During the first quarter of UNC’s 27-17 loss to Duke back on Sept. 23, senior wide receiver Austin Proehl–the team’s top pass-catching option entering the season–caught a 47-yard pass from quarterback Chazz Surratt which put the Tar Heels deep into Blue Devil territory.
Unfortunately for Proehl–and the Tar Heels, the senior broke his collarbone after being dragged down awkwardly. He missed the rest of that game, and each of UNC’s next six outings after that.
The team’s official injury report had listed Proehl as being out for the season ever since then–until Saturday’s 65-10 win over Western Carolina.
Much to the surprise of fans, teammates and coaches alike, team doctors cleared him to return against the Catamounts on the Tuesday leading up to the game.
With it being Senior Day at Kenan Stadium, there was no chance Proehl–a football lifer, who grew up with a father in the NFL–was going to miss an opportunity to put his Tar Heel uniform on one final time in front of the home fans.
“He wanted to play, and he wanted to get back out there with his teammates,” head coach Larry Fedora said after the game. “So I was happy for him, and happy to see him get that opportunity.”
The last time Proehl was on the field, he had never caught a single pass in a game from sophomore quarterback Nathan Elliott–the third-string option for Fedora until he came on strong in recent weeks.
Now somewhat firmly embedded as the team’s starter for the rest of the season, Elliott threw four touchdowns for UNC against Western Carolina, although none went to Proehl.
In his first game back from an injury many thought would end his season, Proehl caught three passes for 52 yards. His presence, however, helped open things up for the rest of the young, unheralded Tar Heel receivers.
“He might be the best route runner I’ve ever played with,” Elliott said. “Teams kind of fear that when he’s out there, and I think he brings that to the table as well.”
For many receivers in Proehl’s position–with an NFL future on the line and a college team with a 2-8 record heading into Saturday–there would be more than enough incentive to stay on the sidelines.
After all, what would he be risking by sitting out the final two games?
Instead, though, Proehl chose to embody what Fedora has preached to his team each and every week–refusing to give up on each other no matter how difficult the adversity becomes.
“I decided from the minute I got out of surgery, seeing those guys and seeing people come see me, that I wanted to come back to show people that I’m not going to just hang it up because of our record,” Proehl told reporters after the game. “It’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than me.
“I fell in love with the process of trying to come back and trying to show these guys that regardless of our record or regardless of what’s happening out on that field each and every week,” he continued. “That your brothers in that locker room–who come out to work every single day to win a game–are more important [than anything else].”
Cover photo via Grant Halverson (UNC Athletics)