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January 14, 2009

Sexton exemplifies character

The college football season has ended and the hardcore fans have shifted their attention to signing day and the prospects that will be wearing Carolina's uniform in the future.

But all UNC football fans should stop before moving forward to say thank you to a young man who proved to be a tried and true Tar Heel in every way, a young man who could have skipped out and sought playing time at another school, but he chose to stay, pay the price and thanks to him, the Tar Heels played in on their third bowl game of this decade.

It's funny that we discuss this during the heat of the recruiting season because not so long ago Carolina fans were clamoring for this youngster to sign his name on a letter-of-intent. When he did, cheers rang out among those who follow recruiting.

Cameron Sexton then went one step further and gave up the spring semester of his senior year in high school to enroll early. Unfortunately, he broke his ankle in spring practice later that year and could not participate in the fall.

When he did play, he got thrown into the heat of competition way too early. Although his confidence told him he was ready, reality later proved he wasn't. He did not have enough help surrounding him, including any running game to speak of, and he got placed in a system that did not take advantage of his particular skills.

The result was he had a miserable year along with the rest of the team. Coach John Bunting got fired in midstream, and Butch Davis was hired to take control in November.

Unfortunately, many of the same people who cheered when Sexton signed criticized him brutally when he struggled. No, he didn't play well, and, to his credit, he is the first to admit it.

But that did not make Sexton a bad person or a bad player. In fact, we have since learned what a quality young man Sexton is. He stuck it out and did not transfer, going from starter to third string at one point.

But the lesson every person, not just college athletes, should learn from this courageous young man is he never quit. He had horrible days, times when he wanted to quit football and walk away. He thought about leaving, but he fell in love with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and with the kids who were his teammates.

In a turn that only real life can provide, Sexton got a new life this season. Starting quarterback T.J. Yates broke his ankle against Virginia Tech. Redshirt sophomore Mike Paulus came in the game and found what Sexton had discovered several years before: Life is severe for young quarterbacks playing before their time.

The next week against Miami, Paulus started the game after getting most of the snaps. Once again, Sexton had been relegated to an afterthought.

But here is where Sexton's character began to shine. Coaches talk about character all the time, but it's just a word usually. A kid who can score a touchdown is no proof of character. He may be doing God knows what away from the field and have the character of a slug, but the 40 time of an elite athlete.

Character is Sexton working his butt off throughout his entire career, even though the chances of playing appeared to get less, not greater, as time passed. He did not bad-mouth the program or the school. And he did not run away.

So when Paulus struggled against Miami, the coaching staff gave Sexton a chance, and Tar Heel fans everywhere should forever be thankful that moment came. Because without Sexton, UNC would more than likely have suffered another losing season and been miles away from a bowl bid.

Instead, Sexton led the Tar Heels to one of the most thrilling comebacks in school history, at Miami, nonetheless. He threw the winning touchdown pass on Carolina's final possession of the day on the third read of his progression.

Asked if he could have done that his first year on the field, he said absolutely not.

Trimane Goddard, senior safety, then followed that exciting moment with an interception on the final play of the day to preserve the victory and generate a new life for the 2008 Tar Heels.

Those two plays, by two veteran players who had weathered so much adversity, made the season and helped to propel Carolina toward what might be the best recruiting class in school history come signing day.

Sexton went 5-2 during his seven games as the starter, and the two losses were not his fault. He drove the team the length of the field for a field goal against Virginia to extend the lead to seven points with a little more than two minutes left.

The defense that had stuffed the Cavaliers all day long just had to get one more stop and the losing streak in Charlottesville would have ended. Instead, the defense fell apart and Virginia escaped with a win against UNC yet again.

Afterward, Sexton took the blame for the loss, which in 22 years as a sportswriter was one of the most unselfish acts of leadership I've witnessed.

Unfortunately, as soon as Yates could practice again, Sexton got yanked from the lineup and received only a few minutes late in an ugly lost cause to N.C. State.

But once again, Sexton has proven his character, which is a credit not only to him but to this mom and dad, who obviously did so many things well in raising this young man. Last Friday night, Sexton went to a local restaurant with the team and a collection of high-school players to help the coaches recruit.

He has informed the coaches he plans to graduate and move on with his life because it is apparent Yates will be the quarterback. But it is just as obvious there is no bitterness from someone who could easily be looking for someone to blame.

We look for heroes in our sports every day. Well, we found one in Cameron Sexton, and for all the right reasons. Every Carolina football fan worth his or her salt should write Sexton a thank you note and send it in care of the football office at UNC.

That is the least, the very least, everyone can do for someone who set an example of how we should all live our lives, not just play football.


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