CHAPEL HILL — The whole time Ryan Switzer kept thinking, over and over: Dont drop this. Please dont drop this. Dont let this be a repeat of four years ago, when two fumbles during the final four minutes of a high school football game led to text messages from unfamiliar numbers with hateful messages.
It was midway through the fourth quarter of the Tar Heels home game against Miami last season. North Carolina was winning by three, trying to come back from a 1-4 start with a nationally televised victory against a top-10 team.
Switzer was back to receive a punt. Now hes a preseason All-American, a receiver and record-setting returner whos likely to be integral part of the Tar Heels success this season. Then, he was a freshman trying to find his place, and his confidence.
Negative thoughts filled his mind. He wondered what would happen if he messed up, if hed be strong enough mentally to deal with the fallout. He didnt think he could handle it.
The kick sailed through the air. Switzer signaled for a fair catch. He cradled the ball in his arms, caught it on UNCs 9. Not long after, UNCs offense went three and out, gave possession back to Miami and the Hurricanes drove the field and scored. Game over. Another Tar Heels loss. But at least nobody could blame it on Switzer.
It was a turning point. For UNCs season. For Switzer, too.
After that defeat, the Tar Heels won six of their final seven games, including a victory against Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. And after that defeat against Miami, Switzer became the best punt returner in the country. Part of it is because he stopped making himself crazy.
I said, Ive got to stop, Switzer recently said about drowning himself in negative thoughts.
Only he didnt stop. Not exactly, anyway. Theres a difference, Switzer was saying, between playing scared and playing with a healthy sense of fear. For a while last season, he played scared.
I have a lot of fears, he said. I think a lot of them are hidden by my confidence.
Hes afraid to fail. Fearful, he said, that everything Ive done to this point is not going to be enough.
And so that fear, the good fear, is part of what drives him. Some of it was born out of the trauma he experienced in his second varsity game his freshman year of high school in Charleston, WVa. His school held a touchdown lead against one of its fiercest rivals. Four minutes left.
Switzer, a starter, received a handoff and fumbled. The defense recovered and it led to a touchdown. Switzer caught the ensuing kickoff and it happened again. Another fumble. The other team, South Charleston High, recovered and scored the winning touchdown moments later.
After the game, Switzers phone lit up with angry text messages. People called him names; accused him of blowing the game. He entered high school with a reputation after having gone to summer football camps with high school kids years older, and excelling, and already people were turning against him, blaming him.
He suspects some of the torrent of hate came from adults. From parents of jealous rival teammates, some of them.
Awful, Switzer said. I still think to this day I wouldnt be here right now if I wouldnt have had that incident. I mean, it was a significant enough incident that I still talk about it to this day. It scarred me in a lot of ways and it also propelled me.
Unleashing the dog
That experience helped build something inside Switzer. He calls it the dog.
The fear, it all ties into that dog that I talk about thats in me, Switzer said. Its what drives me. When you step out onto the field Saturdays, you cant be scared, you cant be nervous. But you can have a good fear to you.
Coach Larry Fedora has another way to describe this motivating force.
Hes got that little man syndrome Ill just show you, watch, Fedora said recently. Hes going to prove it to everybody.
Thats part of it, Switzer said. Walking down the street, no one would think of him as short, necessarily. Hes 5-foot-9, about 180 pounds. On the football field, though, surrounded by 300-pound linemen and receivers who stand 6-foot or taller, the difference is noticeable.
Theres something else, too; something even more obvious than his height. Switzer is white and, the stereotype goes, white guys arent supposed to run as fast and be as elusive as Switzer has proven to be.
Thats always out here, heres a white kid playing against whoever it is, Michael Switzer, Ryans father, said recently. I think that Ryan has always kind of had that chip. Because people make the lazy comparison to successful white players. Theyre like, oh, hes the next Wes Welker.
And no knock against any player, but Ryan doesnt compare himself to some of those guys.
Switzer compares himself to Tavon Austin, a former West Virginia All-American selected eighth by the St. Louis Rams in the 2013 NFL Draft. Like Switzer, Austin is 5-9. Switzer, who grew up going to West Virginia football games with his dad, formed a relationship with Austin during recruiting visits.
I remember being in the locker room and standing next to Tavon Austin, standing next to Noel Devine, Switzer said. Noel was shorter than me, and he was an All-American tailback. I didnt think size was an issue or anything like that.
It still isnt, in Ryan Switzers mind, but people talk about it more now. He has to process and deal with it this perception that what hes doing is special, or more so, because of his size.
Switzer laughed at the little man syndrome description from Fedora.
Everybodys talking about it, Switzer said. Like, How are you playing this game and youre only 5-9? And some people think Im 5-6, 5-7. And Im not that short. But to me, its like it has no effect on the game of football. Yeah, guys are bigger, but what I lack in height I have other things to make up for.
Like his speed.
Speed drills, then thrills
Switzer isnt sure where it came from.
His parents are athletic dad played NCAA Division II football until one of his ACLs gave out, and mom is a runner but theres nothing in Switzers lineage that explains how hes one of the fastest, most elusive players in the country. And there can be no doubting he is after he returned five punts for touchdowns a season ago, tying the NCAA record.
God-given, Michael Switzer said of his sons quickness.
Man played a role, too.
We trained specifically for football, said the elder Switzer, who played linebacker in college. Because I knew he was going to have my genes. He wasnt going to be 6-2, 200 pounds. And the entire time I trained him through sports, I always focused on speed and agility and we would do stuff even at a young age that helped model and form that foundation.
When he was a kid, Ryan Switzer played football games by himself in the front yard. He kicked off to himself, threw to himself and ran around the field by himself, in an imaginary world of touchdowns and broken tackles. His mom would come out to watch and hed tell her to go back inside this was something he liked doing alone.
When he grew old enough to start training, his dad had him doing box jumps and running around cones, working on agility. At some points, Switzer ran through obstacle courses his dad set up.
Those things helped prepare him for running through and around the kind of obstacles he encountered last season, when those five punt returns for scores came during the final five games. Two came in a victory at Pitt, where Switzers second touchdown won it in the final minutes.
The late-season success might have surprised some people. Not Fedora and his staff, though, and not his teammates, some of whom didnt know much about Switzers high school highlight reels but quickly became believers.
Senior safety Tim Scott didnt know anything about Switzer. All Scott saw, when Switzer showed up at a UNC camp when he was in high school, was a smaller guy who didnt lack for confidence.
And then once we started those one-on-ones, thats when everybody just crowded around him and watched him work the other corners, Scott said.
One school believed: UNC
Switzer chose UNC over offers far and wide, from Tennessee and Mississippi and Virginia Tech and scores of others, including West Virginia. Some schools didnt recruit him, though, and he remembers them. Some schools recruited him and still doubted him, he said.
He said they doubted his high school film and 40-yard dash or this measurement or that. Switzer said he felt disrespected by every school that recruited him.
Except Carolina, Switzer said. Former offensive coordinator Blake Anderson and coach Fedora, they didnt ever ask me to come to camp, to run a 40 for them, to run a shuttle, to bench however much however many times. They offered me the minute I stepped on campus.
It was a perfect match in some ways. Switzer wanted schools to believe in him he has the word believe tattooed on the inside of his bottom lip and UNCs staff made him feel like they believed more than anybody.
During Switzers first visit to North Carolina, Michael Switzer said, coaches told Switzer and his dad that he was the most important player theyd ever recruited. A common tactic, perhaps, but they made Switzer feel those words. Already, Fedora and his staff had a clear vision of Switzers role.
He fits in the backfield, he can spread out wide, he can play slot, he can do reverses, he can throw the ball, which he showed last year, said Gunter Brewer, UNCs receivers coach. All the different things. That guy is really a true athlete. We felt like he fit as good as anybody weve ever seen on tape.
That didnt translate immediately to college. That was to be expected, but Switzer worried he was failing. He compared his stats to players he admired, and what they did during their freshman seasons, and he was disappointed. It took him a while to find his place.
That game against Miami was a turning point five receptions and his first touchdown came one game later against Boston College. Two games after that, against Virginia, Switzer returned his first punt for a touchdown, and he ended the season with returns for touchdowns in four of the final five games.
Battling the stereotypes, still
In a strange way his success has brought more attention to his size and his defiance of the stereotype. The white guy stuff comes up a good bit, he said, usually in a positive way.
Sometimes kids will write to him on Twitter, telling him hes their favorite player because he has proven someone who looks like them can be fast and excel at a position where there are few white players.
In the ACC, Switzer is the only white scholarship receiver of his size. Sometimes his teammates tease him about it; remind him that hes different.
The white thing comes up in my own locker room, he said. I can take it from my teammates theyre my teammates. But it still comes up about me being white and all this stuff. And sometimes it gets annoying but I hear it a lot that it doesnt even faze me.
What does worry him are those thoughts of failing, that hell let himself down and now that hell let down people who look up to him.
He has entered the season without the anonymity that being a freshman provides. He has seen his name on preseason All-American lists as a return man, and he has vowed to become a more integral part of the offense.
Switzers confidence is so high he has spoken openly about wanting to win the Heisman Trophy, but that confidence belies what really drives him: the fear hell never be good enough, that the kick will be in the air, his moment ahead of him, and hell fail to seize it.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter