 49ers "The Rush is On" Campaign was a billboard, sitting atop a yellow painted pole and complete with yellow uprights that boasted "Our Fans are Putting Goal Posts Up." On Aug. 11, reality hit and the yellow goal posts at the 49ers Football Stadium were installed.
  • 5.) Firsts: So many firsts, this fall. On Aug. 16, the players first reported to campus. On Aug. 17, the 49ers held their first team meeting. On Aug. 27, the 49ers held their first workout session on the practice fields.
  • 6.) First Practice in Pads: While the fall was filled with many firsts - the first practice in pads, Sept. 21, 2012 was a day so many coaches, players and fans had yearned for, as cornerback Tank Norman appropriately summed up: "We woke up pumped up. Early this morning we were talking at breakfast at seven o'clock this morning. We've been amped up all day."
  • 7.) Oct. 31, 2012: For many this Wednesday came and went like so many others. But this day brought the official completion of construction of the 49ers football stadium. The certificate of occupancy was signed over to the university. Seeing administrators sign papers isn't nearly as exciting as seeing players take the field for the first time - but this still has juice. The 49ers football stadium was now complete.
  • 8.) Oct. 31, 2012: For many, this Wednesday was like no other. After papers were signed and the stadium was officially turned over to the university, head coach Brad Lambert had just one question. "So can we practice on it, today?" "Have at it" was the response - and so he did. Players took to the stadium field for the first time. Some paused at the end of the tunnel. Some raced through it. Some rolled around on the turf like children. Peter Fields dunked a football over the crossbar. "I feel like a kid. This is awesome."
  • 9.) Stadium Scrimmage: 1500 fans turned out on Nov. 3 to watch the 49ers first scrimmage activities inside the stadium. Running back Alan Barnwell carried for four hard yards on the first play from scrimmage. Barnwell would later record the first touchdown in the "CHARLOTTE" logo-ed endzone, breaking through on a one-yard carry. As the team gathered after completing windsprints to close practice, a fan yelled out: "You're making history, guys." And so they are.
  • 10.) Fall Finale: On Nov. 17, the 49ers closed their first fall of workouts and practices with a "Fall Finale" in front of nearly 2500 fans. FSL owners were given a tour of the Rose Football Center. Concessions were sold. And five touchdowns were scored to the delight of the crowd. "We have some playmakers in all the rights spots," Lambert said afterwards, with a nod to the touchdowns as well as the turnovers created.

These are just some of the great moments in 2012.  Personally, that Aug. 27th date, when the players first gathered in the hall outside their locker room - with media cameras on them - ready to run up the ramp and out to the practice fields for their first workouts, that is still my favorite day of this year.   Surreal, one player called it. 

You may have your favorite, as well.  And it may not even be highlighted above.  There were so many to choose from - including more coaching hires, more games being scheduled and more players being added to the roster.  Maybe your big moment lives in those practices and drills.  Or in an early morning weight room session.  Or talking in town about that football program that's right around the corner.  Or unwrapping a 49ers jersey.  Or seeing your kid's face light up when you first stepped inside the stadium.

The moments of 2012 are many and varied and can be very personal.  And they all point in the same direction:  2013.

So here's to 2012.  A memorable year just past.  A historic year approaching.

Happy New Year.





Community Ties

Dec. 22, 2012

By Tom Whitestone

Earlier this week, offensive line coach Phil Ratliff and three freshmen visited Weddington Hills Elementary School.  A couple weeks prior, several football players visited McAllister Elementary to participate in McAllister Muscle and engage third-to-fifth graders in a physical activity.

For most 49ers athletic teams, participating in the community is nothing new.  Programs seek out activities.  Some come up with multiple projects to be a part of.  Others devote themselves to one project in particular. 

The 49ers' Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) hosts an annual 9-11 Memorial Blood Drive.   Several teams volunteer at the Fall Stroll for Epilepsy, which has been hosted on-campus the last several years.  This year, a few teams, especially baseball and including softball and football, helped out with the aptly named Miracle League.

October is all about volleyball's charge to headline the nation's Dig Pink program.  As the holidays approach, the 49ers team up with the Marine Corps in an annual Toys for Tots Drive and this year, the 49ers golf team adopted a family.

Earlier in December, we saw men's basketball players assembling stockings to send to the orphanage they had visited in the Bahamas. 

On top of that, there are any number of clinics, visits to hospitals and readings at elementary schools, year round.

Last year, 49ers student-athletes donated over 2500 hours to various organizations.

And certainly head coach Brad Lambert has been no stranger in the community.  In addition to the many speaking engagements, he's helped build a playground, attended a moving MDA event, and recently handed out a trophy to a Pop Warner team at the Bronko Nagurski Awards - all of which is a mere sampling of his many community ties.

But now, his team and players are getting a chance to participate in the community.

And the cool thing is that as Ratliff was driving back to campus after the trip to Weddington Hills, the players thanked him.  They really appreciated the opportunity.

Sure, the fifth graders, who got a break from regular classroom activities, perhaps learned a lesson or two and may have picked up an autograph, said thank you.  I'm sure the thanks were many.  Someone comes to visit you - to brighten your day - to share some thoughts and knowledge - you're going to thank them. 

The football freshmen, who took an afternoon away from a welcome holiday break, made the drive through holiday traffic and found themselves back at a school just days after completing their first college semester, were saying thank you, too? 

As these football players figured out - often times those that make the trip realize greater benefits than those they visit.

Ratliff said he shared with the players that if they made a difference in just one kid's life, the trip was beyond worth it.

To be honest, regardless of the impact on the fifth graders, it was well worth it - simply because of the impact on the football freshmen.

During this season of giving, many understand that it is better to give than to receive. 

Some of the 49ers football players got to live that, recently, and learned firsthand, to take that message to heart.

And while it is abundantly appropriate to this holiday season, that's a present that can be opened any day of the year.



Added Benefits; Future Earnings

Dec. 15, 2012

By Tom Whitestone

There are plenty of reasons that folks bought FSL's.  The obvious lure of football.   A desire to help the university and athletic program grow.  A chance to get in on the ground floor of history.  Some felt like they had waited so long.  Some craved seeing a linebacker in action. Some just like tailgating. 

"I can't imagine not being present for every first," one fan wrote.

"You only get a handful of perfect days each year and I don't want to miss a one."

"The idea of tailgating with friends and family."

Many, called their decision to purchase, to quote more than one owner, "a no-brainer".

But running through some comments received from FSL owners, another deeper theme came forward.

"In my household, we are growing little Niners fans."

"It is going to be a great activity for our family on Saturdays."

"Anticipating the fun and experience with fellow alumni and fans."

You notice how few actually mention the football action.  To many fans, 49ers football will be a lot more than a touchdown scored.  It will be a handshake between old friends, it will be a son bouncing on Dad's shoulders, it will be friends laughing and cheering and having the time of their lives.

"We bought FSLs for the entire family.  It will be a great family experience."

"We are alums and we look forward to being re-united with old friends."

This football thing is about so much more than a sport.  It's about creating bonds within a family, among friends, with fellow alums. 

A football game day includes tailgating - where friends and fans will gather - swap stories, relive good old days and grow closer. 

A game day will include the game itself - where a parent will marvel at the joy of their child, where friends will share outbursts and where complete strangers will exchange high fives. 

And a game day will include postgame - where wide-eyed fans will talk about what they just saw, share a hug and make plans for the next game.

Head coach Brad Lambert summed it up pretty well. This draw of football includes the sights and sounds of the game, and the sights and sounds around the game.  Together it makes for a great day to be enjoyed today and treasured tomorrow.

"There's a lot of memories out on football fields," Lambert said.  "I stand out there and think about long after I'm gone there's still going to be a lot people having a lot of great memories out on this field."

Somehow, this football thing is not strictly about the here and now - which we all admit will be wonderful.  It's also about the then and there. 

Another FSL owner's motivation hit the nail on the head.

"To start another tradition for our kids and grandkids that we can leave to them to enjoy for years to come."

The football will be fun.  No doubt about it.  But the memories and traditions that can be passed from parent to child, from generation to generation.  All the stories that will be told and passed on down the line - all the moments shared - those are added benefits that come at no extra charge, but with remarkable yields.




Dec. 8, 2012

By Tom Whitestone

Practice ended weeks ago.

Classes finished up this week.  Finals started. 

Coaches are on the road recruiting. 

Of course, with finals upon them, the academic center bustles.  The team gets together for a long study hall period on Reading Day.  Another long session is scheduled amid finals week.

And the weight room stays busy.  Head coach Brad Lambert has said that this time following the end of practice and especially the time at the beginning of the second semester is important in building the team's strength. 

Still, trips to the football stadium, you would think, are a bit different these days.

And they are.  It is quieter.  There is less activity.  Players aren't running in and out to practice.  They aren't clamoring down the stairwell following position meetings.  There isn't the endless parade.

The coaches' area is quieter, too.  So many are out recruiting.  Meetings are still held.  But, this time of year, the road calls.

Most of the team's activity is either within the walls of the football center - in the academic center or in the weight room - or well outside those walls - wherever the recruiting trail may lead.

But there it was.   In the far corner of the stadium opposite Grigg and Duke Halls.

From the road, you could make out the 49ers green first.  Not a lot.  But enough.

Then it took form.  Dressed in practice gear, minus the pads and helmets, you could see the green rising up in the bleachers. 

Players running steps.  

All was quiet elsewhere.  Coaches weren't blowing whistles.  Music wasn't blaring.  Construction vehicles weren't humming.

Just players, on a nondescript day, running steps.

Some coaches were out of town recruiting.  Several players were busy studying.  Others were claiming time in the weight room. 

And some were out in the stadium, running up the bleachers where the student body will soon sit.

It sounds a bit cliché.  I mean, players working harder to get better by running steps. 

But there it was.  On a December day a bit cool, but not cold.  On a December day a bit cloudy, but not gray.  On a December day over eight months away from opening day.

Throughout this fall, one thing has been emphasized on a regular basis.  You want to get better.  Work.

On the recruiting trail.  On your studies.  On the weights.

There is no substitute for good old hard work.  Cliché or not.



The Final 49: Images of Wonder

Dec. 1, 2012

By Tom Whitestone

Hard to put into terms exactly what the draw is of a spectacular playing facility.

Why, when we'd go check out construction progress, would we see people standing at the fence, peeking in?  Why, when we drive by do we inevitably see folks getting their pictures taken outside the gates?  A young couple carries in their newborn for a photo and a glimpse.  An older couple sits in the top row and just looks out at the emptiness. 

It's hard to communicate the motivation.

An empty stadium.  No action.  No players.  A field.  A logo.

Nothing more.

I get people heading out to old stadiums and getting caught up in the nostalgia.

Bird and Havlicek in the old Boston Garden.  Ruth and Mantle at mighty Yankee Stadium.  Butkus and Payton at Soldier Field.   Memories live in every nook and cranny of those great places.  You can picture Yaz playing it off the Green Monster, as if he right out there in front of you.

Those old stadiums hold your memories - the games you saw on TV as a kid, or better yet, watched in person.  Or the games you've only seen highlights of in old grainy clips.  It makes no matter.  It's just cool to picture those ghosts out there.  Looking upon those arenas creates a connection with you, your team and your past. 

Our football stadium?   There are no memories.  But there is a connection - not with our past, but with our future.

What our football stadium lacks in memories, it more than makes up for in dreams.

I spent some time at the stadium over Thanksgiving Break.  The student-athletes had headed home.  Practices had been finished.  Coaches' offices were locked up.  But still the procession continued.

People came.  And stood.  And looked.

Fans walked up to Gate One and peered through the fence, just to see the goalposts up close.  Folks wandered around towards the North Endzone, perhaps to take pictures with the Football Center in the background.

Some nearly circled the stadium -- in an effort to take it all in.

Some stood perfectly still - in an effort to take it all in.

 "This is where the team will run out of the tunnel", you could imagine them saying.  "This is where our seats will be."  Maybe they guessed at which end zone the 49ers first touchdown would come.

Some pointed at all there was to see.  Others closed their eyes.

Staring at the emptiness, fans were left to fill their visions with their own imagination.

Doubtless, they saw players running on the field.  They heard whistles being blown.  They felt the crowd erupting.

Why did they come?   What did they see?

Perhaps it's not so tough to put into words.

I mean, how often does a person get a chance to visit the site where their dreams will come true?



Giving Thanks

Nov. 24, 2012

By Tom Whitestone

As the fall practice season comes to a close -- as the school takes ownership of the stadium and with a nod to the season that is upon us, there is plenty to be thankful for. 

Here are some of our football thank yous:

I absolutely, positively love the iconic image of the students and alums marching through campus with their makeshift goalposts.  Thank you.

No matter what, the ground breaking of our stadium was to be a memorable occasion. But the 3,000 fans with their grills grilling, flags waving and cornhole playing made it perfect.  Thank you.

Remember Dijuan Harris wearing our helmet on a stationary bike while Charlie Coley III dunked over him at basketball madness.  Thank you.

What about Will Thomas wanting so badly to be the First 49er. Thank you.

Or how about coaches who have seemingly put their careers on hold by adding exactly 0 wins to their resumes over the past year or two - to be a part of our 49ers program and to build something special.  Thank you.  Thank you. Thank you.

Did you know there is an FSL owner in Japan.  Or that a grandparent completed Christmas shopping at the FSL store -- making for several happy grandkids.  Thank you.

Ever see a movie called "The Perfect Game" about a little league team from Mexico that played in the Little League World Series.  The first time their players saw a grass field, they jumped on the ground and rolled around. Well, when our guys got into the stadium for the first time they pretty much did the same thing -- priceless to see college kids act like little leaguers.  Thank you.

So many have put in so much to get us this far it would be an effort in futility to try to list names of folks who have made a difference -- basically each and every one of you reading this played a part -- so thank you.

With that in mind, though, there are some other things to be thankful for:

Listening to Offensive Line Coach Phil Ratliff at practice.

Watching Larry Ogunjobi kick high in warmups.

Saying "Larry Ogunjobi"

Hearing coach Brad Lambert call everyone "Coach".

"Our fans are putting goal posts up".

Watching a virtual Tonka Truck playground as dump trucks moved mountains of dirt.

Seeing a 49ers football-designed cement truck spin around town.

The first stretch of turf being rolled out.

The live webcam.

Unpacking shoulder pads.

Blocking sleds and first down markers spotted on campus.

With cameras on them, watching the team's first-ever trip out of the field house, up the ramp and out to the practice fields.

"I just saw a 49ers Football ad on Monday Night Football!"

Answering questions or accepting comments from excited football fans at nearly every turn: Gas stations, grocery stores, youth games - not to mention twitter and facebook.

The common sight while driving by the stadium of people posing for pictures outside the fence.

The gratifying sight of parents posing in those very same pictures with their baby/toddler, ready to pass Niner Nation tradition from one generation to the next.

The magnificent view from the hospitality deck with that wondrous backdrop that is CRI campus.

The 49ers logo at midfield.

The sights that are football practice:  A field full of players stretching.  Drills, drills and more drills.  Players lifting each other up even as they knock each other down.

The sounds that are football practice:   Coaches whistles. An airhorn.  "Period 8 - Period 8".  Pads crunching and voices carrying.


Energy.  Effort.  Enthusiam.

True gratitude.  Because, yes -- we, as an athletic department are extremely thankful as we build this program -- but it is refreshing to see the gratitude of others it will effect, like coaches, players and fans.

Just hours after the stadium was turned over to the school players gathered in the tunnel as they got ready to head into the stadium.  They laced up their cleats.  They grabbed their helmet.  They paused at the entrance.

On the way through, one player approached an administrator -- reached out a hand.  And said thank you. 

These are moments we appreciate as this program grows from dream to reality.

And we're thankful for both.  The dream and the reality.



Fall's Final Week

Nov. 17, 2012

By Tom Whitestone

"Not Afraid" blares out of the speakers.

The gray clouds are closing in - as is the cold.  November cold.  November gray.

The temperature is in the 40's - but it feels colder.

At one time, coaches were in t-shirts and shorts as they ran practice.  On this final full practice on Wednesday, a few days before their Fall Finale scrimmage on Saturday afternoon, sweats are the order of the day.

The nearby trees are leafless.  It's not quite 5 in the afternoon, but darkness is fast closing in.  Guys blow into their hands to keep them warm.

There's no sun to bathe in.  Even if it were out, the sun would now be setting below the treeline.  Lights start popping on in overlooking windows.

And still, the team works. 

Not afraid.

Friday is a different story.  The sun is out.  The players have shed the pads.  Saturday will be the final practice of the fall - so Friday's practice is lighter and shorter.

Practice starts with a conditioning competition. Relay teams of players run through cones, cut back, sprint, weave and shuffle.  Working.  And competing.

The sun starts setting - and in November - once it starts going down, it doesn't take long.   It's now 4:40 in the afternoon and already the sun has fallen behind the trees, and the field is dark with shadows.  Cool has set back in.

After the races, the team breaks back into its position groups and goes through familiar drills one last time.

On one end of the field, the offense runs its plays against invisible defenders.

At the other end, defensive backs cover routes while the line applies token pressure to a stand-in quarterback.

Music still blares.  An odd combination of rap and country mixed together. 

The bullhorn sounds.  Period 8.

And even though there are no pads - and even though a player occasionally moves to the music - and even though hitting has been given the day off - the coaches still shout encouragement - demanding effort.

"If you don't go to the end, you don't want it."

So they go to the end.

They want it.

Saturday is the final practice.  At 1 p.m.  Full sun.  Scrimmage activities.  Saturday is the culmination of a busy fall.  A fall full of reps, bullhorns and coaches barking.  A fall full of wanting it.

Those barking voices, these guys may hear in their sleep.  And maybe that's the way the coaches want it.

The message has been clear and consistent from day one. 

You will work.

To the end.



A Memorable Last

Nov. 11, 2012

By Tom Whitestone

This is the final week of the 49ers 2012 fall football practice season.  Much is made of all the 49ers football firsts.  But this last is something to consider.

Last fall at this time, a stadium was under construction.  A coaching staff was knee deep in recruiting. And most of the players running around the practice field were living for Friday nights.

Next year, the 49ers will be well into their first season of competition in their beautiful stadium.  The coaching staff will be knee deep in game plans.  And the players running around the field will wake up on Saturdays anxious and eager.

And this fall?  The 49ers have practiced with the hum and rattle of ever-present construction vehicles.  The coaches have been knee deep in practice plans and drills.  And, the players aren't working for today -- but for tomorrow.

There is just one week left of this abnormal situation.  The 49ers plan to celebrate it with a Fall Finale -- inviting the public out to watch the last practice, offering an open house of the football center to FSL owners and giving fans an opportunity to see up close what this team has done in a few short months.

Three months ago, the 49ers football team was reporting to campus for the very first time.  It wasn't so much a team as it was a collection of student-athletes.

From the conditioning of late August to the start of real practices in mid-September to the addition of scrimmages in October the team came together -- practice by practice.

This week, they'll hold the last -- the final workout that is unique to them and foreign to teams across the country. 

Practice with a purpose, coaches often say --  easier said than done when the next game is nearly a year away.

Practice like you play, they say -- hard to do when you haven't played in nearly a year.

Practice is where games are won, they encourage -- harder to grasp without a win in sight to back it up.

In the spring, the 49ers football team will be just like every other around the country.

They will hold their spring workouts.  They will have an eye on their spring game.  And they will not be able to wait for the coming fall.

But this fall -- this wonderfully, unusual fall -- the benefits of all those practices have gone largely unnoticed.

Except to the players and coaches.  They know what has happened. They know that the practices were as productive, as challenging, as competitive as if opening day waited right around the corner.

This week, as they close camp, Niner Nation will be given an opportunity to appreciate all the work, as well.

We have celebrated so many firsts throughout this start-up process -- but this will be a memorable last.

And when you think about it, the firsts set us on our march -- but its the lasts that get us that much closer to the inaugural game.



Game On

Nov. 4, 2012

By Tom Whitestone

There was tailgating.  There were ovations.  There was the Uh-Huh Guy.

No, this wasn't the first scrimmage the 49ers have had -- they've ended practices with scrimmage activities on several Saturdays.

But this was the first set of scrimmage activities on the Stadium turf -- and 1500 Niner Nation fans turned out to watch. The practice started the same as usual -- stretching drills, position drills, some skelly.

But then the 49ers offense lined up against the 49ers defense.  Officials blew a whistle.  And it was Game On.

Running back Alan Barnwell ran for four hard yards on the first play -- as Niner Nation sat back under the splendid Saturday sun, and watched college football -- Charlotte 49ers college football.

Mark Pettit, a 6-6 outside linebacker from Greensboro, recorded the first sack.  6-3 nosetackle Larry Ogunjobi had a crushing tackle on receiver Corey Nesmith, Jr.  And receiver Austin Duke raced 58 yards on an end around.

And the crowd cheered.

At 2:10, Ja'quil Capel took a 19-yard pass to the one-yard line.  At 2:11, Barnwell burst through the line and into the endzone. 

It wasn't the first touchdown the 49ers had scored in their scrimmages, but for those on hand to watch the plunge, seeing a 49er break into the "Charlotte" logoed endzone was the absolute opposite of deja vu.  This was something they hadn't seen before.

The game continued.  Barnwell finished with 20 rushes for 75 yards and that TD.  Three 49ers quarterbacks combined for 253 yards passing - 134 of which went to Capel.  The defense recorded four sacks, two from Pettit.  Ogunjobi led the D with 7 tackles, including two for loss.  Kariym Gent pulled in an interception. 

And when the scrimmage was over and the team gathered in the endzone before the practice-ending windsprints, a man in the crowd yelled out.

"You're making history, guys."

Game On.



The First Fall

Oct. 27, 2012

By Tom Whitestone

Fall is here, that's for sure.  Leaves are turning.  Mornings are colder.  Shadows grow longer.

Believe it or not, this time next year, the 49ers will be preparing for Game #7 - on the road at Charleston Southern (Oct. 26).  Charlotte will have already played six games, five at home.  The historic season will be underway.

After all the firsts we have celebrated:  the first recruiting class, the first workouts, the first time they put on the helmet  -  it's hard to believe that a year from now we will have moved past those firsts and onto seconds, thirds and fourths.

Sure, there are still plenty in front of us:  the first time inside the stadium walls, the first spring game and of course the historic first, coming on August 31st.

That will lead to the first kick off, the first tackle and the first touchdown.

And these guys out here on this field, busting it at practice on these colorful, cooler and shadowed days, dream of being a part of those firsts, which still seem so very far away but are getting closer by the minute.

Right now, with the team's initial workouts nearly two months old, this group of guys is well beyond so many firsts - but still eyeing several more.

Who will rush for the first first down?  Who will record the first sack?  Who will catch the first pass?  Who will recover the first fumble?

About 80 players are out at practice hoping to be a key figure in 49ers history.

Of course, we know they already are.

The firsts these players have been a part of may not be recorded by statistics.  I mean, I don't ever recall seeing mention of the rollcall of players who attended the first team meeting in any record book.

But these are those guys.  These are the first to set foot in the locker room.  These are the first to run out to the practice fields.  And these are the first to pull that gear on -- to sprint, to dive, to sweat for the green and white.

Years from now, people will think of 2013 as the inaugural season.  People will grab a 2013 game program to remember the first team.  People will think of the game days in autumn as the first fall. 

But people will be wrong.

For all those vital firsts that will come next year - there's one big second.

Because, no matter what the record books will say.  No matter how much pomp and circumstance accompanies the inaugural game.  No matter how we crave Kickoff 2013.

For Charlotte 49ers football - this is the first fall.



Your All-Access Pass

Oct. 20, 2012

By Tom Whitestone

You've seen the footage from back in 2008 thru 2010 of Chancellor Philip Dubois and Director of Athletics Judy Rose talking about the promise and possibility of the 49ers adding football.  Board meetings.  Press conferences.

It took some time before actual football was added to the mix. Coaches. Players.  Practices.

And AJ Mead and his staff have been there for all of it and are now turning the old footage and the new football into a monthly documentary - to paint the picture of the process of building a football program.

Groundbreaking.  Helmet unveiling.  Head coach hiring.  Signing Day. 

With extensive access, Mead and his staff were able to compile video of all of it and are using it to complement their current video of practices, interviews and workouts.

The product:  "49ers Football Now: Countdown to Kickoff".

The documentary takes fans from those early discussions and will land them on the historic inaugural game, next August.  It will include profiles of players and coaches.  It will include looks inside coaches meetings and team meetings.  It will take viewers inside the offices, inside the practices and inside the huddles.

Starting a new football program is difficult and challenging - with plenty of headaches, frustrations and worries.  It is also rewarding and inspiring - with plenty of high fives, smiles and satisfaction.

Mead is bringing all of that to you, in a monthly 15-minute documentary.

Already two of the 13 episodes have been produced.  49FN was there to capture the very first team meeting - and head coach Brad Lambert's early directive to his team.  49FN walked along a mic'd up Lambert on his way to the first practice.  49FN interviewed Dubois, Rose and Football Feasibility Chair Mac Everett, who aptly stated - "It's good story - and I don't think it's been told yet."

Mead and the 49ers Media Production staff are telling it.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I do assist, minimally.  Primarily setting up interviews.  Mead works his magic to bring the segments and stories to life.

But, I don't write this for AJ's benefit.  I write this for yours.

Each episode debuts on the first day of every month, unless it falls on a weekend.  Episode 3 will hit Nov. 1.  The 49ers website promotes the new shows and archives the old.  They air monthly  at, and the Charlotte 49ers Official Youtube Channel. Viewers in the Charlotte area can also see the show on Time Warner Cable Channel 22 every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday at 12:30pm and 7:30pm.

"This is the first time our department has attempted a video project of this size, but I think we can deliver high-end programming that our fans really want and have never seen before," Mead said.

We realize that we are in a special situation - debuting a football program.  We have a chance to bring our fans all those firsts with behind-the-scenes footage to capture the sights and sounds.  We realize that we are part of something special - and we want you to to be a part of it, as well.

So join in.  Through "49ers Football Now", watch the program come to life.  And, like us, treasure every step along the way.



Team Building

Oct. 13, 2012

by Tom Whitestone 

Blocking sleds rest next to pallets of bricks.  The deep green of the practice field is outlined by orange construction fence.   The route to practice is guarded by red and yellow caution tape.

Footballs fly through the air, but, it seems, they could just as easily land in a backhoe as a receiver's arms, the construction vehicles are so plentiful.

A forklift races behind the goal posts.  A concrete truck spins down the sideline.  And, the clink and clatter of the tracks of a loader seem louder than the pounding of pads.

This team certainly won't need any reminders of the work that helped bring their football world to life.

Reminders are all around them.

Motors are constantly running.  Hard hats and orange vests abound.  Construction trucks roll in and out of the access road.

Soon the stadium and grounds will be turned over to the university.  Soon, the tractors and trucks and engines and beeps and whirring will be gone.

This construction team has worked off its collective butt.  Consider:  Less than a year and a half ago, this stadium site was several large recreational fields.  The only tractors around were brought in for the ceremonial groundbreaking, April 28, 2011.  Less than a year and a half ago, we had renderings.

Now, we have a 15,300-seat stadium.  We have a 46,150 square foot football center, 34,011 square feet of concourse buildings and 243,000 square feet of game and practice fields. 

Dirt was dug out and moved here and there. Rock was crushed.  Concrete was poured.  The recreational fields were relocated.  And this football world took shape.

Soon, the yellow dump trucks, lifts and excavators will be gone forever from what, just a short time ago, had become a giant Tonka truck playground.  Soon the last brick will be laid on the grounds around the stadium.  Soon, the only sounds you will hear at practice will come from the air horn, the whistles, the coaches, the players and the pads.

But, when they finally have this site to themselves, this team will remember all those they shared it with.  When they finally hit the stadium turf, they will remember the work that put it there.  And when they run out to practice, they'll remember they aren't running alone.

Take a quick look around.  Plenty have pitched in to build this program.

And that, this team will always remember. 



The Roar Inside

Oct. 6, 2012

by Tom Whitestone

You've got to appreciate these guys.

Think about it.  You've played football since you were a kid.  You played in the backyard, you played in Pop Warner, you played in Middle School, you played in High School.

Every fall, you played.

And now, you choose to play for the Charlotte 49ers.

Catch is - you don't get to play.  Not for a year. 

That has to be tough. 

Red-shirts, you might say, do it every year, everywhere.  But this is a whole team.  It's not only you that doesn't get to play - it's your whole team.  They don't get to play.  So, on any given Saturday, you can't even watch your team from the sidelines.  No cheering.  No celebrating.

You just keep practicing.

And give them credit.  At practices, you see the guys working hard.  You realize they aren't just going through the motions.  They're not biding their time till next fall.  They're getting after it as if they had a game this weekend.

And you also see something else.  You see the camaraderie building.  You see the slaps on the helmets.  You see them sprinting to help each other up.  And you see them go after each other hard and then fist bump about it afterwards.

Sure, one thing that they've had since they were kids isn't there right now.  They don't get to play the games.  But they still have their team.

Just like Pop Warner, Middle School and High School.   They still have their team.

Maybe that's what gets them through gameless Saturdays void of cheers and touchdown dances.

Everyone loves the roar of the crowd, of course.

For now, without that roar, they have to be satisfied with the shouts of their teammates and the slaps on their backs.  And, they have to be happy "going long" on the practice field.  Just like the backyard.

You have to appreciate that.

Knowing there's no game around the bend, you have to appreciate players sprinting into a drill and sprinting back out, taking a knee on the sideline dripping with sweat, and cheering each other during windsprints at the end of practice.

Knowing there's no game around the bend, you have to appreciate the all-out-hustle of a Darius Smalls, who stays with a play from his receiver spot on the right side, during a rush around the left side, so much so that he's the first on the ground to recover the fumble.

It wasn't for the win.  It wasn't for the crowd.  It sure wasn't for the roar.  It was for the team and it was for the game. 

It was for football.

What they love about this game.  Why they want to play.  That's a roar that comes from the inside.

And you don't have to wait till Saturday to hear it.



Get to Work

Sept. 29, 2012

by Tom Whitestone

The horn had sounded at 4:12 p.m. to officially start the 49ers first full practice in pads after the requisite 15 minutes of stretching. 

At 4:13, Defensive Coordinator Bruce Tall could be heard from a field away.

"Nobody walks around here.  Got me!"

Setting the tone early has been head coach Brad Lambert's mantra through the first few weeks of workouts and now into the first week of full practices.

"We wanted to condition the guys and teach them a little bit about what practice is going to look like.  You've got to teach them everything.  You've got to start at square one."

Square one, apparently, is a not-so-subtle reminder that even though opening day is 48 weeks away, the only way to see Game One is to work hard in Week One.

"Sprint!" yells Offensive Line Coach Phil Ratliff.

Players who may been caught up in the hype of being the first class on the first team at the first practice were quickly brought back to earth.

"That's a different level," said receiver Austin Duke.  "A whole different level."

"The practice field's a whole lot faster than what I expected," defensive back Tank Norman added.

Welcome to college football - 49ers style.

While the coaches are reinforcing the tone at every turn, the players are responding.

Witness cornerback Terrance Winchester crashing running back Alan Barnwell into the fence five yards off the sideline during scrimmage activities.  Witness Jamel Ross and Desmond Cooper going at it one v. one in a drill to drive the opposing player back. Witness the players' post-practice chant:  "1, 2, 3 - WORK!"

The players are just now getting into full game-day shape.  The practices include dropped balls, missed assignments and brain cramps. But the players are working.   

"It's a fight!" assistant secondary coach John Russell calls out.

And so, the 49ers battle. 

Just one week in, Charlotte understands their finish line is months away.  So they try to balance time, knowing full well that they have time to run through repeated reps.  They have time to fine tune.  They have time to get better.  But they also know that the best way to make use of that time is with a sense of urgency.  Pushing the players to work like they have a game this weekend - from the opening horn to the final whistle.  Making sure the players don't use the time they have as an excuse to take their time.

"Fast!  Make 'em work," Lambert urges.

So, work they do.  And when practice is over - as trainers are pulling together the water stations, as team videographers are breaking down their tripods, as managers pack up the equipment, Offensive Coordinator Jeff Mullen calls his offense together.  For that interception they threw, for the block they missed, for the route run wrong, they, as a unit, do a series of up/downs: running in place, hitting the ground and bouncing back up. Again and again.

Practice may be over, but the work continues.  



Our Own Hallowed Ground

Sept. 22, 2012

by Tom Whitestone

The stadium is not yet complete. Construction crews are working on some finishing touches. You can hear power tools at work. An occasional hammer bangs in the distance. Vague voices call out. Construction vehicles move in and out beyond the stadium walls.

But the field is done.

"Charlotte" is emblazoned across each end zone. The C-pick 49ers logo stands tall at midfield.

This turf is what we've been waiting for.

We want to see it and touch it and feel it. Looking down upon it, our senses can't help but come alive.

This is where it will all take place - right here on this turf. This is where all the work, all the hopes, all the chants, all the shout outs, all the enthusiasm will come to dramatic crescendo.

This is where the back will bust through on a 40-yard scamper. Where the QB will hook up with the wideout for that game-changing bomb. Where the returner will break tackles en route to paydirt.

This is where the D-line will stand 'em up on fourth and inches. Where the D-Back will leap high to break up a sure first down. Where the linebacker will plug a hole and stonewall an attack.

Right now, the stadium is empty, save for the workers hustling here and there. Some early morning shadows creep across the field. But in the silence, you can hear a coach barking out orders. You can hear pads hitting. You can hear the roar of the crowd.

This turf is what we've been waiting for.

With our attention fixed on the action between the lines, it will be the backdrop of so many Saturday afternoons. It will be our own hallowed ground to share with our kids and they with theirs. And it will be the place we come to cheer, perhaps, like we have never cheered before.

We have waited a long time to gaze upon this very turf.

Soon, the stadium will be full. The ovations will echo off the surrounding buildings. The sights and sounds will envelop us.

And all that we have dreamed about - all that we have wished for - all that we have worked for ... All the visions we weren't sure we would ever see - they all will take place on this turf.

It's what we've been waiting for.