NCCU’s Ryan Smith drafted by Tampa Bay

When his phone rang early Saturday afternoon, former NCCU cornerback Ryan Smith wasn’t sure what he’d hear on the other end of the line.

A NFL prospect with a rising stock, Smith had heard from plenty of teams over the first three days of the NFL draft, but none of them were offering him spots on their squads quite yet.

“The Browns called me this morning before the draft even started to say they hope they could get me,” Smith said on a video conference. “I’ve been getting a lot of those phone calls.”

So when Tampa Bay called him early in the fourth round, Smith wasn’t sure what they had to say.

But the Buccaneers weren’t calling to talk about the possibility of acquiring the 5-foot-11 Maryland native in future rounds — they wanted him now.

“When they said, ‘Ryan, we’re going to make you a Buc, my heart dropped.’ I just, I don’t know what I did,” said Smith, who graduated from NCCU in December. “It was amazing.”

With the 10th pick in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL draft, Smith became the 42nd NCCU player to be selected in the NFL draft, and only the second in the last 25 years after Greg Peterson was also selected by Tampa Bay in 2007.

Earlier in the draft, Tampa Bay picked up another cornerback with first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves.

Smith was the second MEAC player taken in the 2016 NFL draft after South Carolina State defensive tackle Javon Hargrave was selected by Pittsburgh in the third round.

Since attending the NFL draft combine in February, Smith’s draft stock continued to rise. More than 20 NFL scouts attended NCCU’s pro day in March and he attended at least five private team workouts, including one visit with Tampa Bay.

After he didn’t hear his name called in the first two rounds, Smith woke up Saturday morning frustrated and disappointed.

“I woke up crying and got on my hands and knees and started praying,” Smith said. “I felt that frustration yesterday. I really thought I was going and I was disappointed. I’m only human so I really felt that. I kept the faith and when my name got called early fourth round, (my mom) just started crying. She was hugging me for five minutes. Really embraced the moment.”

Growing up as a basketball addict, Smith never had dreams of playing in the NFL. But thanks in part to genetics and his mother’s insistence that he play football with his younger brother Tre, Smith eventually gave up his basketball dreams in favor of the gridiron.

“I wanted to play basketball,” he said. It was just my love, but as you get older, I’m not that tall. I’m only 6 feet. I didn’t have a big chance to play basketball so football took over, and I loved everything about it.”

Because he only played one year of varsity football, Smith wasn’t highly recruited out of high school, and N.C. Central was the only school that offered him any scholarship money. But once he got to Durham, Smith turned a partial scholarship into a full ride and became one of the most prolific defensive backs in school history.

Over the course of his career, Smith moved from safety to cornerback and finished with a school record 168 solo tackles in his four-year career. He was also one of the team’s best kick returners averaging 28.1 yards per kickoff return in in his senior season.

Smith’s versatility made him an attractive prospect for the Bucs, who said he would start working out as a safety once he arrives in Tampa Bay next week.

“They’re big on special teams,” Smith said. “They like my quickness, my burst and my attitude on the field. When I talked to them today, they said they were going to start me at safety. It’s no big deal … I’ve played safety before, it’s nothing new. They asked me how I could return and help special teams, I did that as well in college. I’m going to do what I have to do. I’m going to get right for real.”

Playing at a smaller school meant Smith wasn’t often in the national spotlight, and he was fairly unknown entering the NFL combine. But through hard work and determination, he was able to impress scouts and earn that draft day phone call.

“Nobody knew about North Carolina Central — I didn’t when I came out of high school,” Smith said. “But look what found me. If you make some noise, they’re going to find you no matter where you go. It’s going to be some doubts and you’ve got to work your way up through that, but that’s life. People are going to doubt you, but just stay positive and work and people are going to find you. Dreams do come true.

Bulls’ Snell recalls blur of MLB debut

DURHAM — Blake Snell remembers last weekend in snapshots.

For two days, his life was a blur.

First, there was a phone call from Durham Bulls manager Jared Sandberg, summoning him to the lobby of their hotel in Norfolk, Va. to tell the 23-year-old southpaw that he was moving up to the big leagues for a spot start the next day in New York.

Within two hours, Snell was packed and headed to the airport. He remembers flying into LaGuardia and sitting in an Uber for an hour as it crawled through the boroughs to Yankee Stadium.

And then? Snell isn’t quite sure.

His memory is full of flashes; of the Rays players in the clubhouse, of manager Kevin Cash on the field, of playing catch before the game.

“It all just went so fast,” Snell said. “It doesn’t even feel like it happened to be honest.”

That’s when his family and friends took over, supplementing his memory by snapping pictures to constantly document the Seattle native’s first trip to the big leagues and the Big Apple.

“I just told them, just take a bunch of pictures because I don’t want to do it,” Snell said. “I’m gonna be pretty busy. So they did all of that and then at the end I got them all. It was pretty cool to see how many pictures I had and what I enjoyed. I’ll never forget it.”

Snell got an extra day’s rest before making his major league debut against the Yankees, putting together a dazzling five-inning performance that included a strikeout of his childhood idol, Alex Rodriguez. That moment flashes in and out of his mind too, but a family member managed to capture the moment forever.

“One of my friends had [a photo] when I struck out A-Rod, a photo of him when he was turned around and looking and arguing about it,” said Snell, who struck out six and only allowed one run on two hits in his MLB debut. “It’ll probably go somewhere in my house. Growing up, I was like ‘A-Rod is a god.’ I always thought he was the best player in the world. So I when I got to face him, I was like, ‘This is crazy.’

“It’s at the back end of his career, he’s not like in his prime, but he’s still a god. I’m gonna say that. It was really cool to see, to be able to do that and face him.”

And then, as soon as the weekend transpired, it was over, and Snell rejoined his Triple-A club in Durham.

The trip to the big leagues was a relief, a weight lifted off of the organization’s top pitching prospect. Now, he’s just focused on getting back in the groove with his first start since rejoining the team earlier this week. In Friday’s loss, Snell pitched 5 1/3 innings, giving up four runs on four hits while striking out six. But with any luck, he’ll be back in the majors soon enough, with a little more time to document his achievement.

“Hopefully it helps him relax a little bit because he’s not be wondering when he’s going to get called up or anything like that,” Sandberg said. “He got called up, and now he’s back here. His time is definitely coming. The way he pitched up there, his time is coming.

Wolfpack duo reunited by Patriots in third round of 2016 NFL draft

For the last two seasons, Jacoby Brissett has lined up alongside Joe Thuney in Carter-Finley Stadium. On Friday night, NC State’s offensive duo went their separate ways when Thuney was selected by the New England Patriots.

That lasted about 40 minutes.

Thuney was taken with the 78th overall pick in the third round at 10:17 p.m. Brissett, projected to go in the sixth round by CBS Sports, was nabbed by the Patriots with the 91st overall pick in the third round at 10:56 p.m.

“No way, that’s awesome!” Thuney told media following the news that Brissett was also picked by the Pats. “Couldn’t be happier for him.”

It couldn’t be a more perfect situation for Thuney. The versatile offensive lineman played any position the NC State coaching staff asked him to during his time in Raleigh. Thuney noted that he “embraced it” when coaches texted him about slotting at a different position each week.

Blessed with great athleticism, Thuney doesn’t quite possess the typical size to play on the outside. Also blessed with high intelligence – he graduated after his junior year at State – Thuney knows his worth. “I think I see myself more as an interior guy, more of a guard or center,” he said.

Thuney also became the first offensive lineman drafted in the first round from NC State since Chris Colmer in 2005. Colmer was taken 91st overall to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, playing two seasons in the NFL before being cut in 2007. He passed away on December 28, 2010.

Not only was Thuney the first player from NC State selected in the draft, he was also the first from a North Carolina school. Despite having a second-to-third round projection, Jeremy Cash was not selected in the first three rounds of the draft.

Thirteen picks later, Brissett became the second NC player selected.

Similar to Thuney, Brissett carried a sixth-round projection, but was snatched by the Patriots just before the second night concluded. Brissett joins Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson and Mike Glennon as NC State quarterbacks currently on an NFL roster.

Brissett transferred from Florida to State, sitting out the 2013 season before winning the starting job in 2014. His first year in Raleigh opened eyes, but his second saw him set career-bests in 2015 with 237 completions and 2,662 passing yards.

“He’s a guy that’s hit or miss for me,” ESPN analyst Mel Kiper said about Brissett. “He’s got the size and he’s got the arm. But in some of those games that I watched, there’s something missing that bothered me a bit.”

The fit makes sense for both Thuney and Brissett with New England.

Sebastian Vollmer is a free agent after this season and Nate Solder after the 2017 season, making the need for a tackle very real in the near future. As for Brissett, he will have a chance to battle Jimmy Garoppolo for the starting nod in the season opener with Tom Brady suspended for the first four games.

As for the future, Brissett now knows he has at least one lineman he can rely on. According to Pro Football Focus, Thuney allowed just two sacks, one QB hit and four hurries last season. With his versatility and Brissett’s size, the Patriots have two Pack prospects at positions of need in the years to come.

Panthers add another ‘hog molly’ in first round

The Carolina Panthers added to their defense in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, but not at the position everyone expected.

The Panthers lost Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman to free agency after taking the franchise tag off of him a week earlier.

General manager Dave Gettleman, didn’t attempt to replace Norman in the first round. Instead of adding a defensive back, the Panthers drafted defensive tackle Vernon Butler of Louisiana Tech.


Butler is the highest drafted Louisiana Tech player since 1999, when receiver Troy Edwards went to the Steelers at 13. He’s a 6-4, 323-pounder with a seven-foot wingspan.

Butler is one of the most versatile defensive linemen in this year’s Draft. He can play both inside spots and also played end in college. He made first-team All CUSA and was on the watch lists for the Lombardi Award and Outland Trophy.

Despite playing outside the Power Five conferences in college, Butler was a highly sought-after recruit. He turned down offers from Ole Miss and Mississippi State to attend Louisiana Tech.

It was a surprise that Butler fell to the Panthers in the 30th position. He told the Detroit Free Press that the Lions had promised him they’d choose him if he was still available when they picked at 16. Instead, Detroit took offensive tackle Taylor Decker.

“We’re really kind of shocked he was there,” Gettleman said. “Reminds me of my first draft, when Star fell. The kid is really talented. I’m not sure why he fell.”

Plenty of other teams were interested in taking the Panthers’ spot. Gettleman said he received calls from seven teams looking to trade into the spot.

“We had a bunch of teams calling us,” Gettleman said, “but the value was too good. This kid is big. He’s powerful. He’s athletic. He’s got all the stuff.”


On the surface, the pick appears to be a case of the Panthers ignoring needs and adding to a position that already has two established starters. Gettleman’s first two draft picks as Panthers GM were Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short.

However, dating back to his days with the Giants, Gettleman has been a proponent of improving the secondary by adding to the front seven. Putting more pressure on the opposing quarterback helps relieve pressure on the defensive backfield, Gettleman believes.

“It makes people on the back end better,” Gettleman said prior to the draft, when asked about improving the defensive line. “I’ve been with teams that have big-time fronts and seen the value of that.”

Butler will join the Panthers’ rotation on the interior of the defensive line, spelling Lotulelei and Short. He’ll likely replace free agent Dwan Edwards, who, along with Kyle Love, were the top reserves at defensive tackle for the Panthers last season.

With Lotulelei and Short approaching free agency, Butler could also be an insurance policy, just in case negotiations on extensions for the 2013 draftees fall through.

Butler said his specialty is stopping the run, but “I’m looking to make plays in the backfield every time I get out of my stance.” He had 10 tackles for loss and a career-best four sacks as a senior last year.

“This kind of potential and ability for growth, you get excited about,” coach Ron Rivera said. “He can be a guy who can impact from the inside, and the quickest way to the quarterback is through the A (inside) gaps.”


B — The Panthers had bigger needs than defensive tackle depth, but teams generally don’t go wrong choosing the best player available. It’s tough to argue that Butler was that. Gettleman said he was the top player on the team’s draft board.

The Panthers will address other needs in later rounds —  Gettleman all but promised that the team would draft a corner before the weekend was over. In the meantime, they added another “hog molly” to one of the league’s stiffest front lines.

Skins snag WR Josh Doctson in first round of 2016 NFL Draft

There is absolutely no predicting the NFL Draft.  The Redskins entered Thursday night with an impressive wide receiving corps, highlighted by Desean Jackson and Pierre Garcon.

So with the 21st overall pick, Washington selected TCU wide receiver Josh Doctson, arguably the best pass catcher in the draft. It was a move that didn’t address an immediate need, but instead, ensured that the Skins’ were set at the position for the foreseeable future.


At 6-foot-2, 202 pounds, Doctson earns his paycheck by going up and hauling in the football. He isn’t overly fast, but overcompensates with sure hands and an obvious grit.

Doctson made the transfer to TCU after a freshman stint in Wyoming, snagging 179 passes for 2,784 yards and 29 touchdowns during the three-year span as a Horned Frog. His senior season was especially impressive, racking up 1,326 yards and 14 touchdowns.

“He’s got height,” Skins head coach Jay Gruden said. “He’s got the mad leaping skills which are very appealing, especially in the red zone. He’s another guy that’s going to bring athleticism to this offense, and we’re excited to have him.”

After Corey Coleman and Laquon Treadwell came off the board prior to Washington’s pick, Doctson was the best receiver left. Thanks to his raw physical skills and an already deep wideout depth chart, the Skins have a player they can develop over the next several years.


An outsider may argue Washington had bigger needs, and that’s true. But both Garcon and Jackson are playing in the final years of their respective contracts. Garcon has a $10.2 million cap hit in 2016 while Jackson eats another $9.25 million.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Skins part ways with one of the two before the start of the season, especially considering Doctson emulates Garcon in many ways. He’s just younger and faster.

Redskins general manager Scot McCloughan has already earned the trust of he Washington fan base, not overly difficult considering the team’s history of terrible misses in the draft. This year’s class is laden with starting caliber defensive tackles, so the second-year decision maker grabbed the best player available with plans to address glaring needs a bit later.

The decision was a lot more about the long-term stability of the wide reciever position, and a lot less about throwing Doctson into the fire right away.

Washington veteran defensive back Deangelo Hall tweeted, “you can never have too many pass catchers,” after the Skins made the pick. Jay Gruden’s offense thrives through the air, making Doctson a solid choice.


B+ — It was bold, but justified. When the Skins find some defensive contributions in later rounds, McCloughan will continue prove to be Daniel Snyder’s best offseason addition in nearly a decade.

After adding Josh Norman the week before, the Redskins now have veterans all over the field to compete in the NFC East. Snatching up Doctson means they also have young talent offensively to grow with Kirk Cousins and thrive in the East for years to come.

Marvin Williams returns to form, Hornets take 3-2 series lead

The power of the 3-pointer knows no bounds. In Game 5 of a hotly contested first round series between the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat, the NBA’s newfound discovery of this calculus was on full display. Miami outscored Charlotte in the paint (48 to 34), on second chance points (12 to 5) and in transition (13 to just 4). The Heat also attempted and made more free throws. But it wasn’t enough to overcome Charlotte’s decisive advantage from beyond the arc, which was the catalyst for Hornets prevailing 90-88 on the road in a thrilling game down in South Beach.

The Hornets were able to win two off the first four games of this series despite being unable to find their footing from deep. That, however, changed in spectacular fashion Wednesday night. Charlotte splashed 12 of their 24 three-point field goals (Miami was 5 of 18), and that’s why this series is headed back to North Carolina with the Hornets up 3-2, and having a chance to close it out Friday night in Uptown.

In the first four games of the series, Marvin Williams struggled: he shot just 19.4 percent from the field, and connected on only two 3-pointers. Charlotte won two of those contests, but Steve Clifford needed his power forward to get going, and Williams answered the bell. The former Tar Heel connected on three of his four 3s, and led the Hornets with 17 points, including a courageous three-ball with 3:07 left in regulation that gave Charlotte an 85-84 lead.

That shot came as the result of a beautifully-designed out of timeout play. Kemba Walker, who suffered another off night shooting (4 of 18), headed up the court, and initiated pick-and-roll action with Cody Zeller. As Walker dribbled to his strong right hand off the screen, Zeller set a pin-down screen to free Williams — defended closely by Luol Deng — at the top of the key for a relatively open look. Bang, three points. According to, that shot improved Charlotte’s win probability by 16.6 percent.

While it was nice to have Williams hooping on the offensive end, for the second straight game, Charlotte received some unexpected contributions from backup center Spencer Hawes. The man who rocks a man bun played nearly 15 minutes Wednesday night, and in that time, Miami scored a lowly .51 points per possession.

Hawes wasn’t the only Hornet who dug in defensively, though. The Heat scored .90 points per possessions last night — a number that would better San Antonio’s historically great defense. Zeller, for the third straight game, was phenomenal on the defensive end; Al Jefferson has held his own at times against Miami’s Hassan Whiteside, but Zeller’s strong two-way play is a necessity. On plays at the rim defended by Hawes and Zeller, the Heat shot just 2 for 9 (22.2 percent).

Nicolas Batum, who missed Games 3 and 4 while nursing injuries to his foot and ankle, returned. For the first time all season, Batum came off the bench — Clifford once again started a big frontline, including rookie Frank Kaminsky. Batum looked incredibly gimpy throughout the game, especially in the first half, but he made several high-leverage plays for Charlotte, including assists on back-to-back possessions in the third quarter — one to Jefferson, one to Zeller.

Again, Batum doesn’t appear to be that close to 100 percent, but he hit two just massive 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, and he was a part of Charlotte’s best lineup that played more than 3 minutes together last night. Batum-Walker-Hawes-Zeller-Jeremy Lin posted a net rating of 34 points per 100 possessions during 8 minutes of action, per

Lin was heroic for Charlotte in Game 5, too. He couldn’t find his shot, but his playmaking was critical — handing out a team-high seven assists. Miami, however, did punish Charlotte at times when Lin was matched up with a bigger guard — in particular, Dwyane Wade.

This was as close to a vintage D-Wade performance as you’re going to get in 2016. Wade bullied his way into 25 points, and was wildly efficient near the rim: 7 for 10 around the basket. Wade got his — and dished out four assists — but Charlotte made him work for his production. The Hornets, in classic Clifford fashion — congested the paint and forced a bunch of turnovers, including five from D-Wade.

Charlotte’s best defender of Wade this series has been Courtney Lee. Since his arrival at the trade deadline from Memphis, Lee’s been a steadying force on this roster: a low-usage wing, who can defend three positions, run the occasional pick-and-roll, but mostly spot up for catch-and-shoot 3s. He also made the play of the game last night, too.

With around 30 seconds remaining in the game — Heat up 88-87 — Kemba drove into the lane off a Zeller screen. He was corralled by Whiteside and forced into a difficult pull-up two. Walker missed, but what happened next would determine the game: as the ball caromed off the rim towards Miami’s Joe Johnson, Lee — who was stationed in the corner — sprinted towards the rock. Lee snatched the free money, dished to Lin, who gave it right back to Lee. With 25.4 seconds remaining, Lee rose up and buried a 25-foot game-winning 3-pointer.

It took Charlotte 14 years to win a playoff game; they’ve now won three straight, and have Miami on the verge of elimination. Game 6 will take place Friday night. The Hornets would be wise to finish this off on their home floor — where they’ve gone 32-11 this season — and not risk a potential Game 7 back in Miami.

NCAA announces discrimination-free process for college championship sites

The sports world continues to react to House Bill 2 in North Carolina, with the NCAA now asking each regional site to provide a discrimination-free zone for the NCAA Tournament and other championships. This directly affects Greensboro and Charlotte, which are set to be regional hosts in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

“The higher education community is a diverse mix of people from different racial, ethnic, religious and sexual orientation backgrounds,” NCAA board chairman and Kansas State president Kirk Schulz said in a statement. “So it is important that we assure that (the) community – including our student-athletes and fans – will always enjoy the experience of competing and watching at NCAA championships without concerns of discrimination.”

The announcement comes as a response not only to HB2 getting passed in North Carolina, but a Mississippi law that allows government workers, religious groups and some private businesses to deny services to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people due to religious beliefs that takes effect on July 1.

Since 2001, the NCAA has banned cities that fly the Confederate battle flag or use “abusive or offensive” Native American imagery or mascots from hosting regionals.

Along with the statement from Schulz, the NCAA also said it will require sites to provide “an environment that is safe, healthy and free of discrimination.” The NCAA Board of Governors adopted an anti-discrimination measure earlier in the day at a meeting in Indianapolis.

North Carolina has hosted an NCAA Tournament game 13 times in the last 16 years, but HB2 might mar those numbers. If Greensboro and Charlotte are  stripped of their chance to host March Madness, it would be just the latest major event to depart from NC.

National backlash is nothing new to North Carolina with businesses straying from the state and musicians from Nick Jonas to Bruce Springsteen canceling shows. The NBA has also said the 2017 All-Star Game could be removed from Charlotte, citing “problematic” aspects of HB2 .

Losing the NCAA Tournament would mean huge monetary losses for Greensboro. The 2014 tournament games in Raleigh brought in an estimated $4.2 million generated and 17,720 visitors. Formerly known as “Tournament Town” as ACC Tournament host five times from 2010-2015, the ACC will not return to Greensboro Coliseum again until 2020. If the NCAA Tournament leaves due to discrimination laws would be a huge blow to the city and state.

Given the fact that both Duke and North Carolina have typically played close to home during the opening rounds, not having a host site in the state would hurt both schools. UNC played at PNC Arena in Raleigh during the first and second rounds this year and Duke is expected to compete for a top-two seed, potentially landing in Greensboro, in 2017.

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Bacon-wrapped baseball at the Bosh

CHAPEL HILL — Did you hear the one about the vegetarian who went to Bacon Night?

He won a year’s supply of bacon.

No, seriously.

Freshman Quinn Rhodes went to UNC baseball’s second annual bacon night promotion Tuesday night with his friends, and despite being a lifelong vegetarian, he entered a drawing for a chance to bring home the bacon for a full year just for kicks.

By pure ironic happenstance, his name was one of two pulled out of the pot for a chance to race around the Boshamer Stadium bases at the end of the fourth inning for the rights to bacon and bragging rights.

But before he and fellow contestant James “Jammin’” Altman could start sprinting, they had to don bacon costumes, which happened to just be laying around the stadium after the breakfast for dinner promotion a week earlier.

Quick reminder: That’s a vegetarian. In a bacon costume. Running his heart out for a year’s supply of free bacon that he won’t eat.

UNC freshman Quinn Rhodes races around the bases to try to win a year's supply of bacon from Smithfield Foods during the UNC vs UNC Wilmington baseball game at Bryson Field on Tuesday, April 26, 2016. Rhodes, who is a vegetarian, won the race and said that he would give the bacon to his friends. (Madeline Gray/North State Journal)
UNC freshman Quinn Rhodes races around the bases to try to win a year’s supply of bacon from Smithfield Foods during the UNC vs UNC Wilmington baseball game at Bryson Field on Tuesday, April 26, 2016. Rhodes, who is a vegetarian, won the race and said that he would give the bacon to his friends. (Madeline Gray/North State Journal)

And to top it all off, he won the dang thing in a near photo finish.

“I just came with my friends because they were excited about the bacon,” he said, still trying to catch his breath afterwards. “So I’ll be sure to use this on them.”

Another lucky fan at UNC’s 10-9 win against UNC-Wilmington also won a year’s supply of bacon — no exercise required — through an old-school raffle draw. He grabbed his book of Smithfield bacon worth more than $350 and dashed (probably to the nearest grocery store).

Along with the year of bacon giveaway, Smithfield donated 200 pounds of bacon to the promotion night, and with it, UNC went hog wild.

Bacon-wrapped grilled cheese. Bacon-wrapped corn dogs. Bacon tots. Bacon Cheeseburgers. BLTs. Swiss cheese and bacon on sourdough. Everything single thing you could ever want with bacon.

I thought about sampling every time on the menu in the name of journalism, but in the name of my arteries (and my wallet), I settled for the free bacon-wrapped grilled cheese being distributed to the first 400 UNC students through the gates, or really anyone who wandered up to the tent — like me.

I saw a picture of it on Twitter before arriving, and when I got my hands on the real one, I was initially a little let down. The sandwich, well, really only half a sandwich was distributed from a cooler in Chick-fil-A esque sandwich bags. Not nearly as glamorous as I’d hoped such a dish would be. Would the bread be soggy? Would it be good cold? How long had it been sitting here anyway?

But when I took my first bite all of my doubt and disappointment was erased.

The bacon was savory and soft without being too fatty and the cheese melted into the bread, which adhered it to the bacon, making it the perfect amalgamation.

Resisting the urge to finish the sandwich in less than a minute used up nearly all of my self control for the month. It was pure bliss.

After I finished eating and maybe licked my fingers (a lady never tells), I stood, stunned for a minute and turned to a few people standing nearby with their sandwiches, discussing our shared religious experience in hushed tones.

It truly was something to behold. Peak America, celebrating the perfect wedding of its favorite pastimes — baseball and bacon.

Dansby Swanson finds new home with Mudcats in Braves system

ZEBULON, N.C. — Dansby Swanson has yet to play a full professional baseball season, but has already been traded to a new organization. Months after being taken No. 1 overall by the Diamondbacks in the 2015 MLB draft, the Marietta, Ga. native landed with his hometown team in Atlanta.

Currently working his way through the system, Swanson landed in Zebulon with the Carolina Mudcats. We sat down to speak with Swanson at Five County Stadium about being traded, dealing with an injury after being hit in the face by a baseball in a simulated game and dealing with heightened expectations.

North State Journal: Take me back to the moment you heard you were going to the Braves’ system. What that experience was like?

Dansby Swanson: I was out to dinner with my girlfriend and three officials for Nike, who were in town for the Winter Meetings. We were having fun at dinner and my phone started blowing up.

NSJ: So everyone knew before you?

Swanson: (Laughs) Yeah! I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t really know what to think about it in the beginning. Mad isn’t the right word, but I was just shocked. For about a week and a half I tried to just ignore it and didn’t really respond to anyone but my family. I tried to take the emotions out of it because, as I’m sure you know, when something emotional happens your decisions aren’t the best. I just wanted to look at it from a holistic perspective instead.

NSJ: Growing up as a Braves fan in Marietta, Ga., how great of an opportunity is it to be home?

Swanson: Being home is a good thing, but there are ups and downs about it. People don’t always see the negatives of it. From a playing standpoint, though, it’s a great opportunity. Whenever I’m able to wear that Braves across your chest, it’s a pretty unique feeling. I can’t wait for that moment.

NSJ: Which player did you grow up idolizing?

Swanson: Honestly, the player I grew up on was Nomar Garciaparra. I had this video called “Superstar Shortstops” I’d watch when I was young and he stood out to me. I wanted to be like him. There was just something about how he played that made me want to be a shortstop.

NSJ: Was that a VHS?

Swanson: Yes it was. (Laughs) Oh, yeah. And it was awesome.

NSJ: What was the process like coming back from being hit in the face by a baseball before your pro career ever started?

Swanson: Well, I got hit and I don’t remember much after it. I remember standing in the box with blood streaming down my face after being knocked out. I figured, “Oh, that’s not good.” But I’m just a stubborn prick, I guess, and told everyone to get me out of here. They kept telling me to lay down and I said, “No, seriously. I’m leaving.” The worst part wasn’t being hit in the face. The concussion was awful.

Short stop Dansby Swanson (7) bats during the Mudcats' game against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans on Friday, April 15, 2016 in Zebulon. (Madeline Gray/North State Journal)
Short stop Dansby Swanson (7) bats during the Mudcats’ game against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans on Friday, April 15, 2016 in Zebulon. (Madeline Gray/North State Journal)

NSJ: How much of a change is the partial facemask?

Swanson: You don’t even notice it really when you’re batting. Base running is actually kind of odd because there’s something in your face when you’re diving.

NSJ: What was the toughest part about getting back to the field?

Swanson: It was kind of how you expect as far as the physical aspect, but the mental part was different. There was really no fear factor for me, though, because I didn’t remember it. So that was probably a blessing in disguise because I know that’s tougher for other guys to get over.

NSJ: Being a basketball player in high school, when was the moment you decided to just play baseball?

Swanson: Going into my junior year [of high school], I was undecided whether or not I wanted to keep playing. Some people had convinced me that it was taking away from baseball, but I told my family that I had to play. Basketball is actually my favorite sport still to this day. I wish I was better at basketball like I am at baseball. But I guess that would have made the decision that much harder.

NSJ: What did you learn from being a multi-sport athlete?

Swanson: OK, this is going to be my moment to preach to all the young kids. (Laughs) So everybody thinks that if you specialize in a sport, you’re going to be so much better at it. That’s completely not true. Not in the least bit. Being able to compete in two different environments helped shape me.

I went to an all-black high school and learned so much about diversity and adversity. I was able to see different sides of the community because I played basketball. I know that I wouldn’t be who I am and where I’m at today because of basketball.

NSJ: You have the phrase “All Dai” stitched on your glove for Dai-Jon Parker. What was your relationship with him like in high school and college?

Swanson: I’ll never forget the first time we played together. He was by far better than everyone else. From that instance on, there was just an immediate respect factor between us. There was an unbreakable bond between us that was never really spoken of really.

He actually committed to play basketball at Vanderbilt before I committed to play baseball. So he kind of put Vandy on the radar for me. Then last year, right before the NCAA Tournament [baseball] started, he passed away in a boating accident. I just didn’t know how to react, but I’m grateful for the bond that we had.

NSJ: John Manuel of Baseball America called you “the best prospect for the Mudcats since Miguel Cabrera.” How big of an honor is that and what is it like to play with that type of pressure?

Swanson: Thanks, John. Really appreciate that. (Laughs) But seriously, that’s a tremendous honor. I don’t feel like I’m anywhere near Miguel Cabrera because of what he’s achieved. I mean, the man won the Triple Crown. That’s something that probably won’t be done again for a long time. He’s one of the best hitters of our generation, so that’s a huge honor.

Pressure? No, I think pressure to me is a self-created thing because you have doubt about your abilities. That pressure’s not there because I have confidence in myself and my teammates have confidence in me.

NSJ: How much talk was there in the offseason about a position change with Ozzie Albies [Braves’ No. 3 prospect] also battling for Atlanta’s starting shortstop position?

Swanson: There wasn’t really that much talk about it. Look, we’re both shortstops and we both want to play the position. All I can control is how I approach everything and my training. Every day I’m trying to prove myself and show that I deserve that role.

NSJ: What was the first purchase you made when you got that $6.5 million bonus on your rookie contract?

Swanson: Well, my first purchase was dinner at some really nice place in Arizona. Like, it was really nice. (Laughs) I don’t remember the name of it, though. My first substantial purchase, though, was a truck. A Ford Platinum.

Mudcats shortstop Dansby Swanson (7) jumps over Myrtle Beach Pelicans short stop Gleyber Torres (11) during the game on Friday, April 15, 2016 in Zebulon. (Madeline Gray/North State Journal)
Mudcats shortstop Dansby Swanson (7) jumps over Myrtle Beach Pelicans short stop Gleyber Torres (11) during the game on Friday, April 15, 2016 in Zebulon. (Madeline Gray/North State Journal)

NSJ: Your sister, Lindsey, gave you a Voodoo doll as a Christmas present at Vandy. Do you still have it here with you in Zebulon?

Swanson: No, I do not have it with me, unfortunately. It is somewhere in my house, but I forgot to bring it. It’s a little baby rhino with a message that said, “To keep you injury free and comfortable in your own skin.”

NSJ: What was the reasoning behind it?

Swanson: Well, first of all, my sister is like my best friend. Second of all, I had a rough freshman year at Vanderbilt as far as injuries go, so she got it for me kind of as a joke, but I kind of took it seriously.

NSJ: You haven’t always had the long locks. What made you start growing out the hair?

Swanson: Oh, God. (Laughs) So, my sophomore year I was rooming with Jared Miller, Adam Ravanelle and Carson Fulmer. They all had really long hair and they all kept telling me to grow it out. They said, “If you’re going to be in this room, you should grow out your hair.” It was just funny then, but it’s become a part of who I am now.

NSJ: So what’s the secret to it?

Swanson: People always think I do special stuff to my hair. I literally wake up, take a shower and put a hat on. That’s my life, man. I will not wash it with just Head & Shoulders or something like that. I can’t do that weak stuff.

NSJ: What was the biggest shock to the system being in the minors?

Swanson: I guess the biggest difference is that in college, every time we hit the field we expected to win. I went to a pretty successful college and we won a lot. Not that we don’t want to win here, but it’s obviously more about development at this level. You really have to get used to that.

NSJ: Tell me about your first Spring Training experience with the Braves.

Swanson: It was fun! Honestly, I think I stayed up there a lot longer than people thought. It was just good to be around older, veteran guys that have done all of this before. They were very unselfish and willing to help me be the best player I can be. It was cool to be able to pick their brains.

NSJ: So what are your overall expectations this season and moving forward?

Swanson: Honestly, just to be the best player I can be. I know it’s overused, but I take everything one day at a time and one moment at a time. Right now this interview is the most important thing to me. Then after that I prepare for the game, eat dinner and play baseball. That’s how I’ve learned to approach life. It seems to be working.

Linsanity and Kemba reign, Hornets even series at 2-2

Last week in NBA circles on Twitter, there was a lot of back and forth on who should win the Sixth Man of the Year award. The race was wide open, and you could’ve made a case for almost a dozen different dudes. If I had a vote, I would’ve cast it for Andre Iguodala; ultimately, Jamal Crawford of the Clippers won for a third time — just edging out Iggy.

During these discussions, however, there was little to no chatter about the Charlotte Hornet’s top sub, Jeremy Lin. The product of Harvard has been terrific during his first year with the franchise, and that continued Monday night in Charlotte, when Lin erupted for 21 points (on just 10 shots) in an 89-85 victory over Miami, which levels their first round affair at 2-2.

(Note: Lin finished 7th in voting for the honor, receiving one first place vote, courtesy of Sherman Hamilton of NBA TV Canada)

Once again, the Heat outplayed the Hornets in the first quarter. Luol Deng continued his one-man assault on these playoffs with 10 points in the opening frame; Deng constantly went at whichever Hornets big was tossed in his direction — Frank Kaminsky, Cody Zeller, whatever. Steve Clifford deployed the two traditional big men look again last night for the vast majority of the game, moving Marvin Williams to small forward. And for the second straight time, it worked.

Everything changed in a blink during the second quarter. Charlotte trailed Miami 26-19 after the opening period, but the Hornets bench helped lead a roaring charge back. Over the next 14 minutes and 33 seconds of game play, Charlotte ripped off a 38 to 13 run, culminating with an Al Jefferson layup that had Time Warner Cable Arena rocking. Charlotte led 57-40, which was their high-water mark.

Lin played a little over nine minutes in the second quarter; during that span, the Hornets scored 123.4 points per 100 possessions, and held the Heat to a meager 49.8 points per 100 possessions. Kemba Walker was special during this quarter, too. With Kemba on the floor, Charlotte scored at a rate of 1.38 points per possession.

For the game, the Hornets were +17 with Lin on the floor.

While Miami built a house out of bricks during this period — shooting 3 for 19 — the dual-point guard lineup of Walker and Lin (sounds like a decent law firm, for the record) raced away in the opposite direction. The two speedsters wrecked havoc in the pick-and-roll game and in transition, combining for 55 points and just four turnovers (Walker scored 34 of those points, making him the first Hornet to score 30+ in a playoff games since Baron Davis in 2002). That combination of controlled aggression is incredibly difficult to harness, but Charlotte’s guards worked their magic Monday evening.

Lin and Kemba shared the court for 26 minutes in Game 4; in that stretch of time, Charlotte outscored Miami by 14.5 points per 100 possessions, per The Hornets continued to struggle from beyond the arc — making just 4 of 17 3-pointers — but these two were so deadly efficient in pick-and-roll action that it prevented Charlotte’s offense from cratering.

All night long, Walker and Lin were impervious to the conservative one-man zone schemes Miami utilized. In their coverages, Heat big men were sinking under these ball screens; this is done in an effort to coax the ball handler into settling for a jumper. Charlotte, however, was having none of that. Kemba channeled his inner Russell Westbrook and went right at Miami’s bigs, while Lin got into the paint at will. Walker scored 11 consecutive points during the fourth quarter.

When Miami’s Hassan Whiteside hits the bench, a light goes off for Lin, attack. For the second straight game, the Hornets were without forward Nicolas Batum — a fearless playmaker who has a knack for finding open shooters. In his absence, Lin has more than stepped up, which should benefit him financially in about two months: Jeremy has a player option at $2.2 million next season. However, if he declines that option, he’ll hit unrestricted free agency as one of the league’s elite backup point guards.

After the game, Clifford couldn’t have been more proud of his team for figuring out a way to score points. So I’m not going as far as to say Charlotte’s solved Miami’s pick-and-roll defense, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see some adjustments when this series swings south for Game 5.

Lin wasn’t the only substitute to have an impact on Monday, though. Zeller has embraced his role of coming off the bench now. By some metrics — offensive (111.2) and net rating (39.7) — Zeller was Charlotte’s best player in Game 4. These contributions were necessary because once more Marvin Williams struggled: 0 of 5 shooting, 0 points — his second game with no points this series (he has 14 total points through four games). Zeller was strong defensively as well.

On Miami’s end, they need to summon the energy they brought late in the third quarter and the early part of the fourth quarter — when they rallied furiously to make the contest a one-point affair at 62-61 — for an entire game. Goran Dragic, who spent most of the game missing in action, started making things happen, including a massive 3-pointer as Miami clawed their way back into the game.

It’s also clear that they need Deng to remain productive, and to be more than just a first quarter catalyst. In 20 minutes of action during the second and third quarters, Deng was just 1 for 8 from the field; Miami was -11 during that stretch, too.

Charlotte mostly ignored rookie Justise Winslow when Miami was on offense. Winslow, who is already a sensational defender, has a ways to go offensively. The Hornets stashed their slowest defender on Winslow, and for most of the night, that worked. Heading into the fourth, Winslow was 0 for 5 from the field as he tried to shoot over the top of Charlotte’s relaxed defenders. However, in the final period, Winslow attacked this coverage, driving right into the body of Hornets defenders, James Harden style. He was a perfect 3 for 3 from the field, including a corner 3-pointer. This is something to monitor in Game 5.

Finally, it’d be remiss to write a recap of this game without mentioning Courtney Lee, who once again brought productive two-way play. Lee played a team-high 41 minutes; he also led the Hornets in distance covered (3.06 miles), according to’s player tracking. Lee was everywhere defensively — contesting a team-high 12 shots, including eight 2-pointers. Most pertinent, though, Lee collected a super important offensive rebound with 58 seconds left, then on the next possession, following a Kemba miss, Lee sprang for another rebound and drew a foul on Deng. C-Lee then made two free-throws, which put the game on ice.

The first two games of this series were ugly for the Hornets. But after last night’s thrilling home victory, Charlotte’s evened this series at two games apiece. Game 5 is Wednesday night in South Beach. See you there.