Kirk Urso and my Carolina Family

There is a small photo mural on the wall by the Olympic sports equipment room, hidden under Carmichael gymnasium down two flights of stairs. Footballers, track stars and jocks of all stripes pass it on the way to get our Nike-issued gear for the upcoming week.

Fittingly, the mural has a representative from each UNC squad. We hear often about the notion of “family” at Carolina, but this picture is the clearest demonstration of what that means. We’re all caught up in cliques at some point in our careers, but the Carolina gathering transcends these minute divisions. Whether it’s that weird uncle (fencing) or that highly successful cousin (basketball) you are constantly measured against by your over-involved parents, all teams in this family care about you.

Kirk Urso is on that mural. You may not recognize the face on the wall, but you might remember him as the star captain of the 2011 NCAA men’s soccer champions, or one of the countless athletes who’ve gone pro after their Carolina careers have concluded. You may have only heard of his passing from a genetic heart disease earlier this summer. I remember him as the first member of my Carolina family.

In the fall of 2008, I was a runner from a small, 2A high school looking to walk-on to the Track & Field program here. Though I’d lived 10 miles away nearly my whole life, I didn’t know a soul on campus who wasn’t pictured on my Eric-Montross-signed basketball calendar.

That August, I decided to work out on the iconic, Carolina-blue Irwin-Belk Track for the first time. After waiting for Anson Dorrance and the women’s soccer team to finish their practice, I spotted two other gents warming up.

Assuming – from their wiry build and racehorse speed – that they were fellow trackies, I asked if I could join them.

“Not sure you want to do that,” one asked skeptically, “unless you’re trying out for the team?”

“Yes,” I said, trying to play it cool. “That’s the plan.”

“You’re with us, then,” the other replied.

I eventually found out I’d accidentally taken part in prep for the dreaded “Cooper” test, a lengthy conditioning interval – and a staple of pre-season soccer training. The two athletes I’d met turned out to be star defender Edward “Eddie” Ababio (those of you old enough will remember his penchant for wearing socks that reached up past his shorts) and Kirk Urso.

I’d see more of Kirk in the four years that followed. Each time we laughed that we were pretend teammates.

When I hit a wall, he told me my times were bound to drop eventually.

“You’re track fast, man,” he’d reassure. “Track fast doesn’t have time for walls.”

After watching his team come so close to NCAA gold for three straight seasons, only to fall in the College Cup, I’d try – as surely only one among hundreds of other voices – to tell him that he’d get his chance again.

“Soccer isn’t fair, it’s life,” I’d say, quoting one of my personal soccer gurus. “But life gets you a lot of chances, at least.”

We even went through rehab together for the same leg injuries. We stretched on the same foam rollers, tight-roped those infuriatingly treacherous, semi-spherical balance balls and froze in the same ice bath.

Each time, I wondered how he wasn’t as livid as I was to be missing practice time to treat failed limbs. Each time, he’d laugh it off. Understand, this was a guy – unlike myself – with a career at stake.

Each time, he got out of his hole because others depended on him; as a captain, as a friend, as a brother.

I’ve heard talk about how UNC is a “basketball school” from tour guides or a “soccer school” from Cameron Crazies (jeeringly) and Dean Smith (humbly) himself.

Farcical. Tell me we aren’t a family school first.

I’ve seen basketball stars descend from on-high to attend a half-filled Wallace Wade for the ACC track championships, swimmers and lacrosse players hoarse at the College Cup in Cary, and even a cross country runner – in all seriousness – learn and perform the full dance team routine to “Sweet Caroline”.

So for all the traits that define Kirk Urso’s legacy (competitiveness, humility, devotion), what I remember most was the one he shared with us all – inclusivity.

“You’re with us.”

While a doctor might tell you the Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy that took Kirk’s life this August 5 was inherited, I’d tell you that the genes he shared with the rest of us here at Carolina were earned.

There is no sense of aristocracy in the Carolina family. You aren’t grandfathered in based on the achievements of others. The figurative “blue blood” in our veins is not hereditary; in fact, isn’t blood at all.

You’re only a member the minute you start sweating.

Kirk Urso did his sweating. I can prove it to you, because I was there with him, like every other member of the family.

I was just lucky enough to do it in person.

You can follow Jeremy on Twitter @JT_Gerlach.

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