By Lee Pace
The email popped into my in-box around 10 a.m. on Thursday, March 5, a note from long-time UNC football equipment and business manager Dominic Morelli with a link to The New York Times story on Ryan Hoffman.
It was sent to Don McCauley of the Rams Club and to me, asking if we knew Hoffman, the mid-1990s offensive lineman who’d fallen on hard times in his native Florida, and if there was anything the Football Lettermen’s Association could do to rally around Hoffman.
“I feel like this is the kind of kid we should help if we can,” Morelli wrote. “This is what our Letterman are all about—they really rallied around me when my daughter was sick and after she passed away. I feel like if there are guys in that area and they can locate him, they will help him as much as they can.”
Already word was spreading on Facebook, Twitter, texts and emails among the Carolina family near and far. The private Facebook page for Tar Heel Lettermen was awash with shock, concern and assorted calls to action.
“My heart is heavy after reading this,” Mike Baxter, a fellow starting lineman on those 1996-97 teams, commented. “We need a point person in Florida.”
Added another member of that unit, Mike Hobgood: “I had no idea. This is so sad. After reading the article someone has to convince him to get the help he needs.”
Kivuusama Mays, a linebacker from that era, offered to go find Hoffman and give him a job.
A player from two decades earlier who had never even met Ryan Hoffman called police in Lakeland, Fla., for help locating Hoffman. Bill Span did that from his home in Washington State and said that if police could locate Hoffman, he would pass word to Mays.
“I know some old Dooley Boys that can throw some $$$ together to support this effort in the short and long term,” Span said.
Meanwhile in Chapel Hill, Kevin Guskiewicz, director of the UNC Center for the Study of Retired Athletes, said he “was floored” when he read the story.
“This is exactly what we do to try to care for people like this,” Guskiewicz said. “Here’s one of our own that slipped through the cracks somehow.”
Guskiewicz said that if Hoffman could be located and would agree to undergo treatment, he’d have Hoffman flown to Chapel Hill for examination through the Center’s Brain and Body Health Program. The Center is funded in part by the NFL Players Association and the NCAA. Guskiewicz said funds were available in the Center's trust fund to pay for cases such as Hoffman’s.
Quickly two Lettermen offered planes to transport Hoffman if needed. Efforts were made to reach Jeff “Maddog” Madden, the strength and conditioning coach during Hoffman’s era whom teammates felt would positively affect Hoffman during his time of need.
Watching all of this unfold from his home in Austin, Texas, was Brian Davis, a key member of the Mack Brown era of the 1990s as academic advisor to the football team.
“I was absolutely thrilled and invigorated by the response that Ryan’s former teammates and everyone connected to UNC showed,” Davis said. “I reached out to The New York Times reporter, and she said she was a bit overwhelmed by the response she got from that piece. It took her aback a little bit.
“It told her that once her story got out there, it touched the minds and the hearts of all of these people who are out there connected to Ryan. His teammates, associates of the program like myself, Coach Brown. Everyone responded in a positive, compassionate and helpful way. It’s not like they read it and said, ‘This is horrible, this is sad,’ and went about their day. There were guys literally willing to get in their cars and drive to Lakeland, Florida, and drive around and look for Ryan.
“After 18, 19 years, life happens. It’s like a family member. Okay, you’ve not seen him or talked to him in 18, 19 years, but you don’t forget. It’s time to step up. Everyone has the same ownership in the outcome.
“This is what’s good about college athletics.”
Beau Parry was a walk-on linebacker from Cincinnati during that period and was close friends with Hoffman.
“I was one year ahead, but football transcends class and he was offense, I was defense,” Parry says. “We had a tight group of teammates/friends and bonded mainly in the weight room. Ryan is very intelligent and we had an esoteric type of connection.”
Parry quickly set up a fund to support Hoffman (link here) and was able to talk with him by phone when Hoffman was located and began considering his options to get his life back together.
“We all go about our daily lives and you open up your iPad these days instead of a newspaper, and when you see one of your former teammates down and out like that, it knocks you out of your chair,” Parry says. “You get updates on people having babies and moving up the corporate ladder, and then you see someone you played football with panhandling on the streets in The New York Times. It was a call to action for everyone who’s played at Carolina to help any way they could.”
Mack Brown, now retired as the Texas head coach and working for ESPN as a college football analyst, was involved in the conversations on Facebook.
“You guys taught me more than I taught you,” he said in one comment stream. “I appreciate all the guys that played for me at UNC. Proud of you guys on and off the field.”
Hoffman has arrived in Chapel Hill and thus the next stage of his life begins. He’s posted photos on his Facebook page making the ubiquitous “time out” signal at the venerable Chapel Hill chicken and biscuits emporium and with ex-linebacker Rick Steinbacher, now an associate athletic director at Carolina, on the plane ride north.
“Ryan will have many opportunities ahead,” Parry says.
And will do with a staunch band of Tar Heel Lettermen behind him.
“Brothers staying together,” Bill Span says.
Long-time Tar Heel football writer/broadcaster Lee Pace handles communications for the Carolina Football Lettermen's Association.