When I think of the college football bowl season I think of memories of my childhood. Gathering around the television over the holidays and watching those bowl games with relatives was a tradition in our family. We watched the games, we bantered back and forth about the games, and as we got older and had our own favorite teams we may have even argued about the games. Regardless of the conversations or how our relationships changed over the years, what the bowl games did was bring our family together.
There’s another family that has been brought together over the last few years by football. It’s a family that would be together regardless of whether or not football was there; but nonetheless, it’s a family that is able to get together again and again because of football. To be more specific, they get together because of “Ryan’s football.” That would be Ryan Switzer, the junior All-American at the University of North Carolina. Spend some time with his family, the Switzers, and you realize right away the pride they have in in Ryan’s football career; but more importantly, you see the pride they have in their family and how Ryan’s career has been the vehicle that allows them to celebrate being together as they celebrate him. With the Switzer’s, football really is a family affair.
The Switzers are a large family from West Virginia. Ryan is one of five children to Ashley and Michael Switzer. His father Michael is also one of six children. When you add in his mother’s siblings you find that Ryan is surrounded by a large extended family of uncles, aunts, and cousins. My first encounter with the Switzers came earlier this season at a tailgate before UNC played South Carolina in Charlotte. I had planned on just stopping by to say hello. Well, an hour and a half later I realized the game would be starting soon and I’d better head into the stadium if I wanted to see the opening kickoff. It’s hard not to be drawn in to this close-knit group and their family dynamic.
The Matriarch of the family is Ryan’s grandmother, Jacquie. She told me her mother taught her that the most important thing in life is to keep her family in touch with each other and always keep them together. As I looked around and saw 20+ family members tailgating together, it was obvious to see that she was doing just that.
The Switzers, not unlike any other family, have had their trials and tribulations. Life has not always been easy. In 1989, Ryan’s grandfather, Roger, was diagnosed with cancer at an early age, and passed away a little over a year later. About five years later, Ryan’s godmother and Aunt (Michael’s sister), Ann Marie, passed away as well when Ryan was 1 year old. Tragic events like these can tear apart families. But Roger Switzer always stressed the importance of Michael and his siblings maintaining close relationships and the family being together. They’ve had their ups and downs like all families do, but they’ve built those close relationships with each other and they’re loyal and supportive of each other, just as their father had always hoped they would be. They are strong in their faith and believe in God’s will for their family. Ryan wears the number 3 because to him it represents the Holy Trinity – The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit.
Sports have always played a big role in the Switzer family. One of Ryan’s uncles, Richard, explained, “We’ve always been a sports family. A lot of time spent at ball fields and gymnasiums supporting each other. It’s something we’ve always had in common and something we always rallied around together.”
Ryan is just the latest in a long line of Switzer athletes. His uncle Andrew said, “It all began with Michael’s Friday night football games. Our sister was probably the best athlete overall and traveled the country playing AAU Basketball. My other brother was a phenomenal baseball player. Ryan is the next generation of all of that.”
Fast forward to now; the Switzer family is spread out from West Virginia to North Carolina. That distance can make it hard for a family to get together unless there is something the family can “rally” around. Well, when Ryan Switzer committed to UNC, he gave his family that rallying point. It was a big reason he chose to play at UNC, and one his parents may have mentioned to him a time or two; but it wasn’t the only reason he chose to be a Tar Heel. However, whatever those other reasons were, none of them strayed far from the values Ryan grew up with and the influences of his relationships with his parents, siblings, and extended family.
As he explained to me, “I chose UNC because I felt it in my gut. I trusted Coach Fedora (Head Coach), Coach Anderson (OC at the time), and Coach Brewer (Wide Receivers Coach). I knew they had my best interests at heart as a person. I was comfortable with them as people. I’ve always had a great support system from my family and I knew they would support me in the same way.”
Ryan’s recruitment itself was a family affair. In addition to his parents, all of his uncles lent him advice. The Carolina coaches he mentioned also recruited the “family.”
As Michael remembers, “When the coaching change occurred at UNC, I sent an email to Blake Anderson to see if they were interested in Ryan. He responded within 5 minutes and said, ‘Absolutely!’ They loved his film and wanted to meet him ASAP so they could get to know each other better in person, which was great to hear. From that point on there were constant phone interactions with Blake and Gunter Brewer and not just Ryan, but our whole family.”
Ryan’s mother Ashley remembers, “I think I have a good “Mom’s instinct” about reading people that come into contact with my children (laughing). After Ryan’s visit to UNC he was so excited and had a great connection with the coaches. So I called Blake Anderson and our conversation was just so easy and comfortable. And that’s how it always was when they visited with us. And you could see that they had great family backgrounds and that family was important to them which was big for me.”
Blake Anderson (now Head Coach at Arkansas State University) remarked, “The Switzer family was one of my all-time favorite families to recruit in my entire career. I always looked forward to heading to West Virginia to see them. You felt like you were a part of their family. I’d be sitting there beating Ryan in video games while his little sister, Micah, climbed all over me on the couch. One time I even taught Ashley how to make hot sauce.”
Ashley confirmed, “Oh yes. Blake came right into my kitchen and started pulling out appliances and supplies and showed me how he makes hot sauce. It was like he was a member of the family. He would walk right in and make himself at home. Honestly, I think that’s what drew Michael and me into the UNC coaches.”
The comfort level between the coaches and the Switzers may have been best represented by one winter visit made by Gunter Brewer. Michael recalls, “Ashley and I had a date night planned for over a month. We hadn’t been out together without the kids in a long time. We had just dropped off Gunter at the airport and went out to get dinner and go shopping. My phone rings while we’re shopping and I see its Gunter. He tells me that he’s snowed in at the airport and asks, “What are you all doing tonight?” We went back to the airport and picked him up and he had dinner with us. So date night was altered a bit (laughing).”
Ryan had his pick of schools to play at when he came out of high school. He and his parents were thorough in looking at where he should go. As Ryan mentioned, family played a big role in that decision.
Ashley remembers, “I followed Ryan’s lead during those discussions. I just wanted to listen to what he felt about the recruiting process. I wanted him to know what he felt and thought was important. I would just be there to remind him to recognize the pros and cons of each school. I did, as any Mom would, always remind him of proximity of the schools to family and friends. That was always the selling point to me about UNC. What was neat to watch develop is the fact that he appreciated that family factor during the process.”
Every parent experiences stress about their kids leaving for college. They want them to be in a safe and supportive environment that they can grow in. If that child is playing a sport in college then the other consideration is whether or not their coach will be the mentor the parent wants around their child. Michael felt like Coach Fedora would be that mentor.
“You know, that’s what we saw from Coach Fedora when he was in our home and what he said he would do for Ryan. He was honest and forthright. I was trying to tell him why Ryan was so good, and he stopped me. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Michael, stop. You don’t have to sell me on Ryan. I’m here because I believe in him. You don’t have to worry about a thing. If he commits to UNC, he will get whatever he needs as a student, as an athlete, and most importantly, as a person. If he needs to come in my office and talk, if he has any issues at all, if he needs me to pray with him, I will be there for him. He will leave UNC a better man in every way.’ I was close to being brought to tears. Everything that matters to you as a father was mentioned in that one statement. It wasn’t about stats, it was about Ryan’s well-being.”
Ryan’s decision to trust his gut has proven to be the right decision. He has excelled on the field at wide receiver, already climbing into UNC’s Top 10 in career receptions as a junior. His playmaker reputation began as punt returner during his freshman season when he returned 5 punts for touchdowns; and despite having 3 return touchdowns called back, he currently sits 1 return touchdown away from the all-time NCAA record. He is the active leader in the nation in 60+ yard touchdowns in his career.Those accomplishments have resulted in Ryan becoming the 8th player in UNC history to be a two-time 1st Team All-American. Opposing defensive coordinators and special teams’ coaches lose a lot of sleep trying to prepare to stop #3.
Ryan has always faced long odds because everybody said he was too small to play at a high level each time he climbed to the next level in football. But his father has never doubted his ability and his drive to accomplish big things.
“We knew early on that he was an athletic kid because he did well in any sport he tried. It didn’t matter. He didn’t even start football until he was 11yrs old. I promised him when he was 8yrs old that we would let him play eventually. I told him the same thing when he was 10yrs old. Finally, he came to me and said, ‘Dad, you told me if I played one more year of soccer you would let me try and play football.’ He was bored with soccer and ready to play football. Then he came up to me in 7th grade and he said, ‘Dad, I want to play Division 1 football.’ So we set out and made a plan to get him there.”
He continued, “And he’s had his doubters every step of the way. People said he wasn’t going to be able to get those long runs and explosive plays when he moves up to high school. How did he respond? Every single year in high school he scored a TD on the first play he touched the ball of every first game he played in all four years. People said the same thing when he headed to Chapel Hill. I think it’s safe to say people have bet against him every step of the way and Ryan has kept making those people lose those bets (laughing).”
The people who have never bet against Ryan are his family. While the success has come on the field, the Switzer family has also made an impact to the program off the field. When Larry Fedora came to UNC he stated his desire to not just build a football program, but to build a football family. Recruiting players and families like Ryan and his family was what he had in mind when he said that.
Fedora remarked, “The Switzer family is phenomenal. I loved interacting with them when we recruited Ryan and they’ve just been an incredible part of our program. They’re a great example of the kind of family you want to be in your program. They’re a tight crew that really supports each other and that shows in the way they follow Ryan and support him. And really the way they support Ryan’s teammates means a lot to us too. We want our program to be a family and you need families like theirs to create that type of culture.”
That culture is not something you find at every program. Fedora’s comments about his family only reinforce to Ryan that he made the right decision.
“It means a lot that he says that about my family. Our relationship has really grown strong over the last few years. When I was deciding what to do about next year (whether or not to leave school early for the NFL) he looked at me and just said, ‘I’m going to look at this like you’re my son going through this.’ He’s really built a great relationship with me and my parents and so it’s means a lot to us for him to say that about our family. The program really has become a family-first program as opposed to a business-first program. When I talk to friends that play at other schools I realize more how unique our atmosphere is in Chapel Hill. We’re all close with each other and with each other’s families. It’s been the exact experience I was hoping for at Carolina.”
Like his career before UNC, Ryan’s college career has included his extended family. By choosing UNC, the entire family has been able to travel to most of his games like the one in Charlotte and experience the whole thing together. For 3 years, his parents have traveled to every single one of his games and have lost count of the miles they’ve logged doing it. His uncles, aunts, and cousins have also traveled a ton to see him play; and in the process they’ve been able to see each other more than they would otherwise which was always the dream Ryan’s grandmother, Jacquie, had for her family when she invested in season tickets after Ryan announced he was going to Carolina.
Uncle David explains, “My mom bought the season tickets for us as our Christmas and birthday gifts. She was not going to let this opportunity to be together go to waste. It’s been a priceless experience for her to see her family together so often and I think we all feel the same way.”
Ryan is one of the oldest of the cousins in the Switzer family. While his uncles have enjoyed watching him excel on the field, all of them get emotional when they describe the way he has impacted his cousins off the field.
According to his uncle Richard, “I’m proud of the example Ryan has set for his cousins. We had a party for my Mom after the last game last year with everybody there. I just sat there listening to my kids and the other cousins talk about where they wanted to go to college and if they wanted to play sports in college. All of that discussion was born from the fact that Ryan was doing it and it made an impact on his cousins and their dreams. He showed them it was possible and I think that’s one of the coolest things to come out of this whole experience with Ryan at UNC.”
His uncle Andrew added, “I like that my kids get to see how he treats people and he interacts with strangers after a game. I’m grateful that he shows them what it means to value others and respect people that look up to him.”
Uncle David said, “We have gone to a lot of his games but we don’t go to every game because one thing Ryan told my son was, ‘Don’t ever miss your own pop warner game to see my games.’ That’s Ryan. Seeing what kind of man he is becoming is what I’m proud of most.”
Ryan may be having an impact on his family through playing at UNC, but the benefits of being close to family are not a one-sided deal. His uncle Richard explains, “For Ryan, it’s just knowing you have people there in the stands that are there to support you. It really is a standard that our parents started. They were always in the stands at all of our games. It’s something we’ve wanted to continue on with our kids. I think it’s the support he needs knowing there will be people there at the game and waiting for him after the game. I think it provides a level of comfort for him and allows him to feel secure which can help him focus on what he needs to do to reach his goals.”
Ryan agrees and has loved having the constant support from his family at games. “I’ve been playing in front of my family my whole life. I’ve always had an unbelievable support system in anything I did growing up. Now, at the college level, to still have that support system is incredible. I love knowing my Dad is on the field with me. And I can still hear my Mom’s voice. I’ve always been able to hear her above everybody else at my games growing up. I figured that would go away in college playing in huge stadiums, but it hasn’t. I still hear her. During my first season, there was this lady going crazy in the stands, and I recognized her voice. It was my Mom. One of my teammates looked at me and said, ‘Is that your Mom?’ Yep, that’s my Mom. I love knowing all of them are in the stands for the game and love even more getting to spend time with them after the game. My family is there whether we just won or we just lost. I know they’re there for me. The whole experience has been great.”
The “experience” is exactly what his parents had hoped for Ryan when he chose UNC. Ashley’s brother Clint, Ryan’s godfather, explained, “We wouldn’t be able to get together as a family like this if he hadn’t gone to Carolina. We’re close. We all love one another and care about all of our kids. We’re engaged and invested in what everybody is doing; but seeing each other as much as we do would never have been possible if Ryan didn’t go to Carolina. It showed all of us and reaffirmed that Ryan wanted us all to be a part of his career.”
The “experience” also gets to keep going for another season at Carolina. As mentioned above, Ryan considered making the jump to the NFL after this season was over. The feedback he received was positive. Like every other decision in his life, he leaned on family and their advice when thinking about this decision. In the end, to the delight of Tar Heel fans, he announced that he would indeed be returning to Carolina for his senior season. He said he has unfinished business on the field to accomplish with his teammates. For his family, it means another season of weekend reunions with each other. That is music to his the ears of his uncles, aunts, and cousins; and it brings a smile to his grandmother’s face.
Ryan is excited to keep this experience going too. “The name on the front of my jersey is important and I’m excited I get to continue playing for Carolina and our fans. But when I point to the name on the back of my jersey it’s because I wouldn’t be anywhere without the Switzer name. It starts with what my parents have done for me and how my sisters have been there for me. Then you add in my uncles and my aunts; everybody had a hand in where I am today. I’ll never forget who came before me in this family and what the name on the back of the jersey means to all of us.”
When I think back to first meeting this family at that tailgate in Charlotte I remember watching Ryan’s grandmother, Jacquie. She was just standing there taking it all in. She stood there by herself watching everybody visit with each other. She was watching her family do exactly what her mother always said a family should do. No matter what they were doing or what they were talking about, they were together; and that’s all that mattered to her. It’s why she was standing there with a full heart and a smile on her face. For her and her family, football is a family affair.
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