Florida A&M wasn’t supposed to be competitive against North Carolina.
Not an HBCU on the road versus a Power 5 school.
And especially not against a Power 5 school down 20 players, including reigning Buck Buchanan Award winner Isaiah Land amid eligibility and compliance issues.
Midway through the fourth quarter, UNC had clearly established itself as the better, deeper team.
But on Saturday night, the Rattlers proved to be the team with the most grit and heart.
After a 24-hour period when there was a question about whether the Week 0 matchup with the Tar Heels would even be played, Florida A&M — a 45-point betting line underdog — hung with UNC for three quarters in a valiant 56-24 loss at Kenan Memorial Stadium.
“I can’t speak enough to the character and resolve of this football team,” said Simmons after the game. “This is a special group of guys. We proved we belonged tonight. We opened some eyeballs. I am so honored and overwhelmed to be able to lead this group of men.”
The star of this night were all the Rattlers who voted to travel to North Carolina despite all the adversity and uncertainty surrounding the program.
The pregame celebratory words of encouragement about how proud and courageous the players seemed tone-deaf and misplaced considering the circumstance of the moment.
What the Rattlers lacked in roster size, the group made up for it in performance, especially graduate transfer Jeremy Moussa, who went 28-for-38 for 279 yards and two touchdown passes in his first-ever Division I start. Xavier Smith, the SWAC All-American, caught 10 passes for 78 yards. Trevonte Davis and Darian Oxendine made tough catches on third and fourth down to keep drives alive in the first half.
One of the poignant images of the night was running back Jaylen McCloud battering his way into the end zone for a 5-yard TD helped by the push of an offensive line that was only seven deep and later lost two to injury during the course of the game.
“I’m extremely proud of the offense tonight and the young guys on the offensive line,” said Moussa. “I’ve always prepared as if I’m the starter and I feel like I showed that preparation tonight.”
The outcome was ultimately secondary to the larger situation that hovered over the Florida A&M program leading into Saturday and will certainly impact the team to some degree moving forward.
For 60 minutes, the Rattlers — according to its slogan — left no doubt about its competitive spirit.