I wrote a story about Ryan Switzer, the North Carolina receiver and punt returner who's receiving a lot of attention and accolades entering his sophomore season. The story is about the fear that motivates Switzer – the fear of failure – and some other things, too.
It's about people doubting him because of his size. About what Larry Fedora, the Tar Heels' coach, has described as the “little man syndrome” behind Switzer's success. It's about people questioning Switzer's talents because he's white and, let's face it, there aren't many white guys doing what he is.
You can read the story here. As always, though, there's a story behind the story. In reporting this one, Switzer and I spoke for a while. It was an interesting interview, I thought, and it contains a lot of stuff that didn't make the story I wrote. Like: Switzer sharing one bathroom with three sisters.
Here's the interview:
Andrew Carter: You played soccer growing up, ran track, did a bunch of stuff. You wern't allowed to play football until the fifth grade. What drew you to the game?
Ryan Switzer: I think the fact that it was always on TV at our house. My dad played football growing up. He played at a Division II school back home in college, and he was fairly good. But I think with him playing and being on TV and all the kids in my neighborhood, we'd go out constantly and just play in the front yard. It was just so interesting to me, and it was unlike any other sport at the time when I was growing up. … And it was so intriguing because I couldn't play it. I wanted to but wasn't allowed. So I think that drew me to it even more. Like I just started licking my chops wanting to get out there and try it, and that's what drew me to it.
AC: What was your younger life like, in terms of participating in sports?
RS: My parents, they really believed in letting your kid do anything they wanted to do. And sports were just something that came natural to me. And I remember I'd play a soccer game Saturday morning, I'd have a basketball game that afternoon and then there'd be a swim meet that night. It was just, we were always doing something. The same thing with my sisters.
AC: What kind of role does football play in your relationship with your dad?
RS: I don't even love football as much as he does. I mean, he thoroughly just eats, sleeps and drinks football. I mean, it's unreal. So the game has brought us a bond.
AC: And he was a linebacker in college?
RS: So he didn't have the speed that I have. I'm still not sure where I got the speed, but it wasn't from my dad. He was a linebacker. He was more physical and tough than me. I got to watch some of his dinosaur film from back in the day. He was one of those old-school guys who didn't care what he wore. Didn't wear no gloves. The guys I hate playing against. Because they just like hitting. So that's the type of player my dad was.
AC: People have made an issue on your size. You're 5-9. Do you see this “little man syndrome” stuff that Larry Fedora talks about?
RS: To be honest with you, I didn't until everyone started talking about it. I had no idea. In high school, I had a little bit of an idea. But I didn't think of myself as any different than anybody else playing. One, because I was growing up, I saw guys my size playing. And I didn't hear anything about their size being a problem. I remember going on a visit to West Virginia my sophomore year, and I remember being in the locker room and standing next to Tavon Austin, standing next to Noel Devine. Noel was shorter than me, and he was an All-American tailback. So I wasn't aware of it, is what I'm saying. I didn't think size was an issue or anything like that.
But now, everybody's talking about it. Like, 'How are you playing this game and you're only 5-9?' And some people think I'm 5-6, 5-7. And I'm not that short. But to me, it's 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. So it has hindered me at any level that I've played on, and it won't hinder me at the next level, because you see guys like Wes Welker, once again, Tavon Austin's doing great. … It does not matter. The game of football has changed. Guys like me are at a premium now. There's a lot of us. So it really has no effect on me to this day. But some people still think it's crazy that I can do what I'm doing.
AC: You make up for it in speed, quickness, those things. What are some traits you have that people don't know about that help you overcome the relative lack of size?
RS: I'm very fearful. I have a lot of fears. I think a lot of them are hidden by my confidence. But I do fear a lot of things. And I think fear is a good thing. I think going into a game – I think being scared and having fear are two different things. Being scared, you're not confident in yourself, you're like, 'I don't know if I can do this.' But when you have a good fear in something, it's like you're prepared so much that you want to do well, you want to succeed. So I think that my fear kind of drives that a little bit, and it brings out a lot of confidence because it hides it and so forth. So I think people don't see the fear that I have but there's a lot of fear that goes into Saturday and goes into my future and stuff like that.
AC: What do you mean – a fear of getting hurt, a fear of a big hit? What kind of fear?
RS: No, no. I don't fear that. I fear that everything I've done to this point may not succeed. And I don't think about as an injury, I think about every day – me not being good enough. People think that's crazy, but it keeps you grounded. And I've always been able to humble myself. You know, there's been some events in my life that have humbled me, especially past spring, I dealt with some personal issues and some injury issues, but I've always been able to find a way to humble myself. And I think that's been God trying to keep me down to Earth, because I had a great season. So I think the fear that I have in me that I'm not going to succeed, that everything that I've done to this point is not going to be enough kind of drives me. … It's like a natural thing, and the fear, it all ties into that dog that I talk about that's in me. It's what drives me. When you step out onto the field Saturdays, you can't be scared, you can't be nervous. But you can have a good fear to you.
AC: You've talked with us some about a difficult game you had your freshman year of high school, and how that helped you reach this point. What do you remember about it?
RS: Yeah, it was awful. I still think to this day I wouldn't be here right now if I wouldn't have had that incident. I mean, it was a significant enough incident that I still talk about it to this day. I mean, it scarred me in a lot of ways and it also propelled me. It also gave me some motivation that I don't want to see again. I don't want that to happen again. … It's created that solid fear in me that brings out the confidence, if that makes sense.
AC: You come from a big family, and grew up with three sisters in the house. What was that like?
RS: It was wild. It was crazy. I mean, you talk about you don't have to set an alarm clock in the morning for school, because they're fighting over the bathroom, the shower. Like literally, they were at each other's necks.
AC: I wanted to talk with you about the race thing. It has to come up, I imagine, that you're a white guy playing a position where there's not a lot of white players. Have there been questions about you and your talents because you're white?
RS: There always has been. I remember going down to Florida State's camp, and I was going to be a junior and I went down to their senior camp. And there wasn't a white receiver at that camp. And I started, because in high school I didn't get a lot of hype, but I did get a lot of the color comparison. Like this is a white guy, blah, blah – I did hear about that. So I was aware of that. It still had no effect on me but I was like, man, this is still going on – like people are talking about race in a sport.
AC: I know it has to be strange to talk about but it does come up, right?
RS: It comes up a lot. I feel like – I don't have a responsibility, but I feel like a lot of kids do look up to me, because they can relate to me. Because they're smaller and they may be white and they may have people telling them, well, you need to play a sport that doesn't involve running and things most white guys can't do. And I had a lot of people tell me that I couldn't do that, and that I needed to play soccer and basketball or something. There was a lot of outside factors that motivated me to where I am today, and that was one of them. And when I get stuff like that on Twitter, and people telling me that stuff, it's humbling to me because I remember when I was a kid, I remember trying to talk to the super stars in college football. And when I would get one reply, even if it was a thanks, it made my month. Like I'd go to school and brag about it. Like when I get stuff like that, it may annoy people, but I try to get back to everyone I can because I can relate to them. I can remember being that little kid looking up to people. So it's pretty neat in that aspect.
AC: Did you ever feel that people doubted you because you're white?
RS: I got that a lot in high school. When I went to The Opening in Oregon (a football camp), I got that a lot. I was underestimated a lot because I don't look like a college football player. I can be a kicker when I'm in shorts and a t-shirt. I don't sense it as much now. It doesn't really run through my head whether he's doubting me or not because I'm busy thinking about how I'm going to beat him. And I know this year if that happens that's their fault because they're going to get beat. Because if they underestimate me now, let them do it because that just makes me beating them a lot easier because they're not taking me seriously.
AC: Does it ever come up in trash talk on the field?
RS: The white thing comes up in my own locker room. I can take it from my teammates – they're 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 doesn't even faze me. But I've never heard an opposing player say something to be about my color.
AC: During your recruitment, did you feel overlooked at all because of your size?
RS: I really got that sense from Notre Dame. … I did feel that way. I felt that way from everybody, from every big school in the country. Because every big school in the country wanted to see me in person. Wanted me to come to camp and they wanted to see for themselves. They didn't believe the film. They didn't believe any of the numbers that I did at combines and, by the way, all those numbers were official numbers – the 4.3s, the 3.7 shuttles … and they didn't believe any of it. So in a sense I felt that from every school that ever recruited me. Except Carolina. Coach Anderson and coach Fedora, they didn't 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. I mean, it was awesome.
AC: Take me through your punt returning routine, start to finish. How does it all come together?
RS: OK, so third down I'm on the sideline with coach (Gunter) Brewer, we're waiting to see what's going to happen. So as soon as they don't get it, I run out on the field, I spit on my gloves a little bit, make sure they're a little sticky so I can catch the ball. And then I look over, coach Fedora gives the signal to what we're going to do … And then the first thing I look for is how many guys, like whether it's spread or conventional. I know going into the game but I look at how many gunners are coming down. Usually a team will have two, three or four. And then really, as soon as the ball is kicked, I see it off the punter's foot, I look in the air and then I look down real quick to see if they got a free release or if they got held up a little bit. And that's usually when I know, OK, I can get this one. I can return it. And then the rest is you don't have time to think. And people ask me what I was thinking when I dropped that ball against Virginia. I wasn't thinking anything. I was just – I just reacted. I picked it up. You can't think. It's one of the longest plays in football but that says something because it's really short.
AC: How much time do you have to make a decision on whether to return it or fair catch it?
RS: It's a (split) second decision. I sound really smart but I had no idea, any of this, going into college. Coach Fedora explained it all to me. … Coach Fedora uses all this big terminology.
AC: You tied the single-season record last year for punt returns for touchdowns. How important is it for you to break the record?
RS: You know, I think it's more of a priority for everybody else than it is for me. I hear it a lot, about people talking about the record and stuff like that. I don't care if I return another punt the rest of my career. I want to come out of Carolina as one of the best to ever play at Carolina. Now if that means I have to return some punts then, OK, I'll do that. But the record itself, it doesn't mean that much other than I go down in college football history as the best to ever do that, which would mean a lot. But I don't sit around thinking about the record. I certainly didn't think about the record coming into my freshman year. I didn't think about breaking the punt return record. But I know we can do it. It's not a sense of how it's going to happen, it's just like when it's going to happen. Because we've got all of our guys coming back. Those guys who block for me do a tremendous job. So I know it's going to happen, I so try not to think about it because that's what hindered me the first part of last year, was I was thinking too much and I was trying to compare myself to what other guys did their freshman year and I wasn't doing that so I started freaking out. So I was just thinking too much, so I'm not going to do that. I'm going to be patient. I'm going to try to let the game come to me. I'm going to take a couple risks because I know I'm not going to get that many opportunities.
Andrew Carter is the UNC athletics beat reporter for The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow him on Twitter at @_andrewcarter .