"Don't Mess This Up"
My one-day stint as a Carolina and Duke Football Recruit
It’s no secret that UNC and Duke squabble over basketball recruits. From Michael Jordan to Jason Williams, each school has coveted its neighbor’s latest gem.
But that’s old news. What about the other side of the equation? What about a prospect’s fight for the affectations of a revenue sport at either school? That I can tell you, because I’ve spent a day in the life of a football recruit for each program. Literally. One day.
In the fall of 2006, John Bunting and Ted Roof’s football programs at UNC and Duke, respectively, entered their death throes. Bunting would be axed at the end of the year despite prevailing in a 45-44 classic over the Blue Devils, while Roof would follow suit soon after falling to Butch Davis’ Heels the next fall in Chapel Hill.
Amidst this chaos, I quietly blipped onto a few area radars, and even more quietly bowed out. Asking an unpopular coach’s staff to recruit you is akin to playing in the band aboard the sinking Titanic; it’s a nice gesture that you’re interested in smoothing the transition, but no one’s really got time to hear you out.
Especially if you’re a kicker in the Barth era.
Specialists aren’t exactly a prized gem in a college scout’s recruiting board. We are allegedly entrusted with putting a ball through two long pieces of metal, but the job is really about what you aren’t supposed to do. Unlike quarterbacks, wide receivers or returners, we aren’t given measurable goals of yardage or points. Our goals are negative and contingent upon opportunity: don’t get it blocked; don’t kick it out of bounds; don’t mess this up. Imagine being a spot basketball player whose only job was to shoot other people’s free throws. High pressure, no reward.
So, why even try to kick? Moreover, why even try to kick at long-struggling programs continually playing second fiddle to their respective basketball juggernauts?
Like so many drawn to admire the athletic prowess of these two schools, the answer was convenience.
Personally, picking up the art of placekicking as a soccer player was an almost pre-destined trope. A lifelong witness of Triangle-oriented rivalries, the thought of playing for either shade of blue was beyond appealing. Kenan and Wallace Wade being 13 and 27 minutes from my house, respectively, was too good to pass up.
While I began kicking between two trees in my front yard, I honed what little skill I had in these two historic venues. I inched my first 60-yarder over the bar from just a few feet to the side of the Gothic “D” logo; I hit my first “spiraled” punt with my toes dug into the crisp white paint of the iconic, interlocking “NC”. I even had my first brush with the law in Chapel Hill, being chased out of the stadium after being caught climbing over a locked gate. (To all you looking to find a point of entry, there’s still a weak spot under a small Maple, between the Northwest gate and the University Health Building; it’s a rectangular-but-hospitable gap between the railing and the roof of a sidehouse used to store concession equipment.)
Yet for all the desperate antics, hoping each time that a coach would catch me instead of a DPS official, I only made a brief appearance on each school’s recruiting board through an unorchestrated coincidence.
For Coach Bunting, I was just another face in the crowd at each summer football camp; just another tape at the bottom of the video pile. I was never called back to the end-of-camp meetings where the top prospects were notified of the staff’s interest; never called to talk about the film I’d sent in. About the closest I’d ever come to a placekicking spot on the roster was standing next to Tampa Bay standout and former Carolina great Connor Barth (he of Miami-beating, 2004 field-storming fame) for a quick picture and handshake.
Needless to say, I was lucky to find that an assistant coach (whose privacy I’ll respect) for my high school knew a special teams coach at Carolina. He had a scout sent out to see me in action against that August. For all the fence-jumping, my best chance at an in with the program had been barely ten feet away from me each summer, grimacing at my every shank.
After two blocked field goals and an embarrassing kickoff returned for a touchdown, I can’t say I blamed Bunting’s staff for not calling after a train wreck of a first date. Neither can I argue with Davis’ call to go with Connor’s younger brother, Casey, a fantastic competitor who eventually eclipsed even his older brother’s star (despite several injuries).
Roof’s limited period of interest seems even more far-fetched. I met him the day after his (eventual) last game in 2007 while dining with a friend at the Red Robin on 15-501 near New Hope Commons. He’d just been sabotaged by his own special teams, relying on two different kickers who provided two makeable misses in an overtime loss. Needless to say, I caught him in the most perfect of circumstances.
Keeping my powder-blue Schadenfreude behind a façade of conciliation, I offered my services, and he offered terms: if I sent in my film (and he was still the coach the next day), he’d offer me an opportunity to try out as a walk-on the next year.
The next day, just as mysteriously as he had entered the Triangle coaching game, Roof was gone. Again, I was on the outside looking in.
After deciding to run track for Carolina, these two opportunities have more and more seemed far less notable as points when my life could have improved. Having the honor to run with another “renaissance athlete” who also wanted to kick in college, I’ve seen that picking your battles can prove strangely venerating despite seeming like conceding defeat. Ranked even higher on the national high school recruiting sites than I was, this individual (now a coach for Syracuse’s Track and Field team whose privacy I’ll also respect) chose to run track at Carolina over kicking for one of the few schools in the nation – Penn State – whose football program is recovering from more turbulence than ours.
Despite all the grief the football programs at Duke and UNC have gotten – Duke for its losing and UNC for its NCAA issues – these programs will always attract more recruits than they have time for. Want to make it past a one-night stand with either program? It’ll depend on much more than your own capabilities. Take it from me – if you want it badly enough you’ll get a chance at least, no matter how improbable it seems. Instead, your success will hinge on the connections you make, and how you handle the opportunities you’re presented. I haphazardly stumbled across the contacts, but needlessly squandered the chances.
The trick is simple, yet oh-so-difficult, like any kicking coach will tell you:
Just don’t mess it up.
You can follow Jeremy on Twitter @JT_Gerlach.