It’s a week spent reflecting on years of workouts, practices and games. Family and friends filling the stands. It’s players slipping the purple jerseys over their pads one last time. A ceremony before the game, where tears will likely be shed.
It’s running out of the tunnel to "Purple Haze" one last time. It’s singing the alma mater one last time in front of the boneyard. It’s the senior night game at East Carolina University’s Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
“It’s not just another game. It is Senior Day and it is bigger than anything else," head coach Scottie Montgomery said after practice Tuesday. "It’s Senior Day. Our guys understand it. We broke it down on the seniors just now as we left. It’s a huge, huge deal because of everything seniors have to endure and come through.”
Many of the seniors had to go through the firing of a beloved coach and subsequent 3-9 seasons under the new regime which has led to the ousting of an athletic director and fan attendance.
What all those circumstances left are players who have fully given it all to the ECU Pirates. Graduate transfers and schools closer to home provided players with temptation to leave the hardship at ECU.
"We take a lot of pride because of all the stuff we’ve been through," said senior offensive lineman and captain Garrett McGhin, who could have transferred this year as a graduate and played immediately elsewhere. “There’s a lot of guys that could have abandoned ship when things didn’t go their way. They didn’t. And a lot of things haven’t gone our way in multiple aspects.”
McGhin is the emotional leader of the Pirates, someone who cares about ECU. McGhin sat down in front of reporters after ECU’s loss to Memphis and said he wasn’t worried about playing for Montgomery’s job. Instead he spoke from the heart about wanting to build up his legacy and the legacy of the university.
“I wouldn’t be the man I am today without this university,” McGhin said.
McGhin is also someone who cares about his teammates. As a University of Central Florida defender ran the ball back for a touchdown, ECU’s freshman quarterback Holton Ahlers laid on the ground after the ball slipped from his hand, causing the fumble the Knights would score on.
McGhin would come by and lift his young quarterback up and walk off the field right by his side.
McGhin also mentioned some of his favorite games were the debuts of fellow offensive linemen sophomore John Spellacy and freshman Peyton Winstead.
“A lot of guys in that locker room take a lot of pride in wearing the purple and gold. Pirate Nation is very special. I really hope Pirate Nation comes out and shows out for these seniors that have given so much to this university and to this program,” McGhin said. “I can truly say from the bottom of my heart that there are some seniors in there that have literally given everything they have.”
Senior wide receiver Trevon Brown finds his own ways to show leadership. In a season where many of the Pirates opening week starters have missed games due to injury, Brown has not missed a game all season. Not a single practice nor a single snap.
That’s what causes Montgomery to praise the way Brown leads by example. Not only has Brown been available every day for his teammates, but he’s also beginning to play his best football of the season going into senior night.
Brown has four consecutive games of 100 or more receiving yards, totaling 999 yards on the season and eight touchdowns. Brown has established a great connection with Ahlers and Brown’s hot streak slightly coincided with Ahlers taking over as the starting quarterback.
Brown follows a lineage of successful wide receivers to come from ECU, which includes Dwayne Harris (2007-2010), Justin Hardy (2011-2014) and Zay Jones (2013-2016). Brown leaned most on the older receivers when he first came to ECU, receivers such as Jones, Quay Johnson and Jimmy Williams.
“It’s bittersweet, I never thought this day would come,” Brown said. “It feels like yesterday I was a freshman like Holton (Ahlers) coming out here bringing a spark to the team. Now it’s like I am the older guy and this is gonna be my last home game so it means everything.”
On the defensive side of the ball the Pirates are saying goodbye to a few seniors who have been instrumental to the complete turnaround of the defense from 2017 to 2018. Last season the Pirates finished at the bottom in defense, but this season it has improved dramatically.
First-year defensive coordinator David Blackwell said he “couldn’t say enough” about the defense and commended the group’s adapting through different defensive coordinators and its hard work especially.
Defensive end Nate Harvey’s journey to senior night has been an interesting one, but is the epitome of that hard work. Harvey came to ECU from Georgia Military College and started out as a running back buried in the team’s depth chart. Harvey played on special teams and recorded 12 tackles as a junior.
Harvey made the switch to defense this offseason and began spring practices as a linebacker before being moved to defensive end. Harvey had stand-out performances in the spring scrimmage and Purple-Gold game before earning the starting role in the fall.
Harvey is in the unique situation in that it isn’t a guarantee this will be his senior night. ECU is working on getting Harvey an extra year of eligibility with the NCAA, due to him only playing 12 snaps his freshman year. Harvey will be honored Saturday as a senior, but both he and ECU hope he gets a second senior night a year from now.
"I treat it as my senior day because it's not guaranteed," Harvey said. "I want to play every game like it's my last. But hopefully I do get my year back, so I can come back for one more run."
Linebacker and team captain Cannon Gibbs spent the last two seasons at ECU after transferring from Jones Junior College. Gibbs has recorded 33 tackles this season.
Gibbs said the cliché of Senior Night being bittersweet is accurate. Gibbs parents will be in town to watch their son’s final game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, adding to his excitement.
“I'm excited. Last go-around in Dowdy-Ficklen, just playing with my brothers here in Greenville, Pirate Nation, it's definitely going to be emotional,” Gibbs said. “We've worked hard to get up to this point as a unit and it's just me being a senior captain and leader, and as a defensive member of this team, I'm excited to play here and perform at a high level and get this W in this last game in Dowdy-Ficklen."
All the different journeys have brought each player to the same point. The same senior night game Montgomery admitted there is nothing else like.
While older players from more successful ECU football days handed it down to the current seniors, such as Jones to Brown, these players are making an impression on the younger impact Pirates.
So after the ceremony, possible tears, running out of the tunnel and everything else, the Pirates hope the seniors can sing the alma mater to the boneyard one last time as victors.