If you’re a UNC sports fan, you probably know about Michael Jordan, Mia Hamm and Julius Peppers, but what about the hundreds of other UNC athletes that have gone professional after their time spent at Chapel Hill?
Our school has produced some of the most successful athletes in their respective fields.
Some big names include former New York Giants player and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Lawrence Taylor, former Seattle Mariners player Kyle Seager, former Los Angeles Lakers player Bob McAdoo and former U.S. Women’s National Team Player Heather O'Reilly, who is now an assistant coach for the UNC Women’s Soccer Team.
One of the most recent UNC athletes to have gone on to professional play is women’s soccer player Tori Hansen, a fall 2022 graduate who was drafted on Jan. 12 to the Orlando Pride, a member of the National Women’s Soccer League.
Former men’s tennis player Rinky Hijikata — a member of the UNC team from 2019 to 2021 — became an Australian Open doubles champion on Jan. 28 and has competed in many other tennis championship matches.
Former UNC quarterback Sam Howell, predecessor to Drake Maye, was a starter for the NFL’s Washington Commanders on Jan. 8, helping their win against the Dallas Cowboys.
These examples are all recent UNC athletes — they went to the school within a two-year span of each other. Hansen, Hijikata and Howell have made huge strides in their professional careers, whether by being drafted or winning an international trophy and title.
There are 23 UNC football alumni in the NFL, nine men’s basketball alumni in the NBA and four women’s basketball alumni in the WNBA. There are 18 women’s soccer alumni in the NWSL, two of whom are current members of the USWNT, and many who were former members. There are four baseball alumni in the MLB, six women’s lacrosse alumni on the U.S. national team.
The Tar Heels have been a leader in almost all of the varsity sports the University offers — and it goes beyond just being a good college team. UNC has consistently put athletes in the pros, and a lot of them.
Even if these athletes play professionally for a short time, getting drafted into a professional league is significant. And it gives UNC sports fans something to look forward to after their favorite players leave the school.
Now, instead of watching Cameron Johnson — Puff Johnson’s older brother and current basketball player for the Brooklyn Nets— play against the abomination that is Duke, fans can watch him play against whatever the equivalent of the worst team ever is, but in the NBA.
There is a downside to this phenomenon, though. If UNC has a reputation for putting athletes into the pros almost every year, that means it’s expected to.
This could incentivize the University to primarily recruit players that they can ensure will go to the pros, and cause them to disregard other top-level high school athletes.
For example, Tori Hansen – mentioned above as a recent women’s soccer player drafted into the NWSL – was a member of the U-15, U-17 and U-18 USA women’s national teams, before even coming to UNC. Her athletic success prior to playing collegiate soccer was a good indicator that she would be professionally successful post-UNC, giving them good reason to recruit her.
However, Cameron Johnson was a successful high school athlete but was never a guarantee for the pros.
He was awarded numerous accolades before going to UNC, both in high school and during his time at the University of Pittsburgh. He led the team in steals and shooting .811 in free throws. And though these are notable accomplishments, they might not be an obvious indicator that he will have a professional athletic career.
It was not until Cameron Johnson came to UNC for his last two years of eligibility that it became clear he was headed for the NBA. At UNC he had a .847 free-throw percentage, was third on the team in scoring and scored double figures in 19 of his 26 games.
If not for his time at UNC, Johnson might not have made it into the NBA. UNC recruiting him, even though he wasn’t a shoo-in for the pros, increased their reputable status for producing professional athletes.
UNC needs to continue recruiting athletes with this high level of potential, not just those who are clearly headed for the pros. Allowing athletes the opportunity to grow into professionals includes not discounting those who don't have the privilege to display their talent earlier in their careers.
UNC has had a number of former athletes leave their mark, both in Chapel Hill and wherever they have gone post-graduation, cementing their legacies. There may be too many to count.
Now, the question is… who’s next?
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