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What it's like to balance campus fame and normal life for UNC's student-athletes

Cricket Lane, assistant athletic director for student-athlete development, said this idea is positive and negative for student-athletes.

“Even if they’re not in their uniform, people know who they are,” Lane said. “I think they know that they’re going to be recognized, and they’re going to be onstage, and they have an obligation to shake a hand or talk, but I don’t think they mind.”

Luke Maye, a sophomore forward on the men’s basketball team, said he wishes students would be less shy in interactions with him.

“I just want people to treat me as a regular person,” Maye said. “I don’t really have anything special about me, besides just maybe being a little taller than the average person and shooting a little better.”

Some student-athletes choose to embrace the opportunities that come with increased visibility.

‘It’s a blessing and a curse’

Senior wide receiver Ryan Switzer said people approach him as he runs errands around Chapel Hill.

“Whether you’re at a restaurant or just shopping at Walgreens or something like that, people always have some words of encouragement,” Switzer said.

Switzer said there are also downsides to celebrity.

“Sometimes, when I’m out with my fiancee and we’re just trying to enjoy a meal, or when I’m with my family, sometimes you just want to sit down and have some personal time,” he said. “But to whom much is given much is required, so obviously I can’t really complain about anything.”

Maye said awkward interactions around campus have become common for him.

“I joke with the guys all the time, because people will look at me and then they won’t say anything, and that really gets me a little frustrated,” Maye said. “If I see you look at me, I want you to speak. Usually now, sometimes, they’ll look at me and I’ll speak to them, and they’ll walk away and I’ll look back and they’ll be giggling or something.”

Senior cornerback Des Lawrence said he doesn’t feel as recognizable as some of his teammates, but that’s fine with him.

“As far as on the Ryan Switzer and Mitch Trubisky level, I don’t really think that people know who I am to that extent ... sometimes I am (glad it’s that way), because I’ve been with those guys in places where they’ve been with their family or they’ve been with friends, and people just come up to them and you never know how you’re feeling that day,” he said.

He said he’s impressed with how his teammates deal with it.

“Those guys are really mature in the way that they handle it, so it’s a blessing and a curse, I guess,” he said.

Caleb Pressley, a former backup quarterback who graduated in 2015, said throughout his academic and personal life in college, he noticed fellow students paying more attention to him than to his non-athlete peers.

“Of course they did,” Pressley said. “I don’t know if it’s because I was an athlete or because if you know someone, you’re going to know what they’re doing, but of course they did. But I don’t know if it’s always in a negative light, or if it had a negative connotation.”

Pressley said that his visibility around town was just as heightened as it was in class.

“I don’t think your privacy is at risk in the classroom any more than anywhere else,” Pressley said. “It’s also at Chipotle, at Franklin Street at night. It’s a privacy issue in general.”

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‘There to learn’

Michelle Brown, director of the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes, said it’s common for athletes to be recognized by their classmates.

“People know who they are, people have watched them the night before, and then they show up to class,” Brown said. “That is a different situation for them to have to transition to, to understand how to manage their life with that.”

Lois Boynton, an associate professor in the School of Media and Journalism, said she once sat in on a large lecture in which Marcus Paige was a student.

“There is a sense of when he walks in the door, people turn and look,” she said. “But then there’s the sense of, ‘Oh, it’s Marcus,’ and then they get back to what they’re doing.”

Pressley said he felt that students in his classes paid attention to him, not his academic performance.

“People know who you are and they want to know what you’re all about,” Pressley said. “It’s an opportunity for you to showcase what you do and how you carry yourself, and they’ll evaluate and judge you just like any other person in life. You’ll notice, oh that person is confident, nervous, smart or not so smart.”

Junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky said he’s not bothered by his visibility in classes.

“I don’t think (being recognizable) really impacts me,” Trubisky said. “I don’t really like it. I’ll wear a hat to class and just be Mitch, but I mean, that’s the territory it comes with, being the quarterback here, and I’m just trying to represent myself and the University well.”

Senior STEM lecturer Kelly Hogan said within the walls of her classroom, she hasn’t noticed dynamics shift due to the presence of student-athletes.

“I find students are there to learn and often don’t realize who might be in the back of the room,” Hogan said in an email. “I had one very recognizable athlete that students didn’t seem to notice until one of the last days of the semester. Students seemed disappointed that they hadn’t noticed.”

‘Those kids know they’re UNC athletes’

Brown said she’s seen athletes take advantage of their celebrity to help other people.

“I definitely have seen also that they use (their visibility) along the way to be mentors,” Brown said. “They go into the classrooms, go into the hospital and try to sit with a child who was ill and make their day better, and I think that’s a special thing, too.”

She said opportunities like this shine a positive light on UNC’s athletic programs.

“People see that and that taps into their notoriety and they’re a UNC Tar Heel and they can share that with children,” Brown said. “That’s special for families.”

Lane said no matter what sport an athlete plays, local children are always excited to meet them.

“I think that what’s really cool is when they go to an elementary school, it doesn’t matter if they’re basketball, fencing, rowing — those kids know they’re UNC athletes and think it’s awesome,” Lane said.

Maye said he tries to spread positivity in his everyday life.

“I just try to go through every day just looking to brighten someone’s day, and really do my schoolwork, and then come to practice and work hard,” Maye said. “That’s what I try to do.”

Pressley said his time as a student-athlete helped him become a better person.

“It allows you to be in a position where you can showcase yourself, and that’s a good thing,” Pressley said. “You don’t have to fight to be remembered.”

Sports Editor C Jackson Cowart contributed reporting.