A living brochure, nobody knows Chapel Hill like Bob Ward

By James Tatter

Speaking in the entrance room to the Carolina Basketball Museum, Bob Ward was often interrupted in the middle of one of his many iconic Chapel Hill stories.

Midway through a tale of his short stint in the early 1970s as a rural mail carrier for the Chapel Hill Post Office, he stopped. A woman had walked in to inquire about the museum, a shrine to the storied University of North Carolina basketball program.

Ward was on the job as a “nonessential, seasonal, temporary, part-time” greeter and museum attendant, as he refers to the role he has held at the museum since his retirement in 2008.

He looks the part. His neatly brushed gray hair and darker bushy eyebrows frame a well-worn smile. His blue sweater has a wide silver, black and white argyle pattern down the front. He wears black Asics sneakers and navy socks with Tar Heel logos on them. A gold wedding band sparkles on his left hand, perhaps outshone by the pale blue crystal from his UNC class ring on the right hand.

The woman wanted to know if there was a brochure to guide her through the museum.

“We’ve never really had a brochure,” Ward said. “We’re a living brochure.”

No kidding. Ward’s memories tell of a Chapel Hill that anybody who has been there would recognize.

The town has changed, but Ward has a tale for every age.

Whether it’s a basketball game, a celebrity visit or even the weather conditions, Ward remembers it. Chapel Hill has left a mark on Ward, and he has left his mark on nearly everybody who has crossed his path in the seven decades that he has known the college town as home.

‘In my blood’

Ward remembers two presidential visits to Chapel Hill, both of which he witnessed in Kenan Memorial Stadium.

The first was by John F. Kennedy, on one of those patently Chapel Hill fall days where the sky dons Carolina blue and the clouds never roll in. Something was wrong with the public address system — “You couldn’t half hear what he was saying,” Ward recalls.

He remembers the day JFK was assassinated, too, just over two years later. His fifth period English class was dismissed early, and the bus home from the old Chapel Hill High School building on Franklin Street was stone silent.

“Nobody said a word,” Ward said, his characteristic smile temporarily leaving his face.

He remembers Bill Clinton’s visit for UNC’s bicentennial celebration as well, but not for anything the president did.

“Charles Kuralt stole the show,” Ward remembered. That was the day that Kuralt, the famous CBS broadcaster and UNC alumnus, delivered his ode to Chapel Hill, perhaps best remembered for his question, “What is it that binds us to this place as to no other?”

Ward is bound to Chapel Hill by a relationship that started with his father, who attended UNC.

“It was, I guess, in my blood,” Ward said.

His dad instilled an early affinity for the school. Ward remembers games in Woolen Gymnasium, where the Tar Heels used to play their basketball games. The wooden bleachers were carted over from Kenan Memorial Stadium after football season, and Ward was terrified of the large gaps in the slats — large enough for a kid to slip through, he was certain.

He remembers the 1957 season. After winning a triple-overtime game against Michigan State in which the lead changed hands 31 times, UNC advanced to the NCAA title game the next day against Kansas.

Ward and his father already had plans to go to visit his mother’s family in Florence, South Carolina, the next day. The tournament games were televised that year, but not as far away as South Carolina.

So after driving to Florence in the morning, he and his father hopped in the car that night and drove north to Fayetteville, North Carolina.

There they gathered in the living room of his aunt and uncle’s house along with a few neighbors to watch on a small black-and-white TV as UNC went to triple overtime for the second night in a row. After the Tar Heels sunk Kansas to capture their first NCAA title, Ward spent the night at the house before riding back to Florence in the morning and then back to Chapel Hill later that afternoon.

A man worthy of a statue

Ward graduated from UNC in 1970. He worked in banking for years, but never stopped being involved with UNC, particularly its basketball program. He has ushered at home games for the Tar Heels for 35 years.

He started at what was then called Carmichael Auditorium, moving over with the Tar Heels to the Dean E. Smith Center when it opened in 1986.

One of Ward’s close friends, Freddie Kiger, is a courtside statistician for college basketball broadcasts on ESPN, Raycom, Fox Sports South and CBS. Kiger labels Ward as a local legend.

“Bob Ward has been here forever,” Kiger said. “They should have a statue of him somewhere.”

Ward brought another Tar Heel fan into the fold when he married his wife, Ann, who he met in 1973.

“When he planned our wedding in the fall around football season, I kind of got an inkling for it,” Anne said.

He took her to her first UNC basketball game in 1973, a senior day matchup in Carmichael against Duke. The game would become one of the most iconic in the history of the UNC-Duke rivalry.

With 17 seconds left, the Tar Heels trailed by eight points. Before the advent of the 3-point shot, the Tar Heels scored four times to tie the game in regulation before winning it in overtime. Ann remembers thinking the bleachers were going to give out from the crowd jumping around.

“Those things were bouncing,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we are going to die right here.’”

The couple estimates that they go to 60-70 UNC sporting events per year, including the games Ward works with the basketball team.

At the Smith Center, he is a fixture, responsible for sections 127-130. His job has put him next to rapper J Cole and author John Grisham. Scott May, the father of legendary UNC player and current men’s basketball director of operations Sean May, used to stand next to Ward on the concourse to watch games away from the crush of the crowd.

His job has put him even closer to some of the players on the court. He took a knee to the chest from a diving James Michael McAdoo while working courtside, and had a near miss when Reggie Bullock jumped above him.

Ann often watches on TV from home, where she looks for the back of his head on close-up shots.

“If I’m ever near the TV, I’ll tap on his head,” she said. “He says he can’t feel it.”

A smaller world

The Wards have one daughter, Katie, who quickly got caught up in her father’s fandom.

When she was 3 years old, Ward would take Katie with him to watch UNC baseball games. Katie was like her father: She never met a stranger. She would walk around the stadium, talking to whoever she could.

Over the course of the season, she befriended a college girl named Lindsey Mathews, who would sit behind home plate. Mathews dated the team’s catcher.

The catcher, Todd Wilkinson, would let Katie run around the field after the games.

In 2017, more than 30 years after Mathews and Wilkinson graduated, a UNC graduate student walked into the Carolina Basketball Museum. She was filming something for a project.

As always, Ward struck up a conversation. Bizarrely, it came up that her father was Wilkinson. Ward shared with the girl the connection he had to her father and the girlfriend. The girl informed him that Lindsey had ended up marrying Todd after all.

“Is your daughter’s name Katie?” the girl asked.

It sure is, Ward informed her.

“I’m named after her,” the girl told him.

Ten years after leaving UNC, the Wilkinsons were still charmed by the lovely child who had kept Lindsey company. So much so that they named their daughter after her.

Katie Wilkinson connected Lindsey with Ward via phone, and they both started crying. The Wilkinsons and Wards reconnected when Barton College, where Todd is now the athletic director, came to Chapel Hill to take on the Tar Heels at the Smith Center later in 2017.

The world seems to be a little smaller for Ward than it is for anyone else. He has a connection to and a story of just about everything to do with this town. Spend enough time in Chapel Hill and your thread has probably crossed over his at some point.

His stories could fill volumes of books. And it doesn’t take much to get him to tell them.

“All you have to do to get to know Bob Ward better is walk up and introduce yourself,” Kiger said. “And then let Bob Ward be Bob Ward.”

Story edited by Brennan Doherty

‘Mental health is health:’ For student-athletes, pain goes beyond the physical

By Madeline Coleman

The beat echoed throughout Carmichael Arena, bringing fans of all ages to their feet.

A little girl in the center of the third row clapped her hands to the music. She spun in her red polka-dot dress, dancing along with the routine happening several yards away.

Young girls sashayed in between rows of seats while little boys ran around with pompoms. A few were dressed as princesses, others as superheroes. College students and athletes danced along with the music, cheering for their friends as the gymnasts competed on the floor.

The North Carolina gymnastics team stared at the audience during their floor routines, smiles etched across their faces at the fans’ reactions to their performances. It’s their favorite thing to see.

While on the surface the gymnasts were poised and smiling, there was a little thought lingering in the back of their minds during the Feb. 9 meet against Towson. The win paled in comparison to the night’s theme. It was the team’s first-ever mental health awareness meet.

The sport is defined by beauty and perfection, typically put under a microscope to see if it’s a sport or an art. It’s both, but that doesn’t help the mental health problem that runs rampant throughout gymnastics and the athletic community as a whole.

Starting the conversation

UNC gymnastics head coach Derek Galvin walked into a boardroom last summer for the East Atlantic Gymnastics League coaches meeting, eager for that day’s topic: mental health.

Towson gymnast Olivia Lubarsky started the university’s mental health campaign last year, labeling it “Own Your Roar.” It began with her personal struggle with anxiety and depression, and how she wanted athletes to own their mental illnesses rather than hide from them.

Galvin had heard about Towson’s mental health awareness meet and was interested in learning more. It’s a theme he had wanted to do for several years.

“I knew we wanted to do something around that area, but I didn’t know how to start,” Galvin said.

Galvin brought the materials home with him that the Towson coach had passed out during the meeting and met with Dr. Jeni Shannon, UNC’s director of mental health and performance psychology, and Cricket Lane, assistant athletic director for student-health development; he wanted to discuss the next steps for this meet. Between the rise of mental health issues in young adults and the trauma within the gymnastics community after the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal, Galvin wanted to be one of the first people to start the conversation.

“For anyone between the ages of 16-25, life can be really rough sometimes,” said Galvin. “We can destigmatize the use of resources to cope and handle the struggles we all face at times … the pressures on young people can take a toll.”

Daniel Eisenberg, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, conducted surveys with student-athletes who participated in educational presentations from all 31 athletic teams at the university. As he stated in a USA Today article, Eisenberg found that most collegiate athletes who struggle with mental health illnesses don’t seek help.

According to his findings, 33 percent of all college students experience significant symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions. Within this group, only 30 percent seek help; however, only 10 percent of collegiate athletes do.

“We’ll talk about physical health all day long,” Shannon said. “In the athlete world, no one is ashamed to say they tore their ACL, but people don’t necessarily say they have depression.”

‘We’re people too’

The lights dimmed in Carmichael Arena as the video board came to life.

All eyes looked up as different UNC athletes came across the screen, laughing and smiling at what the person behind the camera said. Then, their faces turned serious.

“We perform on the field,” women’s lacrosse player Riley Harrison said.

“We excel in the classroom,” gymnast Jamie DeCicco said in the next frame.

A few more athletes were shown in the next few frames, commenting on how they help in their community and “bleed Carolina blue.” While this is something most fans know, the remainder of the video showcased different athletes talking about worries an athlete may deal with.

“We wonder if it will all work out,” men’s tennis player William Blumberg said.

“We struggle to be our best selves,” women’s tennis player Jessie Aney said.

The two-minute “Mental Health: More than a Tar Heel” video was created by the student-athlete representatives on the UNC Student-Athlete Advisory Council. Although several administrators, including Shannon, have talked about making this video for several years, the students took the initiative and volunteered for the video. Harrison wrote the script with the help of other athletes, while Shannon provided advice when needed.

The student-athletes want to encourage their peers to start a conversation about mental health in an attempt to end the stigma. Although they compete on a national stage, their thoughts and feelings are just as valid as others.

There’s more to an athlete than their sport.

“You are more than a Tar Heel,” men’s basketball player Brandon Robinson said near the end of the video.

The lights came back on and a few audience members wiped away a stray tear. Out on the concourse, Counseling and Psychological Services and Embody Carolina, a student group that’s dedicated to preparing students to have conversations about eating disorders, had set up tables with pamphlets and fliers for the attendees of the gymnastics meet.

In agreement with the UNC’s athletic department, the team debuted the “Mental Health: More than a Tar Heel” campaign video before and after its meet as a way to take a stand.

“It means that we’re more than the number on our back or the school on our back,” junior gymnast Mikayla Robinson said. “We’re people too, and I feel like people forget that a lot, because they’ll tear into you on social media and stuff when you’re not doing as well.”

The most important reminder in the video, according to several of the gymnasts, was that mental health is just as important as physical health – and should be treated as such, especially with athletes. Sometimes, the focus on mental health will get brushed aside.

“It’s important because when you look at athletes, you don’t necessarily think mental health is a big thing for them, but in reality, it is a big thing,” sophomore gymnast Lily Dean said. “I think competing for that and bringing awareness was important.”

Destigmatizing in an immediate culture

First, there were handwritten letters.

Then, the telephone and instant messaging on the family computer.

Now, cellphones and laptops hardly ever leave people’s reach.

It’s the age of immediacy, which has only fed into the mental health problem with the rise of social media.

“We’re seeing more and more evidence that social media, despite in theory (that) it’s supposed to be connecting us more, truly makes people feel more alone,” Shannon said. “It’s very brief, kind of less meaningful interactions, but I think the bigger part is everybody’s putting their best versions of themselves out there and everyone gets caught up in the comparisons, and it seems like everybody has a perfect life based on their social media posts.”

Pew Research Center conducted a study in 2015 that analyzed the connection between social media and young adult mental health. The most glaring statistic found in the study was that those who view social media platforms at least 58 times per week were three times more likely to feel socially isolated compared to those who use social media nine times per week or fewer.

In the age of immediacy with apps that are supposed to make people feel more connected, there’s a chance that they might cause more harm than good. Between the rise of social media and competing on a national stage, media scrutiny adds to the problem as well for student-athletes.

As more research is being done about this generation’s mental health, the NCAA and Power 5 conferences have pushed to make student-athletes’ mental health a priority. The NCAA in 2016 released “Mental Health Best Practices,” which offers guidelines for understanding and supporting student-athlete mental wellness. In January, the Power 5 conferences passed legislation to strengthen the mental health services and resources provided at universities.

For UNC gymnastics, the Feb. 9 mental health awareness meet was the team’s way of taking another step forward in destigmatizing the conversation.

“We’re really hoping to have mental health be treated exactly like physical health because mental health is health,” Shannon said. “And hoping by starting the conversation, it destigmatizes it in that way, and people are most likely to get the support they need, whether that’s professional help or support from friends or family.”

Edited by Brennan Doherty

Olympian or not, Brandon Kelly has become a judoka

By Jessica Snouwaert

Linkin Park blared through his headphones as he paced the gym floor. His hands, clammy with sweat, fiddled with the black belt wrapped tight across his waist. He took a deep breath, his white cotton uniform hanging loosely on his slender frame. This was Brandon Kelly’s ritual before every judo match, but this wasn’t any judo match. This was his chance to compete in the 2016 Summer Olympics. This was the U.S. Olympic Trials.

Beyond his headphones, the training center swelled with the sounds of competitors grappling. Kelly tried to block out everything around him. He needed to be clear-headed when it was his turn to step on the mat, ready to outwit his opponent. One point is all he needed to win his first match of the trial.

When it was time for Kelly’s match, he stepped onto the thick foam mat, face-to-face with his opponent: a young 20-year-old man slightly taller but not much heavier than himself. As they walked toward each other and bowed, a thought flickered in Kelly’s head: Would his elbow last the match?

‘Decisive for once’

Kelly, 22, started studying martial arts as an 8-year-old. By 14, he earned his first black belt. By the time he was 17, he had earned two more. What began as a way to stand up to his older brother became a dedication to a sport of physical self-expression and mental discipline.

“I’m a very indecisive person, but it seemed that whenever it came to competing and being on the mats with other judokas, I was very decisive,” Kelly said. “It was a split-second decision you had to make. I love that ability to be decisive for once.”

Kelly started out by taking weekly karate classes in his hometown of Pittsboro, N.C., and quickly realized that he not only enjoyed martial arts but was particularly apt for it. His low center of gravity gave him an upper hand in sparring matches; he could think on his feet. But most importantly, he practiced and his instructors noticed.

“Brandon, without even having to tell him, ‘Hey, you need to practice,’ would go off and do it on his own,” his former instructor, Chuck Longenecker, said. “And he would come back every week hungry for another lesson and willing to show what he’s been working on.”

Before long, Kelly was earning trophies, medals and plaques in competitions across North Carolina. His older remembers him coming home from matches with as many as six trophies at a time to add to his room, one already full of past awards. As he improved, Kelly evolved from student to teacher, helping other classmates and teaching classes of his own.

Kelly expanded his martial arts repertoire from karate to other forms, including taekwondo, Jeet Kune Do, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. But among the many forms of martial arts, Kelly gravitated towards judo. He wanted to study it and become a judoka, a term for someone with expertise in the sport. The style came naturally to him because judo is what he calls “smart man’s wrestling,” a physical game of chess, with opponents trying to pin each other to score a single winning point. For Kelly, the movements, balance and pace of judo felt right.

“I love that whenever we were in the thick of it, there was almost a cohesion even within the friction, the pushes and pulls of trying to get an upper hand,” Kelly said. “There is a cohesion that flowed so much like water.”

Traditional sports never interested Kelly until he reached high school and he started using judo for high school wrestling. The hours of judo practice, in which he learned how to sweep an opponent on their back with one decisive movement, proved advantageous in wrestling. By his sophomore year, Kelly was as much of an avid wrestler as he was a martial artist, with daily practices at the high school and weekly competitions around the county.

During that season, Kelly found himself in a daunting wrestling match. Trapped face-down beneath his opponent, he fought to sit up. Kelly tried to swing his weight and escape the hold, but his opponent anticipated the movement with a forceful block, dislocating Kelly’s elbow. He continued to struggle against the opponent thanks to an adrenaline high that dulled the pain. Kelly managed to break free, unaware of his damaged elbow. He won the match but missed the rest of the season.

The injury cut Kelly off from wrestling and sparring. During the recovery his motivation to fight dwindled. Without weekly practices and competitions, he decided to invest his time into a different passion: Boy Scouts of America. Kelly, now the organization’s international mobilization and emergency management specialist, was on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout after his injury. One day while working on his Eagle Scout project, he heard his home phone ring and answered.

“Hello … this is he …uh huh. Well, I’m not sure that I’ll be at that competition,” Kelly said. “I’m currently recovering from a dislocated elbow …who’s we?”

The U.S. Olympic Committee was calling, and they wanted to see Kelly compete in an upcoming judo competition. Giddy with disbelief, Kelly knew what to do he had to keep fighting. Even if he couldn’t make it to the upcoming match, Kelly knew he had to recover, train and compete.

But years passed with silence from the USOC, and Kelly was beginning the second semester of his first year at UNC-Chapel Hill. But that spring he received another call from the USOC. This time there was an invitation to attend trials for judo at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado. Wanting to seize what might be his only opportunity to compete in the Summer Olympics, Kelly boarded a plane to Colorado Springs that summer.

Overcoming a ‘mental roadblock’

One minute and 15 seconds is all it took. One minute and 15 seconds into his first match of the trials, Kelly’s elbow became dislocated for a second time. Unlike the last time this happened, Kelly did not win the match. He bowed to his opponent, the loose cotton uniform he wore concealing his disfigured elbow. He headed toward the bathroom, holding back tears of disappointment and pain.

Alone, he screamed and cursed as he popped his joint back into place. This was his chance to go to the Summer Olympics and it was gone. Kelly rode the plane home in silence.

The next year was spent avoiding the gym or talking about martial arts. Kelly stopped competing and wouldn’t even watch movies of his martial arts idol, Bruce Lee.

“I just had this mental roadblock,” Kelly said. “I had no energy, I had no motivation. Like, ‘Now what?’ I felt a lot like the donkey with a carrot strapped in front of it; you’re pursuing, but you’ll never catch it.”

The role of judo waned in Kelly’s life but other passions developed. He took on a prominent leadership role in the Boy Scouts, organizing national events and statewide projects. While his involvement with the Boy Scouts flourished, he still felt estranged from judo. It took a trip halfway around the world to jolt Kelly from the painful memories of his last competition.

While traveling abroad in Israel during the spring of 2018, Kelly went out to visit the local bars in Jerusalem. He was enjoying a night out with friends when he saw a man forcibly kissing his friend. Kelly leaped to his feet and grabbed the man, telling him to leave his friend alone. The man turned and swung at Kelly. Kelly deflected the blow as four other men jumped toward him in a drunken rage. The next few seconds were a blur as Kelly subdued the five men.

Afterwards, his friends rushed over to him with a flurry of questions. How did he know how to fight? The answer was clear to Kelly.

He was a judoka.

Edited by Brennan Doherty