CHARLOTTE, N.C. — I have been covering Pitt football for seven seasons, coincidentally the seven seasons of Pat Narduzzi’s tenure as Pitt’s head coach.
For the most part, in my job as a reporter, I write about what happens to the team. I write about the games and try to explain the how and the why of Pitt’s wins and losses. Other times, I’m lucky enough to be able to tell more personal stories about the players and coaches and what makes them special.
Sometimes, I get to write about emotion. About how getting to play or what has transpired on the playing surface makes people feel.
Through most of those seven seasons, the emotions I’ve been able to write about have been largely negative ones. The team has generally failed to meet its goals, to the great frustration of both those involved with the program and its long-suffering fanbase, whose general sense of angst only seemed to heighten the feelings of the players and coaches.
When they failed, they let themselves down, and they let the fans down, and they knew it.
Even during moments of relative success, we expect people to mute their positive emotions: Act like you’ve been there before. Every positive comes with the caveat that it doesn’t matter if you fail to deliver the following week.
Not Saturday in Charlotte. On Saturday in Charlotte, Pitt accomplished its ultimate goal, winning the ACC for the first time. While there is one more game left in the 2021 season, there are no more tomorrows for this group. Nothing else could mean as much as beating Wake Forest on Saturday did.
And so I got to experience covering a new emotion: joy. Pure, unbridled joy. The kind that makes a 300-pound defensive tackle give a goofy grin and be left almost entirely speechless by what had just transpired.
That’s redshirt senior defensive tackle Keyshon Camp. Seconds before that still shot, Camp laid down on the turf at Bank of America Stadium and made a snow angel out of the championship confetti in his last ACC game with the Panthers.
— Alan Saunders (@ASaunders_PGH) December 5, 2021
In 2015, on his official visit to Pitt, Camp, who is from Lakeland, Florida, saw snow for the first time in his life. He laid down on the snow-covered grass at Heinz Field and made a snow angel.
Camp’s time at Pitt did not necessarily go to plan. He suffered season-ending injuries in 2018, 2019 and missed significant playing time in 2020. He watched his best friend on the team, defensive end Rashad Weaver, move on to the NFL Draft, but decided to return for one more year, anyway. To put the injuries behind him and to win a title. For one more snow angel.
“I came back for a reason,” Camp said. “I knew that we were going to win the ACC Championship. I came back with my brothers, got to work this spring, this summer. … I can’t. I’m speechless.”
Camp made a huge sack in the second half, crushing Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman for a loss that caused the Deacons to punt.
“That sack was a long time coming,” he said. “I was just staying patient, keeping God first.”
“That happened,” Camp said finally, as if to remind himself that it did.
Wide receiver Tre Tipton has been at Pitt since even before Camp, joining the team as part of its Class of 2015. He’s also dealt with more than his fair share of injuries, missing all but four games in 2015, all but three games in 2019 and all of 2017.
More than that, Tipton openly dealt with depression and contemplated suicide early in his time at Pitt. That prompted him to found L.O.V.E., his foundation that helps athletes deal with their emotional and mental health. This summer, before his seventh season at Pitt, Tre’s mother, Kim died. He dedicated his final season to her.
“Seven years in the making, this is for my momma, man,” Tipton said. “My teammates came up to me and told me, they were like, ‘We’re going to get this one.’ I can’t explain it in words. I’m really out of words. It’s just crazy.”
On Saturday, after playing minimally in most of his last three seasons at Pitt, Tipton was in the starting lineup for the ACC Championship Game.
“It meant the world to me, man, just to be here with my guys,” Tipton said. “They mean everything to me. I’ve been here for seven years because of them. It couldn’t mean more.”
Minutes after the clock had hit zero on Pitt’s win, Tipton still couldn’t believe it.
“My heart was beating. It was crazy. I wanted to cry. But I can’t cry when I’m so excited. I’m loving life right now.”
Joy isn’t an emotion that anyone needs help dealing with.
Tight end Lucas Krull did not spend his entire collegiate journey at Pitt. He didn’t spend it all as a tight end, either.
A Kansas native, Krull’s college path couldn’t be more convoluted. He started as a pitcher on the Arkansas baseball team, then went to Jefferson College when he couldn’t get playing time with the Razorbacks and struggled to throw strikes. After two years of JUCO ball, he decided to get back into football and spent two years as a tight end at Florida.
In 2020, he transferred to Pitt for what he thought would be his final season, but an injury suffered in the first game cost him the rest of the year. Like so many of Pitt’s seniors, he came back for another run at a title.
“It’s everything we’ve been working for,” Krull said. “We’ve been preaching in the offseason. We break down every day on ‘ACC champs.’ At the end of the day, we had to come to the realization that (saying it) it has to mean something. It meant something every time we said it. You could feel it in the voices and the work we put in all offseason, and it showed tonight.”
In 2018, Pitt came close to reaching its goal. The Panthers won the Coastal Division, came to Charlotte, in the very same stadium, and laid an egg against Clemson in the 2018 ACC Championship Game.
After the game, Pat Narduzzi’s daughter, Christina, left a message on the white board in the locker room: “We will be back.”
That sure looked like an empty threat during many of the intervening years, with Pitt finishing third in the Coastal Division in 2019, losing two games as two-score favorites to halt the momentum of a strong early start in 2020, and perhaps never more than earlier this fall, when a non-conference loss to Western Michigan seemed to ruin Pitt’s season before it even got fully started.
Instead, on Saturday, the father made good on the promise of the daughter.
“When we arrived back in 2015, I took this job because I knew we could win a championship.” Narduzzi said. “Seven years later, we’re here.”
The attendance at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday was announced as 57,856, and it was about an even split between Pitt and Wake Forest fans, with one notable difference. The Pitt fans that drove the seven hours from Pittsburgh down through the Appalachian Mountains were the ones that made an impact.
The mixed crowd was a loud one, and as Pitt’s lead grew, the fans clad in blue and gold were the engine that kept pushing the momentum toward the Panthers.
“It was amazing,” Krull said. “The support we had coming down here, this was unreal. All throughout the time we’ve been here, seeing Pitt everywhere and then showing out tonight. They’re in it every second of the way. It was awesome. It was special.”
It sure was.
The Pitt fanbase has suffered as long as any in college sports, with the Panthers going 40 years between 10-win regular seasons. When Narduzzi lifted the ACC title trophy over his head, with confetti cannons engulfing the stage, a big part of those 40 years was lifted.
“This is a party for Panthers,” legendary play-by-play voice Bill Hillgrove said, with his usual knack for summing up the moment.
"THIS IS A PARTY FOR PANTHERS!"
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) December 5, 2021
Revel in the joy, Panthers. You’ve earned it.