When UNC-Charlotte officially kicks off its first-ever football season on Saturday, four former prep standouts with Catawba County ties will be a part of the history.
Football players Matt Johnson (Maiden), Zach Bumgarner (St. Stephens) and Tanner Fleming (Fred T. Foard) will suit for the 49ers in their inaugural football game on Saturday in Charlotte against Campbell at noon.
Former Bandys High and Wake Forest University football standout Matt Woodlief will also be involved.
Woodlief is serving on the staff of 49ers head coach Brad Lambert as a graduate assistant.
The experience of playing with former high school rivals is an interesting one for Johnson.
“It’s pretty cool when they got to come here and we all got to be together,” Johnson said. “We aren’t meeting complete strangers. We played against each other and have that element of competition. We get to play side-by-side. We hang out a lot. Tanner is with us all the time. He is the newest member of the squad. We try to keep that bond. When we go home, we’ll drive each other.”
Bumgarner, a 6-foot-4, 245-pound offensive lineman, said respect between the three former Catawba County football players from their prep playing days has helped develop a special camaraderie.
“I think once you play against someone, you have an appreciation for their talent,” he said. “Matt and Tanner are two guys I’m happy to be playing with because they were hard to stop in high school. If you have to compete and prepare for someone every Friday in high school then get to play with them every Saturday in college, that is pretty cool.”
The 6-foot-2, 275-pound Fleming, who arrived late into the 49ers’ program this summer after transferring from the Air Force Academy, is thankful to Johnson and Bumgarner for helping him get acclimated.
“The most important thing they have done is pull me into their friendship and into their lives,” he said. “Off of the field, it has been great getting to know them and some of the other guys we hang out with. That all translates back on to the field. We all work together and have each other’s backs — from Friday nights now to Saturday games. It’s just been a pretty good experience.”
Johnson said he and Bumgarner have learned a lot from Fleming, as well.
“Tanner is the only one of us who has been to college and played,” he said. “He gives us the side of things we don’t know, which is the game day experience of going, dressing out and being on the field. Me and Zach are really learning about that. We’re having to do things differently than any other school in the nation, except for a couple. It’s an exciting thing. I feel like we are all responding to it well and helping each other through it.”
After playing four years with the Demon Deacons, Woodlief has tried to give Johnson, Bumgarner and Fleming as much advice from the college atmosphere as he could.
“I’ve told them to keep their head on straight,” Woodlief said. “If you can get your academics taken care of, football will fall into its place. They’ve taken that into consideration. They are seeing how college life and football life works right now. They are going to see a lot more once we play against Campbell. They’ll see how to travel and when academics and football combine. It is going to be a real test for them this year. I just tell them to stay focused, keep their head straight and everything will be alright.”
Lambert has been impressed with all three young men so far in the 49ers’ new program.
“One of the great things about football is it brings people from all walks of life to formulate one team to try to be successful and attain a goal,” Lambert said. “Those guys are close. They really have bonded with other guys on the team, like guys from South Carolina or wherever. At the core, they are just really good people. You can’t have enough of those guys on your team.”
As for what Saturday will be like, Bumgarner said the experience for all three athletes will be ‘once in a lifetime.’
“It’s definitely going to be something we’ll never forget,” he said. “I think that is the cool thing for us. We’ll get to take that memory back with us to Catawba County. Maybe we’ll all end up in Catawba County, not spread out as far and always have those roots. It will make that memory even more special for us.”