CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- When you hear the phrase, "Ball is life," soccer is not the mind's typical association. However, when it comes to dedication, that is exactly the mindset senior defender Boyd Okwuonu has needed in order to pursue his dreams of becoming a professional soccer player. He started playing soccer at the age of four in his home state of Oklahoma, where the sport wasn't popular. This made it crucial that his efforts as an up-and-coming force in the sport left no doubt in anyone's mind that he was always all in. Okwuonu's hard work earned him a spot on the U.S. U-14 National Team, and then the U-15 team.
At 15, in order to continue his pursuit, he made one of the hardest decisions in his life when he had to move away from his friends and family to join the U-17 team in Bradenton, Fla.
Okwuonu made the national team at every level of the program prior to college and before making the decision to commit to UNC he was ranked No. 4 in the country by College Soccer News. He was also ranked 13th in the nation and first in the south by Top Drawer Soccer.
With rankings like those Okwuonu could have chosen to go anywhere he wanted. "I chose UNC because we are not just a team," he said. "This is the only place that challenges me both on and off the field. This program requires its players to raise the standards and be exceptional in the classroom and on the field. When I came here all my teammates, especially Kirk Urso treated me like a little brother and guided my growth in becoming a better person. My relationship with Kirk showed me that I did not join a team, I joined a family."
Like many athletes with the drive Okwuonu thrived on, he says his sole goal was to become a professional athlete. He quickly learned that goal was not far-reaching enough as the length of his career was not a guarantee and he would have so much life left to live when it was over. So he set additional goals to earn his degree and to pursue a career in the oil industry or own a company once his professional soccer career was over.
Okwuonu's experience at UNC instilled in him a new ambition to increase his knowledge, knowing he'd have that far beyond his soccer career. His UNC experience has given him a mindset that continues to help him discover new passions to pursue for while he fulfills his soccer dreams.
"Carolina has helped me grow as an all-around person not just as a player," he said. "Attending Leadership Academy and having all these mentors and advisors around me has helped me become who I am today. Leadership, responsibility, organization... I could go on with list of things that I have learned to help me grow and become a better man, player, and maybe even a father one day. It has structured my life and has showed me to never be content with mediocrity."
After twice being named as a finalist for the MAC Hermann trophy, the most prestigious individual award in college soccer, and being named the 2013 ACC Defender of the year it is clear that Okwuonu remains one of the best on the field while experiencing so much growth off of it. As he finishes his geological sciences degree and plays his final year at UNC this talented center-back realizes he has become a man who recognizes a deeper meaning to his honors.
Comparing the mindset Okwuonu has now with the one he had upon arrival to campus highlights the impact UNC has on the vast majority of its student athletes. In the case of Okwuonu it took a driven soccer player and made him a driven individual who appears poised to do great things long after his collegiate and professional soccer days are over.
As his time at Carolina winds down, Okwuono is eager to offer advice to young student-athletes. "Build relationships with as many people as you can because you can learn a lot from one another," he says. "You never know how that person may impact your life."