Grant Porter arrived on UNC’s campus late in the summer, a month or so before North Carolina men’s soccer began its 2011 season. The newly hired assistant coach was no stranger to Chapel Hill — he played four years of soccer at UNC and graduated in 2004 — but he entered his second stint admittedly out of touch.
Outside of head coach Carlos Somoano and the rest of his staff, Porter said he didn’t know anybody. That included the roster he’d soon coach. He made immediate plans to introduce himself. Within his first few days on the job, though, senior midfielder Kirk Urso beat him to it.
“He stopped in my office and wanted to get to know me,” Porter said. “Usually, it’s kind of the reverse, where the coaches reach out to the players. That’s a little bit of his personality, trying to welcome me in like a freshman.”
Seven years after Urso’s death at age 22, from a pre-existing heart condition that caused sudden cardiac arrest, stories of his friendship, patience and personality still run through the UNC soccer community. Former coaches, teammates and friends will tell you this about the team captain and 2011 national champion they lovingly call Captain Kirk: he had time for everyone.
“I don’t think I’ve met anybody ever like him,” said Rob Lovejoy, a former teammate. “He was just a downright good guy. He didn’t care if you were a starter on a national championship team or a bench player who never played a minute.”
Urso had time for everyone. So it’s only fair, his friends said, that they do the same.
Since February, the men’s soccer program, the Rams Club and the team’s alumni base have collaborated on, and since completed, a $50,000 fundraising effort in Urso’s name. Its purpose: to offset construction costs for the UNC Soccer & Lacrosse Stadium and, more importantly, give Urso a spot in their new home.
When North Carolina opens its season Friday night, the team will unveil a plaque and officially give Sections 3 and 4 of the stadium a new name: the Kirk Urso Student Section. His parents, Mike and Sandy, and his brother, Kyle, all of whom approved the idea, will attend.
To Urso’s teammates and coaches at UNC, it’s just one small way to honor their friend, whose impact on their lives and the program is still tangible in 2019.
“He made people around him compelled to do things like this, so it was great,” Somoano said. “I was very happy that it came together.”
‘He just had it'
Michael Callahan has seen firsthand that new players need an adjustment period. Especially so at the college level, where first-year athletes have new coaches, new teammates, new schedules and more.
He kept that in mind ahead of UNC’s 2008 season. North Carolina had just welcomed its newest recruiting class, and Callahan, a rising senior and team captain, was ready to help out his younger teammates. He soon learned Urso needed little instruction.
“There was no nonsense in the way he went about his soccer,” Callahan said. “He was there to compete, to get better. That couldn’t have been more clear from day one.”
A look at Urso’s pre-college résumé hinted at why. Before he played a minute for UNC, the Illinois native had already suited up for the United States’ U-15, U-16, U-17 and U-20 men’s national team squads.
He even flirted with some professional options before deciding on North Carolina, where he made an immediate impact as a Freshman All-America selection. As the midfielder further entrenched himself as a leader, a dichotomy emerged.
There was Urso, the fierce competitor: a player who relished every training session, developed a knack for taking and making long-distance shots and hated losing, even in the most informal scrimmage.
Then, there was Urso, the model student-athlete: coachable, vocal and a lock for the annual All-ACC Academic team. After intense practices, he’d still toss an arm around a teammate and chat him up as a friend, moments after they’d gone head to head.
When he graduated, Urso penned a letter of thanks to the soccer team which is framed in Somoano’s office to this day. He also gifted bottles of wine to various staff members, athletics department administrators and grounds crew workers with whom he’d crossed paths with.
Elmar Bolowich, who coached the UNC men’s soccer team for 22 years, including Urso’s first three, said one of the best compliments he’d heard about Urso came from his wife, Nina.
“My wife, and this is no lie, said, ‘If our daughter would marry a guy like Kirk Urso, we would be the happiest father-in-law and mother-in-law,’” Bolowich said. “That meant a lot.”
Urso’s UNC career coincided with one of the best stretches in program history. From 2008 to 2011, North Carolina made four College Cups and won an NCAA title under Somoano in 2011. Urso’s influence on each of those runs is tangible — game-winning goals, crucial assists, converted penalty kicks.
“He just had it, when it came down to finding a way to succeed,” Somoano said. “What other people consider the most high-pressure moments? For him, that was the opportunity to shine.”
As a senior team captain, Urso was a key starter for one of the best teams in program history. In 2011, North Carolina went 21-2-3 and won the ACC regular-season title, ACC tournament title and national championship.
Porter, the assistant coach, said Urso’s equalizer in the team's first-round tournament win — a 30-yard screamer of a shot to the top left corner — was “one of the best goals I’ve seen since I’ve been at Carolina.”
Urso’s college career culminated in Hoover, Alabama, where UNC beat UNC-Charlotte, 1-0, to win its second national title. He left Chapel Hill with a program-record 91 matches played, 15 goals, 24 assists and, at last, a championship.
“You couldn’t have written that,” said Lovejoy, a sophomore on the 2011 roster. “I know that year was super special to him.”
‘Do our best to honor him’
They all remember where they were on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012.
Somoano had just flown into Washington, D.C., returning from a family vacation to Europe. When he turned on his cell phone, which had been without service for a week, he had 120 text messages.
Porter was on a recruiting trip to Seattle with Jeff Negalha, another UNC assistant. Lovejoy was at his home in Greensboro. Callahan was in Richmond, Virginia. The news they got sent them into a state of shock and heartbreak.
Early on the morning of Aug. 5, Urso, a rookie midfielder and starter for the Columbus Crew of the MLS, collapsed in a bar in the Park Street District in Columbus. Police officers took him to the nearby Grant Medical Center. He was pronounced dead at 1:51 a.m.
A final autopsy report from the Franklin County coroner, released in September 2012, concluded Urso had died from arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy, a rare genetic heart disorder that wears down the muscular walls of the organ and can lead to cardiac arrest. Dr. Jan Gorniak, the coroner, told the Columbus Dispatch the 22-year-old Urso “probably didn’t know” he had ARVC.
Lovejoy drove to Chapel Hill that day to join his teammates, most of whom had played with Urso. Porter and Negalha attended a Seattle Sounders match to represent Urso and UNC; at that stadium and all across the MLS, the league held a moment of silence. Somoano rushed back to Chapel Hill to address his team.
“Obviously, there’s no formula or book you can read for that,” he said.
The following season was “easily the most challenging experience as a coach to go through,” Somoano said. Teammates and coaches attended Urso’s Aug. 10 funeral in his hometown of Lombard, Illinois, and had an exhibition game five days later. Somoano spent the 2012 season trying to support his players and keep them from falling apart while, he said, feeling like he was about to do the same.
“It was hard,” Porter said. “And it’s still hard when we really sit down and think about Kirk or hear his name. But we also do our best to honor him and bring up his name to our current guys.”
In the following years, the team has put Urso’s No. 3 on the field and held memorial matches. The Crew established a memorial fund and an annual award in his name. The UNC coaching staff also helped create a plaque for Urso, which was displayed at Fetzer Field.
The construction of the new UNC Soccer & Lacrosse Stadium, over the past two years, gave the program a chance to do something even larger.
Lovejoy was the main point of contact with Urso’s family, whom he said “loved the gesture.” He spearheaded the effort with Lea Zagorin, an assistant development director with the Rams Club. They met their goal about a month ago and are still taking donations, Zagorin said.
The unveiling of the section on Friday will also coincide with the team’s alumni weekend, which has been in the works for around a year. Over 300 former coaches and players plan to attend the season opener in the new stadium. That includes Lovejoy, Callahan and Bolowich.
At halftime of UNC's 7:30 p.m. match against Creighton, a video tribute will run, and Sections 3 and 4 will officially be unveiled as the Kirk Urso Student Section. Those who knew him at UNC hope the name will compel students, fans and people outside the team to learn a bit about Urso, his accomplishments and the legacy he left behind.
Because, as the saying goes around the program, Captain Kirk never met a stranger.