T.J. Bleichner smiled and waited for someone to take a picture while the pen in his right hand hovered over the piece of paper.
His parents and friends gathered in the school library to watch the Fuquay-Varina High senior sign his letter of intent to run track and field at UNC-Wilmington. Bleichner, one of the best middle-distance runners in the state, was excited to officially pledge to a school that had wowed him during his campus visits.
It was Nov. 14, during the NCAA’s early signing period.
A little more than three weeks later, on Dec. 7, Bleichner was at home when UNCW assistant coach Donald Thomas called him. Thomas told him the school was eliminating its men’s and women’s track and field programs because of financial concerns. Men’s cross country and women’s indoor track also were cut.
Though current UNCW team members would have their scholarships honored by the school for the remainder of their eligibility, Bleichner, then 17, was told his national letter of intent, which binds an athlete to a school, was null and void.
Bleichner was stunned.
“I remember it was a Sunday night,” Bleichner said. “When he called me, I thought it was just to talk to me about coming down for my next visit.”
UNCW had cut its men’s indoor track and field program a year earlier, but the outdoor programs, whose players are eligible for scholarships, weren’t affected then. The Bleichners, as well as the UNCW coaches, didn’t think a cut would be extended to the outdoor program.
Blindsided, the Bleichners now were without a place for T.J. to run in the fall.
“The thrill of watching your child sign with a wonderful school – academically and athletically – that he really wanted to go to, and three weeks later it getting taken away, was a blow,” said Kyra Bleichner, T.J.’s mother.
“It was terrible timing,” T.J. Bleichner said.
But there was something better in store.
Putting together a plan
The next morning, T.J. Bleichner and his mother went to Starbucks and planned his future. Instead of waiting for coaches to call, they were going to call them.
“We talked about everything,” T.J. Bleichner said. “We talked about schools that I would want to attend, what was probably going to happen with the UNC-Wilmington situation. In the next few days, I was filling out questionnaires, talking to other coaches and reestablishing connections I had with previous coaches.”
They listed priorities. T.J. Bleichner wanted to go to a school with a good criminology or graphic design program. He came up with questions he wanted to ask each coach.
“The first thing that I had to ask now was, ‘Is the program stable? Is the funding for the program good?’ Because those are things I had to look for now,” T.J. Bleichner said. “It can happen anywhere if it can happen at UNCW, when they weren’t even looking at it.”
Bleichner’s father, Tom, assisted him by writing a letter explaining the situation. They sent it to several schools. One of them was the University of Maryland, Tom and Kyra’s alma mater.
Tom Bleichner figured the worst any school could say was “no thanks.”
Seven schools, mostly local, made scholarship offers to Bleichner, including some he had passed over for UNC-Wilmington. Others were skeptical of the letter and said they would wait for the NCAA to confirm his release from UNC-Wilmington.
Even UNCW coaches were calling, hopeful that the program could be saved with enough fundraising. Eventually, the total fell short.
“I feel really bad for them,” Tom Bleichner said. “They were still trying to save that program.”
T.J. Bleichner’s mother helped her son look forward. She urged him to continue competing, studying and training just as hard as he had before.
“We decided as a family that night, just as soon as he was off the phone with the UNC-Wilmington coaches, that it was simply just not meant to be,” his mother said. “Certainly no one tried to hurt him or do anything malicious. We were going to take this and believe wholeheartedly that God intended something else to happen.”
Blessing in disguise
In January, Bleichner won the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A indoor title in 500 meters. He had the fastest time in the state – 1:05.37 – regardless of classification.
“I had always told myself that I had to get a state title before I left high school,” Bleichner said. “There’s a board in our gym that lists all of our state champion teams and individuals, and I wanted to put my name up there so badly.”
Maryland had taken an interest in him, scheduling an unofficial campus visit in early March.
Maryland’s recent move to the Big Ten Conference was a boon for the track program, which increased its scholarships from 6.0 to 12.6.
The out-of-state tuition to Maryland is significantly more than in-state tuition to UNC-Wilmington, but Maryland could offer a 50-percent scholarship to offset some of the difference. It was higher than the 30 percent that UNC-Wilmington had offered.
Bleichner committed to Maryland. By losing his scholarship to UNCW, he was going to run in a much bigger conference and for his family’s favorite school.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” he said.
On April 20, Bleichner signed his new letter of intent at his home. A Terrapins flag was draped behind him. There wasn’t the same fanfare as the first signing at the school, but his mother called it a “family moment.”
Bleichner still has the photo from the first signing day on his phone. He said he won’t delete it.
“It was something that happened and I don’t want to forget about it. It helps me,” he said. “I do not look at it as a mistake.”