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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC soccer's Andy Lopez plays for his parents, brother and lifelong friends

Festifall in Carrboro 10/2
Festifall in Carrboro 10/2

Before Andy Lopez steps onto the soccer field, he bows his head and prays.

The North Carolina redshirt sophomore remembers his mom and dad, who are watching from their home in Mission, Texas. He recalls the car rides every weekend: Nine hours to Dallas. Six to Houston. Five to Austin. His parents drove him to his soccer games in nearly every corner of the Lone Star State.

Thank you, God, for their love.

The midfielder smiles at the thought of his brother, Mikey, who is watching from New York City. He sent Andy a text before the game. A reminder to play like a bulldog and that he loves him.

Thank you, God, for his guidance.

The 20-year-old looks up and sees Zach Wright, Tucker Hume and Walker Hume — his best friends since middle school — standing by his side.

Thank you, God, for their friendship.

In all I do, let me play to honor them.

Amen.

***

Andy’s parents, Miguel and Martha, recognized the talent in their youngest son before his third birthday.

Mikey was 4-years-old, and Miguel was coaching his team. Andy watched from the sidelines, pacing, staring intently as his brother played. He didn’t want to sit with his mom and play with the grass like the other toddlers.

He wanted on the field. He wanted the ball on his foot. He wanted the jersey on his back.

After his father convinced the referees, Andy took the field.

But was he good? Andy laughs.

“They say I was.”

Everything moved quickly, then. Andy was about to start sixth grade, and if he wanted to play college soccer he needed to draw attention from scouts. He would have to leave home for St. Stephen’s Academy in Austin, five hours away.

Leave his bubble. Shed comfort. Find himself.

At St. Stephen’s, sixth and seventh graders weren’t allowed to board, and Martha and Miguel still had to make a living from Mission. They couldn’t just uproot their photography business and move to Austin.

So Andy bounced around. His mom would stay for a couple weeks and then return home to help with work. Andy would live with his coaches for a few nights until she could make it back.

“I felt like (my parents) were never together," Andy said. "And the main reason was because of me."

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Even still, his parents never missed a game. Time or place, that didn’t matter.

Miles are just numbers. And distance is just a bunch of green signs, fast food hamburgers and rest stops. Not a permanent fixture. Not something that can’t be overcome.

“Now that Andy is further away from Texas, it is tougher to watch his games in person,” Martha said. “So on every gameday ... we pretty much have a watch party.”

Aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins — they all file in, sporting matching Lopez jerseys, to watch their boy play.

“Some of them don’t even like soccer, but it doesn’t matter,” Andy said.

He doesn’t forget the people wearing his jersey back home. He still calls his parents every night before he goes to sleep.

“They sacrificed a lot to give us the opportunity to play at the next level, even if it meant (me) leaving home at 13,” Andy said. “I try to make them proud every day.”

***

There are big shoes to fill, and then there are the shoes Andy had to step into before he left for UNC.

His brother, Mikey, was a top recruit out of high school, winning ACC Freshman of the Year and a national championship at UNC before joining the MLS — all in two years.

How can you top that?

“I’m proud of what he did, but we have two completely different paths," Andy said. "But my freshman year, I had that pressure. My brother did this, so why can’t I?”

The brothers grew up in the backyard playing one-on-one. Perfecting moves. Kicking ankles. Growing in the game they loved together.

And it was in those days when they refined their game. They found their own unique style. They had to.

“When we would practice, if I didn’t get the ball from him, I would hit him or pull him, so he could get used to it,” Mikey said. “I kept pushing him to be better.”

Andy stands 5-foot-10, his style elegant. He moves like a ballerina with the ball at his feet. He shuffles and slides with ease. Mikey, a bit smaller at 5-foot-8, is a bulldog. He hunts. He takes out whatever is in his way.

“Our toughness,” Andy said, “we just get that from going one-on-one. You just grind the whole time.”

Now all those long practices in the backyard have come to fruition. Mikey soaks in every moment when Andy is on the field for the Tar Heels, as he watches from New York City.

“I always jot down some things that he should look at,” Mikey said. “We want each other to be better. We’re our hardest critics.”

Andy soaks it in, too. Every word. Mikey is a mentor, yes, and a friend. But a brother, above all.

“He’s the reason I started playing soccer,” Andy said. “I always want to do what he does.”

***

The Hume brothers used to pick Andy up from school before soccer practice when the three were at St. Stephen's Academy. There wasn’t much time, so they would bring some food. Bagel Bites or Digiorno’s Pizza. Whatever they could throw in the microwave.

Soccer practice was in San Antonio, again, away from Andy’s new home in Austin. There were late nights and junk food, but what does it matter when you’re with your best friends?

“I basically lived with them,” Andy said. “Those were the best times.”

When Andy committed to UNC in his junior year of high school, all he could think about was his friends being there with him.

“We’ve done everything together, me, Zach and the twins,” Andy said. “I wanted them to come with me more than anything.”

That’s exactly what happened. Zach signed with the Tar Heels later that year, and their buddies Tucker and Walker would meet them at UNC after two years at Rollins College.

Each of them has their own role. Tucker and Walker are well known for making fun of anyone and everything they see. Zach is the level-headed one of the bunch. And Andy is the comic, never missing a chance to get the last laugh.

“I’m the one in the car singing and making a music video,” he said.

Andy’s 160-plus Snapchat followers get to see the minute details of his life, from what he’s eating to what he’s jamming to in the car. And whether laughing off the field or hustling on the field, this group of friends is always together.

“We all come from the same place ...” Tucker said. “Soccer has kept us close throughout all these years.”

***

When Andy puts on his UNC jersey, he never forgets his history.

After tying for fifth on the team in points in 2015 — including a game-winning goal against Lousville — it would be easy for the redshirt sophomore to get lost in the moment.

But he hasn’t forgotten his beginnings in Mission or the two-a-days at St. Stephen’s. He remembers the pain of leaving home, the joy of playing with friends, the love of his family.

Years later, Andy still yearns for his mom’s home cooking. He still turns to his brother when he’s in doubt. He still makes his friends buckle in laughter.

Some play for the emblem on the front. Others play for the name on the back.

Andy Lopez plays for the people who got him there.

@davidrallenjr

sports@dailytarheel.com