North Carolina receiver Austin Proehl learned two things early on from his father: how to catch and how to serve.
The first part came naturally for the former Providence High standout, who turned an all-conference career into a collegiate scholarship at UNC. In his three years as a Tar Heel, he’s shown flashes of his father, Ricky Proehl, who was a star receiver at Wake Forest before playing for six NFL teams in 17 seasons – including three years with the Carolina Panthers and then serving six more as an assistant coach under Ron Rivera.
The second part also resonated with the younger Proehl, who for two decades watched his father parlay his platform as an athlete into community service. Now, Austin is doing the same. The senior starter earned the ACC Top Six for Service award in 2016, and he was nominated to the 2017 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team earlier this month for his work in hospitals and schools.
“When you’re going through the process,” Ricky said, “you don’t realize the impact you’re having on your kids.”
In 1995 – the year Austin was born – Ricky founded the P.O.W.E.R. of Play Foundation with his wife, Kelly, to help care for and mentor children in North Carolina. But 23 seasons working in the NFL meant hours away from his own children. So Ricky would bring his three kids with him wherever he went: to football camps and charity functions, to elementary schools and children’s hospitals.
For Ricky, it was a chance to bond with his children. But for them, it was a lesson in adversity. Austin said he realized the blessings of his own life and became intrigued by the idea of bringing his own positivity to others’ lives – just as his father did.
“You don’t realize what it can do for someone until you actually stand in that room with them,” Austin said.
It’s a holiday tradition for the Proehls to spend Christmas day with children in need. It started in St. Louis, where Ricky spent five seasons with the Rams, by bringing gifts to children at the Ronald McDonald House. It continued in Greensboro at Proehlific Park – a sports complex focused on child care – with programs such as Angel Tree and Santa’s Helpers, buying and delivering gifts to kids’ homes.
Austin said he made annual holiday visits to Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte while he was at Providence. Some kids wanted gifts, while others asked for money to help their parents pay bills. Sometimes, a simple conversation would do.
“Their Christmas has no normalcy,” Ricky said. “And for you to be able to bring that to them and bring something special and see it light up a family and these kids – it changes your life.”
When Austin was deciding between colleges, he knew he wanted to continue the service his parents had modeled for him. On his official visit to UNC, Austin’s tour guide told him about the community work she did, and she said volunteers were always needed, particularly in the hospital.
By the time Austin enrolled at North Carolina, the tour guide was gone. But the receiver found a new home at UNC Hospitals.
“I didn’t know how important it was, how special it was (when I committed),” he said. “But I found out quickly.”
Three years later, Austin says he’s visited nearly every institute within UNC Hospitals: from intensive care to the cancer center to the bone marrow unit. He spends his Fridays at the hospital, half an hour in each room, and he spends the rest of his weekdays reading to children in elementary schools.
He brings along teammates – including Kyle Murphy and Thomas Jackson, both from Charlotte – just as his father brought him along years ago. And he still brings gifts to patients in the children’s hospital, just as he did at Providence.
“You bring them a football, you bring them a signed autograph – shoot, you bring them anything,” Austin said, “and it’s like it’s Christmas.”
In September, Austin will take the field as the Tar Heels’ presumptive top receiver, a year away from the potential NFL platform he desires. He’ll also find out whether he’s one of 22 players named to the Good Works Team.
He says he wasn’t expecting to make the initial list, nor does it change his plans for service work. He hopes to visit more hospitals off campus this year, and he wants to expand his outreach in Charlotte after he graduates.
“I’m as proud of him for doing that and philanthropy that he’s continued to do as I am about him playing football and making big plays on the field,” Ricky said.
It’s what he taught him, after all.
C Jackson Cowart on Twitter: @CJacksonCowart