‘Tough times never last, but tough people do’: Blumberg’s journey to tennis stardom

By Madeline Coleman

William Blumberg stood on the sidelines of the indoor courts, watching his teammate and close friend Blaine Boyden’s every move.

It was May 2017, and the University of North Carolina men’s tennis team was tied with the University of Georgia 3-3. Whoever won on Court Six would go on to fight for the NCAA Championship.

The Greenwich, Connecticut native locked eyes with his teammate for a split second and had a look on his face that showed his faith in Boyden’s ability. In a way, it calmed the then-sophomore for what was to come.

Boyden bounced the ball three times before throwing it in the air and hitting his serve. Blumberg moved his head side to side, never losing sight of the ball. As Boyden hit the ball wide, just out of reach of the Bulldog opposite the court, Carolina was headed to its first NCAA Championship. Blumberg, who was a first-year at the time, ran onto the court without hesitation, quickly followed by his teammates. He was the first to reach Boyden, who jumped and embraced his teammate in midair.

Two years later, a picture of that moment is now hanging in Boyden and Blumberg’s apartment.

Blumberg almost missed out on that game and the chance to play for UNC-CH. He was ranked as high as No. 4 in the juniors’ world at one point, playing international tennis matches as a teenager. He’s hit with Mike and Bob Bryan, the most successful doubles tennis players in America, over the years and even Roger Federer this past summer.

So why is Blumberg here, competing on Court One for singles and doubles, instead of going pro? Because he doesn’t want others to think of him as just an elite athlete.

There’s more to him than that label.

The Legacy of Little Compton

 The Blumberg brothers couldn’t help but smile as they rolled the windows down.

William leaned his head out the window of the car as his family got to the exit for Fish Road in Rhode Island. The salty ocean smell hit his nose and the sun shone down on the car. At the end of the road at the bottom of the hill, there’s a sign that reads “Little Compton.”

The Blumberg brothers’ smiles grew even bigger. They were finally at their vacation home.

“It’s something, and a place that you’ll never understand until you go there,” William said.

This small town holds a piece of William’s heart. Some of his oldest friendships were formed on Little Compton’s tennis courts and golf courses. This is where he fell in love with tennis and became a scratch golfer.

He, his brothers Alex and Andrew and his friends would play on the beach all morning, eating a marshmallow fluff sandwich or two. But once the clock neared 3:30 p.m., they dropped everything. With sand in their shoes, the kids would run to the country club in order to make it in time for AT’s, a tennis clinic for all ages where they would play games. The group would then play golf at dusk, get up the next morning — and repeat.

Sometimes, William and Little Compton are almost seen as one and the same to his friends.

“When I think about Little Compton, I think about Will immediately,” said Michael Marzonie, William’s best friend since kindergarten. “I affiliate him with that spot because it’s so down to earth and so genuine. There’s nothing flashy about it.”

Here, William isn’t the big-name tennis player. He can relax his shoulders and be William, or “Bops,” as his family calls him.

“William Blumberg is the tennis player and who people know,” said Andrew Blumberg, William’s oldest brother. “The Bops is who William is when you really know him.”

Reigniting his love for tennis

Blumberg sat on the bleachers and watched his brothers play tennis.

He longed to join them, to play with them. He wanted to be like them. Sports was his gateway in, his way to be seen as an equal and to hang out with them. He became a fiery competitor, making it hard to get him off of the court.

“He was always hassling me to stay after work for another 20 minutes to play another bunch of baseline games with him,” said Pat McNally, a tennis pro from Little Compton. “It’s funny how the tides have turned because now I’m begging him to stay and play with me… I used to kick his butt and now he’s kicking mine all over the place.”

Blumberg found success early on and started traveling in the junior circuit regularly, resulting in him missing more days of school. When he was in eighth grade, his school gave Blumberg an ultimatum — tennis or school. He chose to do online schooling and continue traveling for tennis.

He quickly found international success. At 17 years old, Blumberg made the quarter finals of singles and doubles at Junior Wimbledon and made the finals of Junior French Open Doubles with Tommy Paul, now a tennis pro. He even won the Junior Davis Cup for the U.S.

All signs pointed toward him staying pro. Blumberg was one of the lead junior USTA players in the nation, and had hit with pros like Ryan Harrison, Thomas Berdych and Novak Djokovic.

But his body suddenly held him back.

Blumberg would come home feeling awful. His parents would send him to the doctor for more antibiotics. Even when he competed in the Junior Wimbledon and French Open, he was miserable.

The doctors eventually discovered that Blumberg had infectious mononucleosis, more commonly known as mono, but the diagnosis came too late. Blumberg was tired of people berating him in practice while his body struggled. He was burned-out.

“I was depressed and I hated the sport,” Blumberg said.

Blumberg took a step back from the lonely road and went home to Greenwich High School for his senior year.

It was his dad who convinced him to go out and hit a few times a day. As each day passed, Blumberg found his love for the sport again.

“It wasn’t who I am, but without that time period, I wouldn’t be the man I am today,” Blumberg said.

Blumberg and his oldest brother Andrew have always shared a love for sayings. As his little brother struggled through hard times, this Robert Schiuller quote captured how William would persevere, according to Andrew.

“Tough times never last, but tough people do.”

Blumberg’s next step was as unexpected as his setback. He decided to ignore what people were telling him to do and go to college rather than the pro circuit. It turned out to be the best thing that’s ever happened to him.

During his time at UNC-CH, Blumberg has broken records. He was the first player in program history to reach the NCAA singles championship match. He was named ITA National Rookie of the Year, ACC Freshman of the Year, 2018 ACC Player of the Year, and ranked as high as No. 1 in both singles and doubles during his 2018 spring season.

“With all of the success he’s had as a player, he’s certainly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, player to ever play at Carolina,” said UNC-CH head coach Sam Paul.

A never-ending network of support

There they are, gathered in the masses surrounding Court One.

UNC men’s basketball senior Luke Maye and manager Eric Hoots sit along the sidelines yelling as loudly as they can. The men’s golf team sits behind one end of the court, showing just as much support. Countless athletes and college students from all walks of life surround Blumberg’s court to support him on any given match.

However, some still believe it pales in comparison to what Blumberg gave up.

“There are people congratulating him or angry with him,” said Asher Dawson, Blumberg’s best friend from Little Compton. “They DM him on Instagram saying, ‘I can’t believe you didn’t win your match. I lost this X amount of money,’ and he has to filter out that noise.”

But his friends and family are the only voices that matter. They would do anything to support him, and the feeling is mutual. As his girlfriend Mary Bryan Pope describes, Blumberg cares deeply, whether it’s about family and friends or tennis.

When teammate Boyden’s mom was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time in 2017, he felt his world stop. Boyden was in his room on Super Bowl Sunday when he got the call from his dad. Blumberg could sense something was wrong and decided to check on Boyden. Since then, Blumberg has been by Boyden’s side.

“If you’re in his corner, he’s going to care for you with all he’s got,” Boyden said.

Out of concern for Boyden’s wellbeing, Blumberg had Boyden’s favorite YouTuber Nick Colletti create a personalized video for Boyden.

“I will always go the extra mile for my friends and my family,” Blumberg said. “I would take a bullet for anyone that I’m close with.”

Moments like this showcase how meaningful friendships are to Blumberg, a love so strong that he wanted to get a tattoo of some kind that reminded him of his friends and family. It started as an impulsive idea, but his parents told him to wait a year before getting the permanent ink.

It’s small enough that no one would notice unless they were looking for it. The tattoo is hidden when his sleeve is down, which is something Blumberg loves. Etched in his mom’s handwriting on his right bicep is the word “we,” the letters formed together so the tattoo is connected.

“Whatever happens and you’re there for one another, that’s my ‘we,’” Blumberg said. “It’s just a subtle reminder that you’re not alone and you’ve got people around you, and you’ve got the people who love and care about you.”

Every so often, the junior will grab his arm, rubbing where the tattoo is. It reminds him of his family, who is the center of his “we,” and his friends.

He’s never alone.

Edited by Charlotte Spence.

Artist reignites creativity after surviving gunshot wound from his stepfather

By Megan Cain

The phone hadn’t stopped ringing for three days.


George Mitchell was lying on the laminate floor of his kitchen in his childhood home. He slipped in and out of consciousness.


Next to him was his stepfather, the man who had shot him in the neck with a shotgun three days ago. After shooting Mitchell, he turned the gun on himself. He was dead.


Mitchell could move his arms and hands but couldn’t muster the strength to reach the phone high above him on the wall.

“All I need is one. Just one of them to come by,” Mitchell thought.

Painting his pathway to success

Comic books and superheroes.

As a six-year-old boy left to his own devices on his family farm, Mitchell became obsessed with his action figures. He picked up his crayons and began to draw the ones he admired.

Before long, he realized he had potential. Mitchell’s artistic ability drove him through his early years, especially when he struggled with subjects like math. He hated math.

Mitchell remembers watching his mother scrape by to provide for him. She was a house worker with a grade school education, working long hours, determined to provide a better life for her son.

Mitchell knew he had to succeed in order to build a better life for himself and his mother, a challenge he accepted with open arms. He spent many late nights next to the gas stove that heated his house, scribbling through his math homework.

Those long nights paid off when he got a B in geometry his sophomore year. He knew right then he could do the whole college thing.

Classmate Faye White remembers Mitchell as a quiet, kind soul. Their class formed a lasting camaraderie through art, even painting a mural commemorating John F. Kennedy’s inauguration together. White and Mitchell won the superlative for “most artistic.”

During high school, Mitchell began working at the Museum of Life and Science under the guidance of the museum’s director and curator at the time, Richard Westcott. Westcott took him under his wing for three years, teaching Mitchell how to craft life-size sculptures, including dinosaurs that still stand in the museum today.

Later, Mitchell would credit this experience for putting him ahead of his classmates as he worked for his undergraduate degree at North Carolina Central University and his master’s at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Mitchell was the first in his family to graduate from college.

His mother attended his master’s exhibition, where he was the only Black student and one of the first to graduate from UNC’s master’s program.

“I had this big afro,” Mitchell recalled with a chuckle. “But she was so proud, so happy to see me succeed.”

He was offered a position at University of California, Berkeley, but he didn’t have the money or the support system to move across the country.

“So I chickened out,” Mitchell said.

Instead, Mitchell moved to New Jersey with his cousin and worked in a factory for 10 years. He kept creating his art out of a basement studio until he was offered his first teaching position at Morris College in South Carolina. He was the only art faculty there.

 During the four years he spent there, Mitchell experimented with collages because they were easier, quicker and cheaper for him to do. He was invited to speak on South Carolina’s educational TV network and had one of his sculptures published in a textbook.

But he was ready for a new opportunity. He packed his bags for Georgia and accepted a position at Albany State where his antics quickly formed a reputation.

The art department had few resources, but Mitchell pushed his students to their limits. For one sculpting project, Mitchell had students gather materials from around town.

Garbage, scrap wood, metal. Whatever they could get their hands on.

Willette Battle gathered a hodgepodge of materials, doused each piece in paint, and tried to build a sculpture that stood as tall as she did at 5 feet, 9 inches.

Sawdust, sweat and maybe a few tears swirled around the room as the students worked tirelessly to please their teacher.

When Mitchell walked in he took one look at the mess, chuckled, turned around and left.

“Only A’s and F’s existed in Mitchell’s class,” Battle said. “He wanted your all. There wasn’t any in-between.”

He was relentless — but with good intentions. If students were struggling, he made sure to meet them where they were and bring them up to speed.

“You just have to get past that hard crust to get to the soft middle,” Battle said.

Under Mitchell’s guidance, Battle went on to attend Howard University on a full scholarship to get her master’s in fine arts. She was the first student from Albany State to go on to pursue a higher degree.

“I knew I could survive anything because I survived Mitchell,” Battle said. “He made me fearless.”

But teaching was never part of Mitchell’s plan. It was simply a vessel for him to continue creating and to help others do the same.

As he aged, Mitchell began to receive more recognition for his work. His goal was to get a permanent display in a national gallery. He kept working and experimenting in different mediums — creating sculptures, collages and paintings.

Fascinated by Black athletes at the 1996 Olympics, Mitchell began painting their physiques on large canvases with bright colors. He used bold, distinct lines to emphasize their strength. Each athlete has one characteristic in common — blue skin. Mitchell says this is meant to represent their struggles as athletes of color.

He was working on this collection when he made a fateful journey home to check on his ailing biological father.

He’d never finish the collection.

Rediscovering his devotion to art

She wanted him to cook a steak. He had no interest in cooking a steak.

His occupational therapist was at her wits end. She sat down to talk to Mitchell instead.

“What would you like to do, George?”

He began to talk about his days of painting.

“I feel like I have my hands tied behind my back without art,” Mitchell said.

She encouraged him to pick up a paint brush — a feat he hadn’t accomplished in 13 years.

From there, he kept building and taking his art more seriously. In his condition, Mitchell can’t sit up for long periods of time without passing out.

Word traveled along the grapevine in the art community that Mitchell needed help. Eventually he was connected to Holly Phelan Johnson in Durham at ArtPost, a group that helps people with disabilities find ways to make art.

“I put coming to see him off for a month,” Phelan Johnson said. “I just knew he was going to be this grouchy old man given all he had been through.”

Mitchell was quite the opposite.

Phelan Johnson remembers talking to him for hours about life, art and his goals.

“And he wasn’t bitter at all. Just a warm soul that was dying to create again,” Phelan Johnson said.

She was astounded by the amount of art Mitchell had stowed in his house.

Piled in corners. Crammed in a decaying shed. Haphazardly strewn across his living room. His life’s work was shoved into each crevice of the house.

To help him continue creating, Phelan Johnson connected him to engineering students at Duke who crafted a special easel for him to use while lying down.

“I felt free again,” Mitchell said.

But he still required assistance. Anybody that knows him would say that’s hard for Mitchell.

He’s prided himself on his independence and work ethic his entire life, but now he requires the help of others to do the thing that brought him new life.

“They say Picasso had a blue period,” Mitchell said. “My whole life has been a blue period.”

You wouldn’t know it though.

Surrounding himself with art, friends and family keeps him going. When his show “Continuing the Dream II” opened at Duke on March 7, dozens of Mitchell’s friends dropped by to congratulate him but ended up staying for hours.

They gathered around his wheelchair, sharing laughs and words of encouragement.

White came from Durham, bringing other classmates along with her.

Battle made the drive up from Alabama, joking with Mitchell about gas money.

He’s still working on the Olympic series he started in the ‘90s, partnering with Phelan Johnson on a fundraiser to restore what he’s already made.

Sometimes he catches himself thinking about the incident with his stepfather in 2003.

He thought his stepfather’s mental health was declining, and he warned police because he was worried for his safety. They informed Mitchell they couldn’t do anything until his stepfather took action.

He doesn’t dwell on it, though. He can’t.

“I’m disappointed in what he did,” Mitchell said. “But I’m still here. And I’m going to keep doing what I love.”

Edited by Charlotte Spence.

‘Fighting the government with absolutely no weapons:’ Our immigration policy

By Cee Cee Huffman

Misael did not sleep on Nov. 8, 2016. He spent his Nov. 9 drive to his early college high school crying.

“Not for me,” he said. “I thought of all of the innocent people that were going to go through so much suffering through this one thing. How many families were going to be tore up, how many hearts would be shattered, how many lives would be lost.”

He said everyone at school was shocked that Donald Trump had won the presidential election. They were afraid. They were sad. Misael’s teacher could see that he was panicked. She offered to take him to the bus station right then and there.

“I’ll drive you to Moore Square right now and buy you a ticket, so you can go back to Mexico right now,” she said.

He couldn’t understand why she would say that to him.

“Because you’re acting like everything’s lost already,” she said. “If you think that everything’s lost already, might as well go back right now.”

He said that was the cold, hard slap in the face that he needed to keep going.

Getting by

Misael came to America on a plane when he was 6 years old with his dad and sister. His dad had finally won parental custody, and they were going to live here with Misael’s aunt and grandparents so his dad could have help raising them.

“They assume that we’re here to take their jobs, we’re here to take their money, and we really aren’t,” Misael said. “You come here and you try to make a decent living for yourself. If you mess up, you go back.”

When President Obama introduced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Misael and his sister signed up. They explained where they were, who they were, gave them their fingerprints and had their pictures taken. They received social security numbers so they were able to work and, most importantly, they were put at the back of the line for deportation.

Misael’s not quite American, but he’s not quite Mexican, either.

His dad got married during Misael’s last semester of high school. His sister was 16, so she now had legal status. Misael was 18 and without legal status, but he kept pushing forward.

He got the opportunity to work for the county school system for nine months translating documents from Spanish to English for teachers. He was the youngest full-time employee the county ever had while still finishing high school.

He became anxious when that was over. He said Mexican families share bills, groceries — everything. He got a job at an immigration attorney’s office as an interpreter. It was chaos. There was no one to clean, vacuum or take out the trash. Misael went in extra early every morning to do all of that himself, without being asked.

“You have to take pride in where you work,” Misael said. “We’re a lawyer’s office. You can’t have a mess.”

He started working Saturdays and Sundays. He was going to jails, talking to clients and explaining the bail process. He saw firsthand all of the holes in the American immigration system.

“You’re basically fighting the government with absolutely no weapons,” he said.

Misael started working for his buddy installing windows and doors. He had never done hard labor like that before.

“I’m a heavy guy,” he said. “So to get up on those 40-foot ladders – I remember it was the middle of January, 20 degrees, and I was sweating like it was mid-July.”

He was the only one who spoke English, so Misael got access to all of his buddy’s accounts. Misael was his right-hand man, but his friend would disappear for days or even weeks at a time. Misael couldn’t take that stress.

He learned how to drive trucks. He hauled logs for a while before moving on to paper.

Misael does anything he can, and he does it better than anyone else.

An unexpected wake-up call

He was lying in bed, relaxing after his long day as a temporary truck driver for a paper company. He’d been getting up at 2 a.m. every day to start his route. His day finally ended at 6 p.m.

He was just about to fall asleep when there was a knock at the door. He jumped out of bed and made himself presentable. It was two policemen.

“Which is weird, because I respect my town’s policemen,” Misael said. “Historically they haven’t been very humble, but they had never messed with me.”

The two gentlemen came into his house without invitation.

“I don’t need any explanations,” the officer said. “I’m just looking for a cellphone.”

Misael didn’t have the cellphone the officers were looking for — the cellphone they said they had tracked to his house, the cellphone a woman had lost at the Food Lion earlier that day. They told him it would be a shame if they had to go check the tapes and come back.

He was scared. He lives in a 287(g) community, meaning that the very same police standing in his house could deport him or his family if they felt they had any reason at all.

Misael said no one in his house had been to the Food Lion that day. Maybe they could ask the neighbor. The officers walked out, but Misael wanted to talk to his neighbor himself. His neighbor told him they were searching the whole block.

“Then why did he tell me it was in my house?” Misael asked. “Why didn’t he tell me the same thing he told you?”

The officers probably saw that Misael was flustered when he opened the door. They saw Misael’s surprise and could have sworn he was guilty.

“He saw a young, Hispanic kid and he thought, ‘This kid’s got it,’” Misael said.

He was angry. Not because he didn’t understand why the officers would do that to him, but because they didn’t respect his dignity. It’s a recurring theme in his life.

Still, Misael said everyone deserves to be respected.

He said he’s tired of feeling like a stranger somewhere he’s lived his whole life. He said that, even though his dad and his sister will stay here, he thinks about what it would be like to go back to Mexico.

“How wonderful it would be to walk down the street, ride a bus, go to the library, go to a restaurant and not stand out because of my race,” Misael said. “Here, everywhere I go, people look at me. I stand out. You feel like an outsider everywhere you go.”

“Is there else anything else you want to add?” I asked.

“People need to start paying attention to what’s going on,” Misael said. “For their sake.”

Edited by Charlotte Spence.