He didn’t have to come back.
Midway through the first quarter of Carolina’s fourth game of the season, Austin Proehl streaked down the middle of the field, looking for a flea-flicker pass from Chazz Surratt. The ball was under-thrown by just a bit, enough that Proehl had to shorten his stride. While that allowed Proehl to make a beautiful over-the-shoulder grab, it also gave Duke’s Alonzo Saxton II time to catch him from behind.
Proehl went to the ground awkwardly. He adjusted his shoulder pads after rising to his feet, but he exited the game. “I’ve gotten tackled God knows how many times in my career playing football,” he said later, “and I just landed on it and broke my collarbone.”
That day, he would return to the sidelines in a sweatsuit; he was out for the game and, after being diagnosed with a broken left clavicle, out for the season. That’s what the next several injury reports said, anyway. But from the moment he met with his doctors, Proehl had other plans.
“I told them, I said, ‘I want to come back,’ and they all looked at me kind of crazy,” he said. “I said, ‘No, that’s my goal. I’m not going to sit here and allow this injury to stop me and stop me from doing what I love.”
He didn’t have to come back. Proehl could have packed it in and taken it easy, rested for Pro Day or the Combine and gotten ready for the NFL Draft process. The son of Ricky Proehl, who played at Wake Forest and spent 17 years in the NFL, Austin knows what it takes to be successful at the next level. He could have turned his focus toward a professional career. In the weeks since his injury, his name was listed under ‘Out for the season’ on the weekly report. His status wasn’t in question, nor his dedication. No one expected him to play again.
But it wasn’t about him. It never was. His younger brother Blake, a freshman wideout at East Carolina, tore an ACL in his first college football practice this fall. And so, his heart broken for his brother, Austin wrote ‘BP’ on his wrist tape to remember to play hard for Blake, who wouldn’t see the field in 2017. “I wanted to make this season about him and really just dedicate it to him,” Austin said.
And then, weeks after Blake’s injury, Austin saw his own season potentially lost. Blake was there that day when Austin went down. He spent the night with Austin, met with the doctors the next morning. The two of them each wore their surgery bands; they planned to rip them off together.
He didn’t have to come back. As Austin Proehl was sidelined, Carolina’s record fell to 1-8 before last week’s win over Pitt. Even if he could heal, even if he could be cleared to play and get his conditioning to the point that he could contribute, he’d be returning to a team that knew it wouldn’t qualify for a bowl, let alone a conference championship game. But he saw the sacrifices his teammates were making, saw them continue to show up, despite the results on Saturdays. And if he could, he wanted to stand alongside them.
Last week at Pittsburgh, he was close, but not cleared. And not happy about it. But on Tuesday he was cleared. And this Saturday against Western Carolina, the last time he would run out of the tunnel as a Tar Heel, he was going to play.
His first catch was a slant that went for 14 yards on third down. The second, a deep ball for 31. The very next play was another slant, for seven. And he returned a punt for 17 yards. Proehl didn’t play every play, but he was back out there.
Carolina won by a score of 65-10. The Tar Heels would have won with our without Proehl, but the strides that he made to come back, to stand alongside his teammates in this most difficult of seasons, spoke volumes.
“It’s not about me. This team isn’t about me,” he said afterward. “This season isn’t about me. Each and every day, you’ve got guys walking out to practice, going into meetings with energy and a smile on their face and ready to win a game, and 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 and show people that I’m not just going to hang it up because of our record. It’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than me. I just fell in love with the process of trying to come back and trying to show these guys that regardless of our record, regardless of what’s happening out on that field each and every week, that your brothers in that locker room who come out to work every single day to win a game are more important.”
He didn’t have to come back, but he did. For his brothers in the locker room. For his brother in Greenville. For the love of the game. For his last game as a Tar Heel.
He didn’t have to come back, but he did, and in doing so, Austin Proehl exemplified what it means to be a teammate. It’s about something bigger.
Photos by Alex Kormann