The Charlotte 49ers football team’s first bowl run united members of Niner Nation, more than 1,000 who faithfully followed the team to the Bahamas for its matchup against Buffalo.
“It was exhilarating on so many levels,” said Rodney Graves ’97, who was among the UNC Charlotte alumni and fans who made the trip.
For Graves, the bowl game was also a chance to reunite with a good friend and fellow alumnus, Robert Garraway ’96, who lives in the Bahamas. It was the first time the friends had seen each other in 23 years, although they had kept in touch via email and social media.
“It was like we saw each other yesterday, and nothing had changed—just a little older, and a lot more mature,” said Garraway, who earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from UNC Charlotte. “He had always wanted to visit, and the opportunity was perfect.”
Graves is one of the University’s most visible and dedicated alumni; he’s a season ticket holder who has never missed a home football game, and he regularly volunteers on campus and in the community as part of the First 49, the community service alumni group he co-founded.
Garraway, a native of the Bahamas, returned there after graduation and works as a civil engineer. He said the last time he visited campus was in May 1999.
“I have read of the expansion to the campus and been informed by Rodney of the many initiatives undertaken to continue to make the campus better,” Garraway said.
In addition to attending the game and fellowshipping with other fans, Garraway also showed Graves the islands.
“I got a chance to see the Bahamas and not just the tourist Bahamas,” Graves said. “That was pretty awesome.”
And Graves introduced Garraway to some of the other alumni who made the trip.
"I reconnected with one alumnus on the trip, and met many others through Rodney and his exploits as one of UNC Charlotte football's biggest proponents,” Garraway said.
The atmosphere in the Bahamas was familial. The football program brought together Niner fans young and old, he said.
The team’s loss did not affect those good feelings, Graves said.
“That didn’t damper the enthusiasm or any of the fire on our side,” he said. “Our fans were still pumped and everything.”
After the game, Graves said he and other fans went on the field, shook hands with team members and reminded them of the great season they had.
“Y’all did not let us down at all,” Graves told the players. “You gave us the greatest season we ever had, and you set the bar for every team going forward.”
Graves said the Bahamas Bowl experience reminded him of just how many friendships and bonds he formed at UNC Charlotte, including his friendship with Garraway, which started on the international floor of Poplar (now Witherspoon) Hall.
“That time at UNC Charlotte is invaluable to me,” Graves said. “There will be no other experience that will equal what I’ve gained from my time there, and continue to pay dividends going forward.”
Photo: Marie Swepson (far left, front), Robert Garraway, Julie Berryhill, Loretta To, Tara Hunter and Rodney Graves