Where you go when the cheering stops

Published 9:01 am Monday, February 18, 2019

The Carolina BlackSox travel ball baseball team and the HammerDown football teams don’t exist anywhere in the East, but it sure would be great to have them or something like that here.

These two clubs are much like the summer basketball and softball travel teams that are peppered by local talent once the school year ends, and in some cases even beforehand.

The reason I pointed out this pair (which are based in Charlotte, by the way), is because their founder is a former professional athlete. You may think that maybe those teams’ success is because of the distance across the state that makes the difference, or perhaps the accessibility of a larger metro area.

Whatever the reason, I’m not just here to advocate for, nor be an adversary against, travel ball. Rather, I want to point out how when some of these coaches peel off their jerseys and spikes for the very last time as professional athletes, they can’t really escape the game.

The BlackSox and HammerDown are sponsored by former UNC and NFL cornerback Dre Bly. Bly, a native of Portsmouth, VA who attended Western Branch High School, left there and moved to the Queen City about eight years ago after retiring from pro football to raise his family. As his five kids grew, so too did his passion for wanting to assist in their athletic development.

That’s why he got so involved in coaching, that he now calls it his passion.

He’s no longer in Charlotte full-time, but rather is back at the place where he first gained notoriety, Chapel Hill, as part of returning UNC football coach Mack Brown’s coaching staff.

But whether beating the bushes for future college talent, or gathering together 11-year-olds to work out their practice schedule, that desire to give back was a strong tonic that tugged at his heart strings.

Bly was the first freshman defensive player in college football history to earn consensus first-team All-America honors in 1996 as he helped the Heels to a top-10 finish in the AP poll. He also set the ACC career record for interceptions at the time with 20. Leaving college after three seasons he was selected by the then-St. Louis Rams in the second round of the 1999 NFL Draft and won the Super Bowl in his rookie season. He also played for Detroit, Denver and San Francisco.

He brought along to coaching an impressive resume: three-time college All-American, Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, College Football Hall of Fame, Super Bowl champ, two-time Pro Bowler, All-Pro; and someone who with all that success felt that he could have done more.

“I left some things out there on the table,” Bly admitted while a member of the Alliance of American Football’s San Diego Fleet (where he fulfilled his dream of becoming a pro football coach, if ever so briefly before getting the call from Brown to return home and coach cornerbacks in Chapel Hill).

“I was one of those guys that it came naturally for me,” Bly noted. “If I (had) a work ethic with my natural ability, I probably could’ve done more. Instead of making two Pro Bowls, make six Pro Bowls. Instead of being a college Hall of Famer, being possibly a first or second ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer. I know that’s the highest of the high, but those were goals that were within reach for me.”

“I’m a coach. That’s what I realized,” he added. “I tried the broadcasting thing but what I love, what I’m passionate about, is giving back and helping and mentoring these kids.”

Bly says regardless of what happens, he won’t measure his coaching success like his on-field skills were assessed.

There should be a huge cheering throng for Bly to face once again on the sidelines when Carolina opens its home season Sept. 7 against Miami in Kenan Stadium. Bigger still will be when he makes his return to Charlotte on the last day of August as the Tar Heels actually have their real season opener of the 2019 season at Bank of America Stadium against South Carolina. It’ll give Bly two homecomings, and a chance to show those young players on the BlackSox and HammerDown what can happen with effort and planning when the throats of fans are no longer raw and once the cheering has finally ceased.

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.