Thanks, Amazing Student Athletes
I have been told that if I want to continue coaching, I need to distance myself from what happened at UNC. One administrator told me that what happened there is “toxic” and only time and distance will make it go away.
I don’t want to distance myself from UNC. On this Thanksgiving week I want to give thanks for ALL the young men who I had the privilege of coaching at the University of North Carolina. My feelings are deeply invested in each of them. I cannot imagine distancing myself from these fine young men who I recruited and coached. In fact, in difficult times, amid the messiness and ambiguity of the last couple of years, these young men inspired me daily and fed my spirit to continue to work hard.
As a coach at UNC I wanted to help them become the best football players that they could be. I also wanted them to become the best students, family members, fathers, and citizens they could be. I found in my five years of coaching at UNC and six years of living in this community that these young men taught me a lot more than I probably taught them.
My memories from the University of North Carolina will not be of an institution, an emblem, or a brand. My memories will be of people. I am so thankful for the relationships forged here and the players will forever remain close to my family and me.
T.J. Yates, who found the strength to persevere when things were tough, is someone I am thankful for. I did not have the luxury of asking people to leave the stadium when T.J. got booed. I walked with T.J. every step of the way and watched him transform himself from the butt of jokes to the Tar Heel of the Year for the 2010-2011 school year.
I will forever remain close to men like Devon Ramsey, who was unjustly suspended by the University and then banned by the NCAA. Devon is the type of person this community and the NCAA should hold up as all that is right in college football, yet somehow, for reasons I will never understand, he was thrown under the bus. With the help of wonderful people like his mother, Sharon Lee, and a Raleigh lawyer and UNC grad, Bob Orr, Devon regained eligibility and will finish his sixth year as a Tar Heel this Saturday. Devon’s quiet strength and remarkable resiliency are models for us all.
I am a better father, partner, and family member because of my relationship with Dwight Jones. Dwight modeled unwavering love and commitment for family members amid complicated and ambiguous situations that few will ever understand. His spirit and love for his children is something that I draw upon regularly. Dwight brought so much more to the Carolina community than touchdowns and big plays. He is one of the most responsible people I know and one of the greatest blessings in my life.
Bryn Renner’s uncontainable enthusiasm and spirit lifted me and spurred me to continue working hard in August of 2011 during the darkest days of my professional career. After Coach Davis was fired days before the start of training camp we regularly prayed together and pushed one another forming an uncommon bond that will last a lifetime. Bryn started the season in record breaking fashion and set the standard for a work ethic that every member of that record- setting offense developed.
If you ever go to Dallas, NC, due west of Charlotte, just drop the name A.J. Blue and you will be treated like royalty. As A.J. recovered from a knee injury during the 2010 season he switched from running back to quarterback, the position he played in high school. I felt that this would be a way to keep him mentally stimulated throughout the season as he continued to rehab and learn the game. He developed a close bond with T.J. Yates and became the individual that signaled the plays from the sideline for the 2010 season. More importantly, A.J. brought an indomitable spirit to our meeting room that made having 14 starters suspended seem insignificant. T.J. once told me he “learned more about life in our meeting room than in all my classes combined.”
Pete Mangum, a walk on from Leesville Road High School, demonstrated to everyone in the Carolina community what it means to seize an opportunity. I can remember how frustrated I would get at him for playing so well defensively on the scout team, therefore, making our offense look bad. I begged Coach Davis to give him a shot on special teams. He did, and Pete earned a scholarship. He has been a pillar of strength in the program as they rotated through three head coaches in three years.
Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate will forever be dear to me. These two men were recruited by Coach Bunting and immediately welcomed me and committed to all that our staff asked of them. Hakeem and Brandon worked on their craft as hard as any players I have ever coached and today are outstanding NFL wide receivers. They are also devoted fathers that everyone in the Carolina community should be proud of.
I hope that in the coming years the Carolina community will develop more of a capacity to value the gifts that this diverse group of men brought to the community. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “College is not an education, but a means to an education.” I learned the most in the Carolina community through the difficult and invisible work of relationship building. I have sat in team meetings where faculty members have lectured our team on the importance of visiting their professors during office hours. While I think this is important, I think it is equally important for faculty members and administrators to meet these young men where they are. I pray that faculty members and administrators won’t waste another day. Introduce yourself to T.J. Thorpe. You will thank me. Ask Landon Turner out to lunch. You will enjoy a meal with one of the most generous souls I know. Familiarize yourself with the amazing stories of Kiaro Holts, Romar Morris, and Reggie Wilkins. And take time to notice the uncommon gifts that Eric Ebron brings to the community. He has a chance to become one of the best in the world at what he does and that has value.
I am thankful for the relationships formed with all of the young men I have been blessed to coach at UNC. No matter where my career takes me, the closer I stay to these kinds of relationship, the better off I’ll be.