From laser tag and NBA 2K to the football gridiron, Drake Maye's always been 'the guy'
At the 2023 ACC Kickoff, it was easy for Mack Brown to sit back and laugh.
“Let me say I made a good choice,” Brown said. “Facts.”
This time last year, UNC was in the midst of a quarterback battle. Brown waited until the Monday before North Carolina’s opening game to announce then-redshirt first-year Drake Maye as QB1.
Almost 400 days following that press conference, Maye has accumulated over 4,300 passing yards, garnered considerable Heisman Trophy and NFL draft hype and enters the 2023 season as the reigning ACC Player of the Year.
Last year, there were no expectations. But now?
"He’s going to be a top two or three pick, which is incredible,” Steelers quarterback and former UNC standout Mitch Trubisky said. “So I wouldn’t say there’s more pressure, but he’s more in the spotlight than I was."
It’s a lot on the shoulders of Maye, who just turned 21. But, according to those who know him and his competitive nature, he’ll be just fine.
'A different type of cat mentally'
Maye's former basketball teammates at Myers Park High School might still have hard feelings. They have their reasons.
For two straight years, Maye joined the team in late December and instantly became the best player on the court. It didn't matter that he'd just finished a lengthy football season.
There's also that time Maye went undefeated against all his teammates, coaches and managers on a post-practice laser tag trip.
But possibly the most agonizing feat, the most casual, yet calculated move of dominance was Maye's reign as the Myers Park boy’s basketball NBA 2K champion.
The Xbox in the locker room and the TV used to review film were Maye's weapons of choice. The whiteboard that coach Scott Taylor drew plays on served as Maye's personal scoreboard.
Scribbled in big, all-caps copy at the top of the whiteboard was Maye's record. Former teammate Jeb Lloyd can’t recall the exact number of wins Maye racked up during his junior season, but it’s somewhere around 30.
The losses? There were none.
“There would be people in [the locker room] that had a chance [to beat Maye],” Lloyd said. “Half the team would be in the training room and they’d all get called in because Maye might lose. And then it never happened.”
The cheering for Maye’s opponent would stop. Teammates would trudge out. And then, Maye would have the audacity to open his mouth and add, "Yeah. That’s how it goes. What did y’all expect?"
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Moments like these are why Lloyd remembers Maye as a “different type of cat mentally.” Former teammate Duwe Farris doesn't even have a name for it; he just described it as Maye's "competitive thing."
It’s also the same cutthroat mentality that gives Maye an edge on the field.
“I think the best aspect about him is he’s competitive,” UNC junior tight end John Copenhaver said. “Whether that’s playing ping pong in the players' lounge or playing pickleball, he is out there to win no matter what.”
When Myers Park assistant principal Michelle Richards talks to Maye now, she sees the same kid she remembers from high school.
“Drake handles the publicity very well,” Richards said. “He’s grounded. He understands who he is and he understands the responsibility he has.”
When Maye visited Charlotte recently, he remembered to ask about her knee surgery. And last week, when UNC men's basketball walk-on Farris received an athletic scholarship, Maye called him almost immediately to offer his congrats.
“He’s about to be a Heisman front-runner and he’ll still think about his old friends from high school,” Farris said. “That shows his character. That was just a nice thing to do that he didn’t need to do.”
Aside from his coaches and teammates, Maye has his hometown support system and family every step of the way. Almost every day, he shares a meal at home with his older brother and roommate Beau Maye, a walk-on for the UNC men’s basketball team last season.
Beau’s there to support Drake, and vice versa. Last year, as Drake's stardom took off, he still made it to as many of his older brother’s games as possible.
“Especially early in our season, when their year was still going on, it just meant a lot,” Beau said. “Obviously, I wasn’t going to play, and we might’ve been playing someone who wasn’t very good early on, but he’d be there.”
Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell and older brother Luke Maye are just a few of the friends that Drake has on speed dial when he needs advice.
Drake witnessed firsthand the pressure that Luke, a forward for the UNC men's basketball team, underwent in 2018. After Luke's famous game-winner against Kentucky in the 2017 Elite Eight, expectations were high. Still, Luke delivered, earning third-team All-American honors and winning ACC Most Improved Player.
Howell and Drake, who were UNC teammates in 2021, are best friends. Beau estimated that Drake calls Howell “golly, probably 4 or 5 times a week at least.”
“It helps that Drake can talk openly with them, and has guys like coach Brown, the list just goes on and on,” Beau said. “Obviously, trying to follow [last year’s success] up is a tall task, but having guys like Luke and Sam is definitely a huge blessing because it’d be a lot harder going at it alone.”
In this year’s fall camp, Drake's leadership was clearly visible.
Following one August practice, while assistant head coach for defense Gene Chizik took questions from the media, Drake could be seen in the distance breaking down end zone plays with Copenhaver. Taking a break in between throws, Drake demonstrated to his tight end exactly when to break on the route and where Copenhaver could expect the ball.
It’s a natural progression from his high school days, in which Myers Park football coach Scott Chadwick rarely had to ask his quarterback to step up — Drake would take on that responsibility himself.
In a 7-on-7 tournament one summer, Chadwick suddenly realized he was short a receiver mid-game. Before he could say anything, Drake immediately ran onto the field and lined up as the X-receiver.
He took off on a go route, anticipating the deep throw. With his defender draped all over him, Drake reached over, snatching the ball out of the air with one hand. His teammates went ballistic, running down the field to swarm their quarterback-turned-receiver.
Drake's used to stepping up for his team in moments like this. It’s nothing new.
But entering last season, that was easier said than done. Brown recalls telling Drake at the beginning of the 2022 season that he needed to lead more. Drake, who hadn’t yet been named to QB1, replied, “I’m not the guy. We don't have a starter.”
“That made so much sense to me, and when he did take over, he took over,” Brown said. “He’s so much more comfortable now than he was then in handling the team because he’s the guy. He’s a proven guy.”
Drake's competitive fire, his support system that keeps him grounded and his knack for leadership have all prepared him for this moment.
Just take it from his best friend.
"He's a great kid, man. He loves football," Howell said. "He just wants to go out there and give it everything he's got every single week so I'm not worried about him focusing on the pressure or anything like that."
Shelby Swanson is the 2023-24 sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as an assistant sports editor and senior writer. Shelby is a junior pursuing a double major in media and journalism and Hispanic literatures and cultures.