"Out for the season." That is a designation no athlete wants by his or her name. Especially if they are in their senior season.
UNC’s Austin Proehl received that designation after the Duke game in September. The senior wide receiver suffered a broken left clavicle during a flea flicker play in the game. I will never forget seeing that play and being excited for “AP” - as I call him - on making a great catch. That excitement turned into concern, however, as he never returned to the game and I knew something was up. Hearing of his injury was hard. The selfish part of me was upset because I had already purchased tickets to the Heels’ Senior Day game against Western Carolina in November. I wanted to see AP play one final time at Kenan Stadium but I figured he probably would not given the nature of his injury.
I still remember in 2013 when Austin decided to play for the Heels. I didn’t really know who he was back then but I knew the name “Proehl” from his father, Ricky, who played in the NFL for 17 seasons - including with the Carolina Panthers - also appearing in four Super Bowls and winning two of them. I had heard great things about Austin and I was stoked to see him play for Carolina. Throughout the past four years, Austin has developed into a heckuva player. One of the best route runners I have ever seen and a leader on the team.
Every now and then, there comes an athlete - a person - who is just special. Maybe I’m the only one who has experienced this. For me, Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson and Ryan Switzer come to mind. Austin unequivocally fits the mold as well. For one, he cares deeply about his community. While in Chapel Hill, he has visited the UNC Children’s Hospital and UNC Bone Marrow Unit on several occasions, read to and mentored local elementary school students, and participated in the UNC Pen Pal Program. These acts of community service earned Austin a nomination for the 2017 AllState AFCA Good Works Team.
On a more personal note, I will always remember a moment of care Austin showed towards me. I had tickets to a UNC Football game last season. But my mother fell ill the night before and had to be taken to the ER. I posted on Twitter that I may not be able to go to the game but I wish him all the best. I ended up going but Austin responded to my tweet well before I made that decision and said he would pray for us. A simple gesture, yes, but it meant a lot, especially given the fact that Austin didn’t really know me on a personal level.
Which brings me to the Western Carolina game on Saturday. I was determined to go and support AP whether he played or not. I sat behind Carolina’s bench and noticed earlier that Austin was dressed out. I figured it was to participate in the pre-game senior recognition on the field, but then I saw he was still dressed out on the sideline once the game began. And he was warming up. And, get this, he played. I was ecstatic to see No. 7 out there one last time for the Heels as I know he was to be out there himself.
It further proves my point about how great of a human Austin is. As Turner Walston of the Argyle Report said, Austin didn’t have to come back. He is a senior with NFL aspirations and could have easily turned to prepping for the Combine. But he didn’t. He was determined to get back to playing this season not only for himself, but for his teammates. No matter if his doctors “looked at [him] crazy,” as Walston quoted him saying. He cares that much about his brothers on the team and about the game he loves.
I came close but didn’t get a chance to share my gratitude with Austin in person. I say I “came close” because I saw Austin come outside by the football center after the game. However, he was with his family and I just didn’t feel right running up to him like a crazy fan. I wanted to respect his time with his family. Not getting to speak to him, perhaps, for one final time was tough and was one of the reasons I decided to write this post. Another was to express my gratitude to not only a great athlete but a great human as well.
Thanks, AP. For going the extra mile for your team and your community. For always showing love and appreciation to the fans. For everything.