Former Tar Heel Bill Span was in Chapel Hill from his home in Washington State last weekend and enjoyed attending practice Saturday morning and meeting some of the Tar Heel players.
“I couldn’t get over how wholesome these kids are,” says Span, a defensive lineman during the Bill Dooley era of the mid-1970s. “These are really good kids who say ‘Yes sir’ and make eye contact. I was really impressed.”
Furthering that view is the fact that the Tar Heels, their coaches and the entire football family has been involved the last two months in all manner of charitable and community service efforts.
Just over 12 hours after busses returned to Kenan Football Center the third weekend of November after a trip to Blacksburg, Va., where the Tar Heels clinched their first ACC Coastal Division title, team chaplain Mitch Mason and a handful of players were on the fifth floor stuffing shoe boxes with Christmas gifts to be shipped around the world.
Operation Christmas Child is an initiative of the international relief agency called Samaritan’s Purse. Shoe boxes are stuffed with personal hygiene items and toys and distributed worldwide to children who otherwise would have nothing for Christmas. Mason thought the project would fit into the team’s community service mission last year and organized the players in shopping, packing and sending more than a hundred boxes filled with un-inflated soccer balls, pencils, crayons, soap and other small items. He was gratified to get in return a photo of a small boy in Tanzania wearing a wrist band from Chapel Hill with the wide receivers’ mantra etched into the plastic: “FREAK TIME / SHOW TIME.”
“Our kids understand they are truly blessed, that not everyone leads the life of a college football player,” Mason says. “They are blessed to be here. They get it. They understand the concept of giving back. What is so cool is seeing that this is the fiber of who we are. And the side benefit is we’re bonding as a team.”
The coaches’ wives have adopted needy families in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro community and brightened those families’ holiday with clothes, toys and games, and Mason and a group of players have visited a 15-year-old football player from Sampson County in UNC Hospitals who’s fighting leukemia.
And Saturday evening after bowl game practice and just one day before the players would disperse to go home for three days before leaving for Orlando, receivers coach Gunter Brewer and a dozen of his players were putting the finishing touches on writing letters and stuffing envelopes that would be sent to servicemen. Each envelope includes a Tar Heel T-shirt, a football media guide and a hand-written letter from one of the players.
Nearly half of the players had some immediate connection to one of the branches of service, so the efforts resonated to many on a personal level.
Hollins’ 19-year-old brother Drew is in the Marines and is stationed at Camp LeJeune in Jacksonville.
“We might complain when we have to practice or do conditioning, but he’ll be getting on a boat and going across to other side of the world for eight months,” Hollins says. “It makes you realize how lucky we are.”
Josh Cabrera’s father Manases retired in early 2015 after two decades in the Marines, and Cabrera has lived in North Carolina, Georgia, Japan, Virginia and Rhode Island as his father has gone to various postings over his career. Cabrera thinks of his father or his father’s friends he’s met over the years when he writes each letter.
“You try to write something from the heart, tell them I really appreciate the work they are doing,” says Cabrera. “We’re blessed to have them and I want them to know it doesn’t go unnoticed. I think of my father and how he’d feel if he were away and got a letter like this.”
Both of Jordan Fieulleteau’s grandfathers served in the military, his maternal grandfather fighting in Vietnam and his paternal grandfather a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American pilots who fought in World War II. That in itself gives him a connection to writing letters to service personnel. But the fact that Fieulleteau was in elementary school in Manhattan on 9/11 gives him a special appreciation for the sacrifices made by military personnel.
“We lived in Queens at the time and went to school in Manhattan,” says Fieulleteau, whose family moved to Raleigh in 2004. “It was a scary day, it was one of the craziest days of my life. I remember school getting out early. The 69th Street Bridge was closed and we had to walk across it to get home.
“I remember that when I write these letters. We appreciate their service, we’re thankful for the protection they give us. Every day we wake up in the morning with no problems is a testament to them.”
Ryan Switzer has two uncles, David and Richard Switzer, who have flown C-130 jets on missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and has seen the challenges that families face when husbands, fathers and brothers are deployed for months at a time—sometimes over Christmas.
“What they do for our country is a big deal,” Switzer says. “We can’t have what we have without what they do. They give you good perspective. I told my Uncle David I was bummed I’d have to miss Christmas with the family again—last year we were in Detroit, this year in Orlando. He said, ‘You know, Ryan, let me tell out about spending Christmas in Afghanistan ...’”