The Daily Tar Heel

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Monday June 27th

Mack Hollins: The Unlucky Kid

Here he is, walking on with North Carolina’s special teams, jamming his foot through the tradesman’s entrance to Division I football. It’s the job no one wants, sprinting with the abandon of a runaway train through a minefield of brawn. “Mack,” says Luke Paschall, Hollins’ special teams and scout team coach, “Effort’s going to be how you get on the field. It may not be receiver, but special teams. And effort.”

Effort? No sweat. “Mack’s one of the hardest workers on the team, easily,” says senior Luke Heavner, a fellow walk-on and receiver. “Outwork everybody” served as the coda to Richard’s text exchanges with his son. Put your head down, do your job. Someone will notice. Everyone soon warms to the guy who, as Richard says, would give them the shirt off his back. The upperclassmen give him nicknames, chat him up, wrap their arms around him, elect him special teams captain in 2013, see him win a scholarship and soar up the depth chart this week to No. 2 on the weak side. He’s the walk-on who is far less an outsider than a brother.

Easy, there. Can’t be that easy for The Unlucky Kid, he who wears No. 13. He who gets kicked off his football team in Rockville, Md., during his senior year for defending himself against an antagonistic teammate. He who clears his name after a month-long court dispute when the lineman’s parents file assault charges. He who takes a three-month football sojourn after high school to Virginia’s Fork Union Military Academy when no D-I program calls.

“You’re just out here in no man’s land trying to function and taking orders and marching,” says John Shuman, Fork Union’s football coach. The day before he leaves for UNC’s training camp in 2012, Mack sprains his ankle hopping off of his Rockville patio. Richard shakes his head. “You can’t make the club in the tub, man.”

Yes, this is more like it. Two years before the scholarship lands, Mack takes out loans and pays for out-of-state tuition. For room and board at Craige North his first year and Odum Village his second. Buys a meal plan and scarfs down ramen noodles and PB&J in between practices, film sessions and classes.

Here’s Mack: trying to claw his way onto the team, trying to leap from special teams chum to the Kenan Stadium turf, trying to impress a group of coaches that barely recall this 6-foot-3-inch, 200-pound unknown. And he’s worried, above all, how his parents will afford the cost of out-of-state tuition. Richard, an assistant fitness trainer at Life Time Fitness and Karyn, who works in sales, toil to keep oldest son Brian at Stanford and Mack at UNC, with youngest son Drew helping the cause by opting for the Marines. But that’s the deal, Richard would tell them: Don’t you worry about a thing. We’re doing our job — you do yours. Two years later, they’d drive six hours down from Maryland to thank the coaching staff in person for awarding Mack his scholarship.

The job of the walk-on isn’t for the faint of football. Richard knew it, having roomed with one in the early ‘80s as a wide receiver at West Virginia. “It’s not going to be easy,” Richard always said.

Neither is switching positions, from safety to wide receiver in 2013. Or learning a new playbook. Whatever’s necessary to sniff the roster.

“There’s nothing easy about it,” says Heavner. “You’ve gotta come out, and if you screw up, that was your shot and you get it taken away.”

Here’s one shot for Mack: he’s on the field at Kenan Stadium in September 2013, by now a special teams regular. There are players, Paschall says, who play until they think the play is over. Then there are players who play until the play is truly over. Mack embarks on a 35-yard sprint, barreling downfield “like a racehorse,” Richard says, catching up with his incendiary punt returner Ryan Switzer to lay the last blocker on his backside.

Now, in 2014 and a few weeks shy of his 21st birthday, he’s here, far more than noticed, working his way into UNC’s receivers’ rotation. Shuman and Paschall, now at Arkansas State, are convinced that one day he will get a call from an NFL team.

Phew. Was it luck? That matters little to Karyn Hollins, who took the call from Mack in 2013 saying he would play in the season-opener against South Carolina. She sobbed on the edge of her bed, eased to her knees and buried her head in the sheets, the tears washing the mascara from her eyes as it runs onto the fabric. She kept the stained linens as a reminder of the good fortune life can still give.

And yet...was it luck?

“I never thought of it as being lucky,” Mack says. “If I can keep working, if I can keep grinding, eventually something good is going to come out of it. So far, that’s worked for me. I always keep trying to find a way out of whatever happens.”

It is settled then — no matter how unlucky The Unlucky Kid gets, he will crawl his way out. Always. Mack Hollins will continue walking on.

sports@dailytarheel.com



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