Willie Simmons has fond memories of his last trip to Kenan Memorial Stadium.
It was Oct. 21, 2000. Simmons, then 20, was the backup quarterback for fifth-ranked Clemson against underdog North Carolina.
The freshman’s job that night was to sit and watch preseason Heisman candidate Woodrow Dantzler “destroy the competition and do miraculous things” while “enjoying the seat on the sidelines.”
But the favored Tigers fell behind 17-0. To make matters worse, Dantzler was knocked out of the game midway through the first half with an injury.
That meant Simmons, who hadn’t done very much at that point, was summoned into action.
“Coach (Rich) Rodriguez gets on the headset and says, ‘Are you ready for this?'” Simmons, the Florida A&M coach, recalled.
Simmons’ first pass that night was a self-described “wobbling duck” to start that initial drive
The next tosses were anything but, however. Simmons threw a touchdown pass to wide receiver Jackie Robinson — his first as a college quarterback.
It would only get better for Simmons as he went 10-of-18 for 228 yards and then threw what was a school record four TD passes in a 37-24 win over the Tar Heels.
“That game really kind of put my name on the map as a freshman quarterback,” Simmons told the Tallahassee Democrat. “I was the national freshman of the week and I maintained our undefeated national ranking. It was a great memory and a great opportunity to play the game I love.”
On Saturday, Simmons will return to Chapel Hill for the first time since that magical night 22 years ago to lead the Rattlers against the favored North Carolina on Saturday night.
While the trip will be a nostalgic one to a degree for Simmons, he is mindful that a game needs to be played, too.
“I will have nostalgia only for a second,” he said. “And that will probably last about a second. And then at that point, we will focus on what we need to do in 2022. But is great to start the football season in a place where one of my fondest football memories happened.”
Here is Willie Simmons in action against North Carolina