In over a century of intercollegiate athletics at UNC, Black athletes have only been allowed to participate for less than 60 years.
On Saturday, two of these athletes received much-deserved recognition in front of a sea of Tar Heel faithful. Synthia Scott Kearney and Reggie McAfee were honored as the sixth class of Tar Heel Trailblazers during halftime at the North Carolina men’s basketball game against Florida State.
Kearney was the first Black player to compete for the North Carolina women’s soccer team, helping the program earn its first two national championships in 1981 and 1982. Having not played soccer until she got to UNC, Kearney worked her way through club to varsity — impressing head coach Anson Dorrance with her athleticism and speed.
One of her most memorable moments was scoring the game-winning goal in the 1982 NCAA semifinal to send the Tar Heels to the title game.
“She was a really determined kid,” Dorrance said.
McAfee was another “first” — the first Black runner ever to run a mile under four minutes while competing for North Carolina track and field in 1973.
He made history at the Big Four Meet in Raleigh with a time of 3:59.8 and bested himself a week later in the ACC Outdoor Championship with a time of 3:59.3 — which remains one of the fastest mile times in school history.
“Reggie’s (motto) was all business,” Dan Deacon, McAfee’s former teammate, said. “He was driven and set goals and was very serious about achieving them.”
The Trailblazers award recognizes athletes like Kearney and McAfee who were pioneers in athletics and made lasting contributions at UNC and beyond.
Kearney and McAfee have continued to be trailblazers even after leaving Chapel Hill, finding themselves once again as the “only one” in the room and inspiring others to reach their full potential.
For Kearney, success was all about being her "authentic self,” regardless of the space she found herself in.
After working as a special agent with the U.S. Secret Service — a position where women, and Black women specifically, were also not hired until recent decades — Kearney became the first and only female captain and battalion chief in the City of Gastonia Fire Department.
The dream of being a firefighter came from watching the 1970s drama "Emergency!" as a teen. After having to shelve her dream for college, working a federal job and taking care of her three daughters, Kearney’s teenage vision came full circle.
Kearney said she experienced push back from others as she moved into higher positions. She remembered people and attitudes toward her changing while also having the support of her peers and predecessors.
“I just hope that being able to be in this position, I can inspire others because I go out on calls and people are like, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen a female firefighter,'" Kearney said. “And then they hear you’re chief — they’re like, ‘All right, go ahead.’”
Kearney hopes to get more women into firefighting, especially in Gastonia, where a woman hasn’t been hired to the department in almost 20 years. As a recruiter, she often stops women that walk by at career fairs who may have not considered the job at all and encourages them to think about it.
“What I want to be, as in my place, is representation.” Kearney said.
McAfee has also done his share of inspiration through his nonprofit organization, Cross-Country for Youth.
After working for the Xerox Corporation for 26 years, McAfee started the organization in 2006 to help kids like people helped him, he said.
“I’m one of those kids from the projects, man, the inner city,” McAfee said. “But a lot of people in the community, they gave to me, they supported me, they encouraged me. They were always standing in the gap. And, I want to be like those people.”
Cross-Country for Youth introduced elementary- and middle school-aged kids to running and competition while also providing education on topics like mental health.
The organization is intentional about reaching Title I schools and getting more underrepresented students interested in running while giving them all the support they need to be successful in their future endeavors.
“We catch them early,” McAfee said. “If we catch them early, then they can springboard into high school and then college scholarships.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the running time of Reggie McAfee at the ACC Outdoor Championship. He finished with a time of 3:59.3. The Daily Tar Heel apologies for this error.
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