Amid NC State’s Final Four run, a tribute to a Wolfpacker who gave — and never gave up

Twenty years later, my brothers and I still laugh about the Matt Frejie Game. Or was it the Marcus Melvin Intentional Foul Game? The Julius Hodge Fouls Out Game? Well, anyway. N.C. State fans know the one: The 2004 NCAA Tournament. Second round. The Wolfpack, a No. 3 seed and with its best team in 15 years, with a 10-point lead against Vanderbilt. Less than three minutes left.

And then ... ?


Hodge fouls out. Frejie scores six straight points. Melvin is called for the kind of absurd intentional foul that comes to epitomize N.C. State “Stuff.” State’s lead evaporates in a little more than a minute. Vanderbilt wins. Season over. And here comes the part we still reminisce about: the most epic Dad rant of all time. Or at least the most epic I witnessed.

Was that torrent of invective directed toward the officials, Frejie, the Wolfpack in general and Herb Sendek, especially? Yes. Was it the result not just of one particular meltdown but (at the time) 15 years of N.C. State basketball futility? Also yes. We can laugh about it now. Shoot, we laughed about it then. Dad is nothing if not passionate about his Wolfpack. Sometimes comically so.

I knew that from the beginning. Long before, even, he became Dad.

‘What if?’

There’s a lot we can determine of our own lives and a lot we cannot. So much comes down to chance, in sports and in everything. It comes down to making the most of opportunity, yes. But also chance. Right time, right place. This N.C. State run to the Final Four offers another reminder.

What if Virginia makes that late free throw against State in the final seconds of regulation in an ACC Tournament semifinal? What if Michael O’Connell is a half-second slower getting up the court? What if, instead of bouncing off the backboard just so, and looping around the rim twice, and through, his tying 3-pointer spins out, or takes a different bounce?

N.C. State’s Michael O’Connell (12) launches a three-point shot over Virginia’s Isaac McKneely (11) at the buzzer in regulation to tie Virginia 58-58 and force overtime during the semi-finals of the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament at Capitol One Arena on Friday, March 15, 2024 in Washington, D.C.
N.C. State’s Michael O’Connell (12) launches a three-point shot over Virginia’s Isaac McKneely (11) at the buzzer in regulation to tie Virginia 58-58 and force overtime during the semi-finals of the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament at Capitol One Arena on Friday, March 15, 2024 in Washington, D.C.

What if?

What if during an eighth grade assembly at our Raleigh middle school, I don’t wind up sitting next to a kid who becomes my best friend. He’s a Braves fan and I’m a Mets fan. That’s how it starts, with baseball talk. But he’s also a State fan and I, of all things, root for Duke. Maybe it was the Laettner shot of a few years earlier, when I’d just started paying attention to college basketball, or because Dickie V gushed about the Blue Devils every time I turned on the TV.

Who knows? But it becomes the fodder for a friendship between middle school boys, these debates about baseball and ACC hoops. And this kid, I’m learning, just loves his Wolfpack. His name is Vann, after his father’s favorite State player. I learn about that years later. We spend eighth grade following the 1994-95 ACC basketball season. Duke is bad, with Coach K sidelined. State is ... not particularly good. We make a bet on State’s game at Cameron Indoor. No way Duke loses, right?

Duke loses. I pay up — about two years later.

Ninth grade, our lunch table becomes the place for spirited and informed ACC basketball debate at Leesville Road High. Conversations abound about Ricky Price and Ishua Benjamin, Todd Fuller and Chris Collins. We soak up every word about the ACC in The News & Observer. I’m on the way (I dream) to becoming the next Caulton Tudor, sportswriter extraordinaire. Vann is on his way to much loftier, more intelligent pursuits.

College hoops is the bond. We grow close. These are our Wonder Years.

A growing bond

Ideally, you meet your father at birth. Most people do. I was 13 or 14 when I met mine.

He wasn’t my biological father, who I never knew and never met. He wasn’t, at the time, my father at all. He was just my best friend’s dad. Vann’s dad. Mr. Pearce. I’d see him at Vann’s Little League games, when we played on opposing teams. Or when I’d go over to their house.

I envied how normal it felt there. Two parents. Three brothers. A dog, Parker, who’d jump up and wag his tail every time I came over. I can still hear Mrs. Pearce, the heart of the whole family — the one who kept it all together, then and now — yelling at him to get down. Can see her driving Vann and me to the basketball courts near school for some intense (and quality, I’m sure) one-on-one.

One time, Vann’s parents picked me up and took me to the State Fair, with Vann and his brothers. What a time. The food and the sights. Vann and I rode the Pirate Ship — that ride that swings back and forth, like a pendulum — with our eyes closed while his middle brother, Stephen, cackled at us. Another time, a few years later, they took me to the beach. Vann and I forgot to wear sunscreen and spent the next day passing a bottle of aloe back and forth. To be young again.

Theirs was a family and a home of love and warmth and noise. Mine was much quieter, living alone with my grandmother. She tried but fought relentless demons, some of her own making and some not. At her best she was caring and tending. She took me to Cameron Indoor Stadium once, to see an early-season Duke game. There were trips to the old Durham Athletic Park, to see the Bulls.

But sometimes I’d come home from school to find her sound asleep in the afternoon, empty or half-consumed cans of Busch Light hidden in kitchen cabinets, boxed wine on empty in the fridge. Depression and addiction gripped her. One day I came home to find she wasn’t there at all. She’d fainted in the grocery store across the street, after suffering a stroke.

I was 16 when I needed a place to go. And there again is that thing about chance.

It’s impossible to know when a small moment will lead to something more. When another team’s missed free throw will lead to maybe the most improbable Final Four run of all time. When a new friend in eighth grade will eventually lead to a new family. Or maybe “chance” doesn’t describe it.

NC State’s Jim Valvano celebrates after the Wolfpack defeated Houston to win the National championship on April 5, 1983.
NC State’s Jim Valvano celebrates after the Wolfpack defeated Houston to win the National championship on April 5, 1983.

At home in a Wolfpack den

There was a family summit, as I understand it. I wasn’t there. But I envision it as something like a roundtable. Mr. and Mrs. Pearce and their three boys — Vann, Steve and John — discussing what to do. Consider the circumstances: They already had a full house. They already had enough mouths to feed, literally and figuratively. The washing machine was already running constantly.

God Bless Mama Pearce. The cooking and all the laundry; the nurturing. The real work of raising a family, and while she worked her own job, too. Middle and high school boys are a mess. And here was one more. A stray.

They tell me there wasn’t a debate. I moved in the summer before my senior year of high school.

Vann moved out of his room and into the bonus room. I moved my bed and a desk there. It was above the garage. The game room. The Wolfpack room, really. It was full of N.C. State stuff — a State-themed light above the pool table; commemorative Coke cans from the 1983 national championship; team pictures from that year, and 1974. Other memorabilia, all over the walls. Even the carpet was red. I hung some Duke stuff up next to the bed. A little obnoxious, in hindsight.

I knew Mr. Pearce — which is what I was still calling him, then — was a big Wolfpacker. But I didn’t know how much. Soon it became obvious. He’d sit in his recliner, one he’d later pass down to me, and watch Wolfpack football and basketball with a religious kind of devotion. Sometimes State would win. But the Pack often disappointed, leaving him to yell at the TV as if Sendek or Mike O’Cain could hear him. If only they could.

I can still hear an occasional random outburst or two from when Edgerrin James and Miami ran all over N.C. State in the 1998 MicronPC Bowl. Or when Kenny Inge, bless him, gradually regressed throughout one of Sendek’s earliest seasons. But the next game, without fail, Mr. Pearce would be back for more. Watching. Hoping. It takes a lot of faith to be an N.C. State fan.

It’s not unlike religion. Both demand a belief in the unseen; that miracles happened once, and can again.

Andrew Carter (second from right) with his dad (right) and two of his brothers at a 2019 N.C. State football game.
Andrew Carter (second from right) with his dad (right) and two of his brothers at a 2019 N.C. State football game.


One night that year above the garage Vann and I were up late talking, like usual. Sometimes it was sports. About school. About girls, sure. This was about the future.

“My Dad really wants to see you succeed,” he told me.

It was a jolt. Inspiration.

For the first time in my life, I was coming home every day to a male role model. To a father figure. I’d had youth coaches I’d looked up to. Male teachers. Fathers of other close friends. But I’d never had it at home. It’s something I’ve only just realized I missed as I’ve gotten older, now in my 40s, becoming an uncle and watching my brothers and friends become dads; seeing what their kids have in the men in their lives. I never knew what I was missing.

And then I had it, too, as a high school senior. My Dad-to-be (I still called my parents “Mr. and Mrs. Pearce,” for a long time) tried (unsuccessfully) to teach me how to play golf. He helped me with the personal finances. He bought a digital camera — one of the first, it must’ve been, that required something like a hard disk — for our high school newspaper. He read a lot, which I admired, and he provided and cared. He showed up.

And usually he was unflappable. Calm. In control.

Unless the Wolfpack was playing.

The transformation came gradually, with Vann’s parents becoming something like mine. With me becoming one of the brothers. I’d found a home, which is why I was there with everyone that day in March 2004 for N.C. State’s NCAA Tournament game against Vanderbilt. I’d just graduated from N.C. State, myself, with most of the sports fan beaten out of me after years working for the student paper and for The N&O, covering local high school games.

Yet there was hope in the family room. The late 10-point lead. The Sweet 16 within reach.

And then the heartbreak. The intentional foul. Frejie. Gus Johnson going nuts on the broadcast.

The epic rant from a hardened Wolfpacker. Familiar pain.

Andrew Carter (middle) with his parents, Julie and Tim Pearce.
Andrew Carter (middle) with his parents, Julie and Tim Pearce.

Comfort. Hope. Belief.

Ten years later, 2014, we walked into a courthouse in Hillsborough and signed some papers and it was official. The judge may have cried a little. He said he’d had a lot of hard, sad conversations in his chambers. But this one was happy. It was an adult adoption. At 33 years old, I had new parents.

Well, legally speaking. Mom and Dad had been “Mom and Dad” for much longer, anyway.

Occasionally my job allowed us to cross paths at various events. When I covered Florida State for the Orlando Sentinel in the late-2000s, the Seminoles twice played at N.C. State, and I made sure to stop by the family tailgate. Once I looked down from the press box and found my parents, and they waved from their seats. My brief stint covering the Miami Dolphins in 2011 coincided with a State home game. I flew home and went.

Another time, early on in my tenure covering North Carolina for The N&O, one of Dad’s friends gave him tickets for the State game at the Smith Center. He sat up in the upper deck, wearing red, a picture of composure (no, really) as the Tar Heels ran away with it.

The years mellowed him. Or maybe the enduring pain of being a Wolfpack fan. Probably both.

In 2019 he gave up a grind of a career and went back to school, approaching his mid-60s, at Campbell Divinity. He followed a calling and became a pastor. Last spring, he officiated my wedding — in Chapel Hill, no less. He kept his cool. Dad had long ago given up the season tickets and the ever-rising Wolfpack Club dues. It costs more and more and more to be a fan these days. But he watched the games.

He always watched. Hoping. Believing.

“Maybe next year.”

Maybe now.

N.C. State’s Ben Middlebrooks celebrates after the Wolfpack’s 76-64 victory over Duke in their NCAA Tournament Elite Eight matchup at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas, Sunday, March 31, 2024.
N.C. State’s Ben Middlebrooks celebrates after the Wolfpack’s 76-64 victory over Duke in their NCAA Tournament Elite Eight matchup at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas, Sunday, March 31, 2024.

‘In the twilight zone’

This Wolfpack run to the Final Four has a lot of people feeling a lot of ways. I’ve been thinking a lot about my family – my brothers, who all went to State, my parents, who both went to State. But especially about Dad, who has lived and died with the Wolfpack for going on 50 years now. Long before I came along, the latest of late additions, Dad took my brothers to State games in a red and white van, and set up the food while they watched cartoons. A horn played the State fight song.

More recently, when State beat Duke on Sunday to win the South Regional, he went outside to the front porch and yelled “Wolfpack!” as people blew their horns. It’d been a long time. More than 40 years. He used to tell us stories about 1974 and ‘83, of David Thompson and Jimmy V; of the time in Reynolds Coliseum, as a younger man, when he dragged a row of those end zone chairs toward the court in pursuit of an official who most assuredly made an incorrect call.

Mostly, he often told us what it was like.

He yearned to feel that again. Just once. And so came the Virginia missed free throw, the victory against UNC in the ACC Tournament championship. One thing turning into another. A story building. The rewarding of belief and faith.

The run through the South Regional.

“Still feel like I’m in the twilight zone,” he wrote on Monday in the group text with my brothers.

Once, the picture for that group text was one of him, wearing his State gear, wearing the expression of Wolfpack pain at a particularly ugly football game. I’d snapped it with my phone and it became an avatar of State misery. A joke. Being a State fan the past 40-plus years has required resilience. It has required loyalty, above all. It has made for many full days, as Valvano described them — those days that make you laugh and make you think and make you cry.

And now this.

“We are in the FINAL FOUR baby!” Dad wrote Wednesday. “WOWWWWWWW!!!!!!!”

He couldn’t help but share the joy with his sons.