by Sherrell McMillan
Inside Carolina Magazine
Maturity, wisdom and a more fundamental understanding of situations come to people at various times.
Some are innately able to process and comprehend things. Some require a traumatic event that shakes them to the core and illuminates possibilities.
For others, it just takes a little guidance, a little determination and a final destination.
In the spring of 1993, Former Chesapeake (Va.) Western Branch coach Lou Johnson changed the fortunes of not just his program, but of North Carolina football and two NFL franchises.
Johnson sat down his star player, Dré Bly, and gave him a little guidance, a little determination and a final destination.
“His parents were both educators and good grades were a big deal to them,” Johnson said. “Sometime early in the spring semester, he came home with a horrible report card. That was it for them. They were going to pull him out of all sports and make him focus on improving. Sports were fun, but to them they were secondary to getting an excellent education.”
In addition to playing running back and free safety for football, Bly was a standout shortstop for Western Branch’s baseball team, a point guard on the basketball team and a sprinter on the track squad.
Johnson silently wondered if removing Bly from all sports might do more harm than good.
“I talked to Donald Bly (Dré’s father) and asked him to give me a chance to work him,” Johnson explained. “I said ‘If you pull him out of everything, he’ll lose some of the focus he does have.’ They agreed and so we established a pretty close relationship from there on that continues to this day.
“He’s a real smart kid, but he was playful early on,” Johnson continued. “I sat him down and told him he had a chance to go to college and play sports at a high level. He had to learn some study habits and how to pay attention in class first. After that semester, we never had another problem with him.”
It was a different story for opposing offenses and defenses in the Virginia prep football ranks.
Bly was one of the fastest, most dynamic and most coveted athletes in a region known for producing some of the country’s top players.
He received scholarship offers from Virginia, Syracuse, Virginia Tech, Maryland, Penn State, N.C. State, UCLA, North Carolina and West Virginia.
Summer football camps, a future Clemson signee and the Tar Heels’ most famous coach, however, gave Carolina an advantage other schools couldn’t overcome.
Thomasville High School is only about 70 miles from UNC’s campus in Chapel Hill. As one of the football powers in the state–it’s gone 16-0 twice since 1990–the Bulldogs competed in former Tar Heels’ coach Mack Brown’s summer camp each year.
Among Thomasville’s best players was Lamont Pegues. A large, fast running back nicknamed “The L Train,” Pegues finished his career with the third-highest rushing total in state history, 6,232 yards, while leading the Bulldogs to a state championship.
At UNC’s camp following his junior season, Pegues was the alpha dog. He was the camp’s top-ranked player and received more attention from the Carolina staff than any other participant.
And Bly knew it.
“We played a little 7-on-7 and our team did really well,” Bly said. “Then we had a race in the 40-yard dash and I just knew I could take him. I ended up losing, but that really opened up some of the eyes of the Carolina coaches. They saw what I could do and that’s when I started really making a name for myself.”
The lead coach for UNC in its recruitment of Bly was Kenny Browning.
After spending 18 years at Northern Durham High School, compiling a 178-35 record and bringing home the 1993 4-A state title, Brown hired Browning to be an assistant in Chapel Hill.
Bly was his first major recruit, outside of former Reidsville Senior High star Na Brown.
“The family and I still think very highly of Kenny (Browning),” said Johnson. “To have someone with that previous high school coaching background, we naturally connected from that standpoint. You couldn’t ask for a nicer southern gentleman than Kenny Browning. His character and personality really sold the family. He was instrumental in getting Dré to Carolina.”
Pegues ended up signing with Clemson before transferring to Virginia Tech.
“The camp experience opened everything up for me,” said Bly. “I was more dedicated than ever to polish up my skills, build up my body, get stronger, get faster and have a strong showing on varsity the next season. I knew I was one of the better guys there. The highly-recruited, big-name players presented nothing that I didn’t have. It was just a matter of me applying myself and working hard and putting myself in a position where I could be highly recruited. So, that’s what I did.”
Not long after the camp, Bly started getting recruiting questionnaires from schools in the region.
Johnson can still remember the first time he watched Bly play football–middle school. Bly wasn’t a superior physical specimen that made him a unique eighth grader.
But he was blindingly fast.
“I knew right then that he was going to be a player for us,” recalled Johnson. “Once he got to ninth grade we decided to keep him on JV, just to let him get a little bit bigger and stronger.”
Bly dominated the competition.
In his first three JV games, he scored eight touchdowns. The plan to keep him off varsity because of his size lasted only three weeks.
“He was just a man among boys,” Johnson said.
Bly continued to play free safety as well as running back in the Bulldogs’ Wing-T offensive system. In his first game as a sophomore, he had three interceptions in a close loss to the defending state champs.
His speed, Johnson said, made him a perfect fit for the free safety position in Western Branch’s scheme.
“He was the epitome of free back there,” Johnson said. “He made up so much ground so fast, we basically let him do what he wanted because he could make up for any mistake. Sometimes we’d call a play, like a deep zone coverage. I’d turn around and he was in the backfield because he decided to blitz.”
As a junior, Bly made the all-state team at safety and defensive back, and had nearly 600 yards receiving in the run-heavy Wing-T.
Soon, in addition to regional powers, schools like Michigan, Notre Dame and Syracuse showed significant interest in Bly.
“At that point in my junior year, I knew I could select what school I wanted to go to,” said Bly. “Back then Florida and Florida State didn’t recruit Virginia too heavily like they do now. Those were basically the only schools on the East Coast that didn’t offer me a scholarship send me a letter or show some sort of interest.”
Watching the growth and improving play all along was Browning.
“After I showed out well at camp, they told me they’d watch me the whole season,” said Bly. “They saw me do some things out there and decided to offer me at UNC camp after my junior season.”
Early on in the process, Bly knew he didn’t want to go too far from home, which eliminated UCLA, Michigan and Notre Dame. After his junior year, he narrowed down his list to Syracuse, Clemson, UNC, Virginia Tech and Virginia.
The plan, initially, was to take all five of his allotted official visits during the fall of his senior season. However, he ended up only making three. He visited Blacksburg, Charlottesville and Chapel Hill.
Midway through his final season with the Bulldogs, Bly told the schools he had no position preference.
“He went to the Virginia state all-star game and they actually played him a lot at wide receiver and he caught a hitch screen and went about 70 yards for a touchdown,” Johnson said. “The reason he was so interchangeable position wise is that he has great hands and hand-eye coordination.”
George Welsh’s staff at Virginia wanted him as a WR, while Virginia Tech and Carolina weren’t exactly sure and recruited him as an athlete.
“The Carolina coaching staff came to watch a game during his senior year, Coach Browning and Coach Brown,” he continued. “He figured they would be there and was nervous as a cat. He had an inkling that UNC was somewhere he liked, so he wanted to impress them. He did everything for us but carry the bucket that night. Only thing he didn’t do was punt. He had a punt return for a TD. Took a reverse and went about 70 yards. After the game Coach Browning came up to me and said ‘He’s amazing.’”
He also let them know he was interested in playing baseball as well. All three schools’ presentations involved their baseball programs.
The first official visit was a westward-trek across the state to meet with Frank Beamer and the Hokies staff.
“Honestly, it was probably the worst visit because there just wasn’t anyone on campus,” Bly said. “Typically you have players that host you, show you the atmosphere, go out on the town and meet people. That’s why guys sometimes fall in love with a school. It has a lot to do with your decision.”
“There was no one there and I was just bored. They ended up being my second choice and I probably would’ve gone there if it wasn’t for that.”
Next up was UVa. The Cavaliers liked Bly as a wide receiver because of his explosive speed and his performance in the Virginia All-Star game as a senior.
“I’d say that was my best visit overall,” explained Bly. “The Barber brothers (Tiki and Ronde) were my hosts along with another guy with my hometown.”
The visit was a stark contrast to his trip to Virginia Tech.
“I had so much fun there,” he said. “The students were there and it was a typical college atmosphere. But, they recruited me strictly as a wide receiver and I wasn’t a big fan of UVa.”
The third official visit went to UNC and ended up being his last.
Bly was already leaning towards the Tar Heels before even arriving in Chapel Hill. He’d been to football camp at UNC two summers in a row and had built a nice rapport with Brown, Browning and the rest of the Carolina staff.
“I was a Carolina basketball fan as a kid,” Bly said. “We got a lot of games in Virginia and I saw them play a lot. I had a lot of love for UNC.”
His visit, however, didn’t get off to a great start.
Former UNC wide receiver Octavius Barnes was Bly’s host. To accommodate his basketball schedule, Bly and his family drove to Chapel Hill on a Friday night and arrived around 11:15 p.m.
“I got there and he had left me,” Bly remembered. “So that night I just stayed in the hotel with my dad. Saturday we had a chance to tour and did the typical thing.”
“If I didn’t have my mind already made up to go to UNC, they probably would’ve lost me,” Bly said with a laugh. “I still get on Octavius about that to this day.”
Johnson said there’s another reason Bly decided to commit to Carolina after his visit.
“Being a native Virginian, I was a big Virginia Tech fan and I was doing everything I could not to push the Hokies on him,” said Johnson. “But they were doing a good job recruiting him. I thought Virginia Tech believed they had him wrapped up.”
“On his visit to Carolina, they took him over to the Dean Dome and he met Coach (Dean) Smith. I think that might have sealed the deal. He came home on Sunday night and said ‘I’m signing with North Carolina.’”
Bly gave his verbal commitment to Brown and Browning.
“It was just my love for Carolina and the upside for what Mack was building,” said Bly. “He was getting the top guys in North Carolina and dominating the Virginia area at the same time. That was enough for me to go along with being a UNC fan. Add in that the campus is probably the best I’ve ever visited and it was the best of all worlds.”
When fall camp started at UNC his freshman year, Bly entered with the same attitude he’d had a few years back against Pegues.
He was alert, focused and determined to show the Carolina coaching staff he belonged.
“Obviously I wanted to play, but when you come into camp typically the guys who have known the system and participated in spring ball have an advantage,” explained Bly. “I knew it was going to take some time, but I also wanted to play. I knew I was good enough too.”
Not backing down from established players like Barnes, Marcus Wall, Jomo Leggins and Steve Fisher caught the attention of Brown. With his competitiveness, hand-eye coordination and ability to track the ball, the UNC staff settled on cornerback as Bly’s position.
“The thing we've always liked about Dré is his ability to run and his tremendous leaping ability,'' Brown told the Daily Press during Bly’s freshman season. “And he has great hands. Some of his interceptions have been phenomenal. We had thought about using Dré on both sides of the ball, but we decided what he does as a corner is more important than anything that may distract him.”
The only problem for Bly was Carolina had a defensive secondary loaded with upperclassmen. After traveling to Carolina’s first two games in 1995, Bly told Brown he didn’t want to travel if he wasn’t going to play.
The two agreed that Bly would redshirt. On the outside Bly put on a good front for his teammates, but on the inside not playing hurt him deeply.
“I was looking at the guys ahead of me and I was frustrated,” said Bly. “Williams had burned his redshirt, so to get on the field I told Mack to switch me to wide receiver.”
Added Johnson: “There aren’t many people who love football more than Dré Bly. He was very frustrated when we talked that year. I tried to encourage him and explain that it’s just an extra year to learn and grow. “
Brown rejected Bly’s request, instead informing him that the staff wanted him to stay at cornerback and start as a redshirt freshman.
“Obviously I stayed and by the time spring ball came I was at the top of the charts,” said Bly. “After the first week of practice coach told me I’d be starting, the rest is history.”
In 1996, he became the first freshman defensive player in college football history to earn consensus first-team All-America honors. Bly led the nation as a freshman with 11 interceptions in the regular season and added two more in the Tar Heels’ bowl game.
“His first interception was on a quick out cut by the wide receiver,” said Johnson. “He just jumped the guy. It was a game of inches thing. He could’ve swung and missed; kid catches the ball and goes down the sideline for a long time. But he picked it off and the people ran to the camera, got a close up on his face and he had that look. After that I knew he was going to be something special down there.”
He was named first-team All-America by the Associated Press, The Sporting News, Football Writers and the Walter Camp Foundation. In 1998, Bly was named first-team All-America by the Walter Camp Foundation and set the ACC career record for interceptions with 20, a record that stood until 2012.
Bly remains the only player in ACC history to earn first-team All-America honors in his first three seasons.
He was the No. 41 overall pick in the second round of the 1999 NFL Draft by the St. Louis Rams, played 11 NFL seasons with 43 interceptions, made two Pro Bowl appearances and won the Super Bowl with the Rams in his rookie season.
Early this year, he was selected to the College Football Hall of Fame. He joined Don McCauley, Charlie Justice and Art Weiner as the only players in the College Football Hall of Fame that played exclusively at UNC.
“I honestly didn’t think I would get in,” said Bly. “You have Heisman Trophy winners like Ricky Williams and Eric Crouch, and then NFL Hall of Famers like Ray Lewis, Warren Sapp and Eric Dickerson. It was a good reminder that I was pretty good in school and had a great career.”
He attributes much of his great career to the defensive talent Carl Torbush and Brown amassed.
“I benefited from an unbelievable supporting cast,” Bly explained. “Brian Simmons, Greg Ellis, Vonnie Holiday, Ebenezer Ekuban, Russell Davis, and a long list of guys made my job easy. The records I put up and accolades I received were because of them. I tell people all the time none of what I accomplished could’ve happened without those guys and the man who got me to Chapel Hill, Mack Brown.”
Twenty years later, Johnson still thinks Bly should be mentioned with the best to ever come out of Eastern Virginia.
“Dré was everything to our program,” he said. “He played offense, defense. Sometimes he punted, he returned kickoffs. He never came off the field. In terms of all-around athletic ability and football skill, I know I’m prejudiced but I think he ranks right up there at the top of football players in our state’s history.”
This article is from the September 2014 Issue of the Inside Carolina Magazine. To learn more about the publication and how to subscribe, CLICK HERE.