Attention Grabber

Mack Hollins has a way, it seems, of getting people’s attention.

Perhaps many casual Carolina fans hadn’t heard of him—even though he was the special teams captain last season—until he caught a 33-yard touchdown in the season opening win against Liberty and followed that up with a 91-yard touchdown in the comeback win against San Diego State. The latter was the longest Tar Heel pass play ever in Kenan Stadium.

But Hollins apparently can’t stay off of people’s radar for long, which is why he has gone from being a player that literally not a single college football team had interest in when he was a high school senior to thrilling a packed Kenan Stadium.

Not that the journey was an easy one.

Hollins was a team captain at Wootton High School. But as far as college coaches were concerned, that was about on par with being king of an imaginary country. No scouts came to watch, so there were no scholarship offers—“no small schools, no big schools, no preferred walk-on offers,” Hollins says.

“No small schools, no big schools, no preferred walk-on offers.”

He happened to be on a school visit to Chapel Hill with his older brother, who would end up at Stanford, when the family decided to come through the football facilities. There, they met Marcus Berry, then UNC’s director of player personnel, who had something in common with Hollins’s father, Richard—they had both played football at West Virginia.

Berry told Hollins that UNC often recruited players out of Fork Union Military Academy, so if he was serious about playing college football, he should consider a semester there to get some attention.

Hollins sent a note and a highlight tape to Fork Union coach John Shuman, the first of many missives in which he plead for attention that might get him an opportunity. That first one paid off and, not long after, Hollins found himself sending a lot of coaches similar emails that began, “Hey, I’m Mack…” and now included highlight reels from high school and prep school.

When the time came, Berry called Hollins’s parents personally to deliver the good news. “Mack’s in,” he told Richard.

Hollins was invited to walk on as a defensive back. This fact merits a side note: UNC coach Larry Fedora constantly refers to Hollins as a former deep snapper, much to the player’s amusement. Hollins did, in fact, do some long snapping during his first spring at UNC, and apparently that fact stuck with the head coach more than the fact that Hollins was not actually a deep snapper but a defensive back—more evidence that Hollins didn’t have Fedora’s attention back then like he does now. (And, as if on cue, not long after Hollins explains this, Fedora walks past Hollins doing the interview for this story inside the Kenan Football Center and bellows “deep snapper!” before flashing a mischievous smile and breezing out the door.)

So Hollins arrived on campus and quickly garnered a reputation for speed. Summer workouts saw him blaze past guys—scholarship guys—during running drills. Even though he lived with walk-ons and mostly associated with walk-ons, the more established players were starting to take notice of him.

But on a four-day break at home before the start of training camp, Hollins made the unfortunate decision one day to take the last two steps of his house’s front porch by grabbing the bannister on each side and swinging himself to the ground. Those two steps—just a few feet—were enough to break his ankle.

“I was like, ‘Oh man, all that work, and now I can’t even show the coaches who I am,’” he says.

Indeed, they barely knew a thing about him when he was healthy again by week six of that season. One thing they remained aware of was that Hollins could run, so they moved him over to receiver when injuries thinned the herd there.

So he played receiver on the scout team. He put his work ethic on display for coaches the next February when the team’s Blue Dawn workouts began. He even caught a touchdown pass in the spring game.

He finally had the coaches’ attention, although not yet as a game-ready receiver, and kept it.

A spot on the kickoff team for the season opener against South Carolina quickly turned into a spot on all four special teams and, eventually, his teammates voting him permanent captain despite being just a redshirt freshman.

“That was just an amazing feeling for my teammates to think that much of me,” Hollins says.

With everyone in the building now well aware of who Hollins was and what he could do, it only made sense that eventually he would get everyone else’s attention, too.

But Hollins is understandably wary of that concept. Because despite how hard he has worked to make sure he was noticed, he learned back in high school that not all attention is good attention.

And the experience changed his life.

During his junior year, one of Hollins’s football teammates accused him of stealing something and confronted Hollins aggressively until Hollins had to physically fight him off. The matter might have dropped there, but the teammate sued Hollins, alleging assault.

Suddenly, kids in the hallway, teachers in the classroom, all the people who smiled at him, patted him on the back and treated him like a friend, looked at him differently. He had everyone’s attention all right, and the reason why—the looks in their eyes, the whispered questions—ate at him day and night. His football coaches stripped him of his captain’s role without even telling him. His reps got cut. He felt like he no longer belonged, and he left the team (though he would return for his senior season).

It wasn’t until a judge finally ruled that Hollins was only defending himself—dismissing the lawsuit and ending the saga after months of it hanging over the family—that everyone from school and the community came back around, suddenly reassuring Hollins as if nothing had ever happened. “We knew you couldn’t do something like that, Mack,” they said. But the damage was done. Hollins knew that many of the people he thought were friends weren’t.

The weight had lifted, but Hollins still felt bad.

“It was really unfortunate because I know, more than anything, Mack was concerned for his respect for [me] and my husband,” his mom, Karyn, says. “Even after the judge had dismissed the charges there was still a tarnish that fell upon him that he really felt like he had to backpedal in a way to clear his name.”

It would have been easy to retreat, ride out senior year and start over again socially in college. But that is decidedly not Hollins’s style. If people were going to put their attention on him, he’d give them a good reason. And it was with that thought in mind that Hollins made a bold sartorial choice—at least as far as high school kids go—for his senior year of school.

Every day of his senior year Hollins carried that briefcase and wore a suit to school.

He bought a briefcase at an office supply store. And every day of his senior year—notwithstanding casual Fridays, when he’d dial his outfit back to merely a button-down shirt—Hollins carried that briefcase and wore a suit to school.

Lots of people wear a suit every day. Most of them, however, don’t do so in the face of high school’s cruel judgment zone. Hollins didn’t care.

“It was sort of like, ‘You guys haven’t broken me—I’m still a man, and what happened last year hasn’t made me—it changed me but it hasn’t broken me down,’” he says.

Karyn admits that she and Richard worried at first, knowing that if people were already talking about Mack, surely wearing a suit to school every day wasn’t going to make things easier. But they also knew they needed to let him do this, to retake control of the way people perceived him instead of shrinking away.

“He felt like he had to overcompensate for people not taking him seriously that he was going to succeed in life,” Karyn says. “He was so tarnished that he had to earn respect 25 times more. He was the captain of his football team. He was on so many councils. He was always so respected by his peers and his teachers and people in the community that he felt like he let them down. Mack just felt like he needed to clean the slate and show people that he felt like he let down that he’s going to be something really big.”

Predictably, the suit-as-metaphor plan elicited mixed reaction from Hollins’s peers.

“People were making fun of him,” Karyn said. “But Mack does not care what anyone thinks about him. He just held his head higher. It’s that fire in his belly. When someone says he can’t do something, he does it that much bigger, and this was that much bigger. This has always been Mack.”

After going through all that, the path from walk-on to being part of Carolina’s offensive lineup seems a relatively low-key one.

But it had its own bumps along the way, largely financial.

Like with all walk-ons, paying your own way means not being able to eat in the team cafeteria unless you are able to shell out 10 bucks a meal. So Hollins stocked up on peanut butter, bagels, ramen noodles—anything cheap and filling.

But food wasn’t the only expense he faced. Even after loans cover tuition, there are still the hidden costs that come with being a college student. Hollins learned that quickly: His first class on campus was an introduction to economics, and the textbook cost $300. So instead of buying it, he shared the one purchased by his roommate, fellow walk-on Alex Bales.

Living the financial reality of walk-on life every day, Hollins found himself even more motivated to prove himself to the coaches.

“You could take (the cost of school) two ways—as a burden or as something that pushes you,” he says. “I took it as something that pushes me. I’m not going to have my parents paying for school the whole time. I’m going to get a scholarship one way or another. That was always my driving force. Because my brother just graduated from Stanford and had loans and I don’t want them paying for both.”

“Mack is the king of adversity.”

When the end of last school year came around, Hollins had a meeting scheduled in Fedora’s office. The special-teams captain was going to have to skip summer school because of the cost, and he wanted to make sure that he would still be invited to training camp the next fall. The head coach surprised Hollins by telling him that he was going to be on scholarship for the summer but that if his work ethic slipped even a bit, the free ride would be gone when training camp arrived.

Not that there was ever a chance of that.

Hollins hasn’t stopped competing his whole life, whether it was trying to stand out as the middle of three sons, repair an unjust tarnishing of his reputation, or prove that a kid from an unheralded high school football team could make a real contribution to a major college program.

“Mack is the king of adversity,” his mom says. “He loves for someone to tell him he can’t do something, and then he works 25 times harder than anyone to do it. He’s always been that way.”

And how could you not pay attention to that?

This article is from the November 2014 Issue of the Inside Carolina Magazine. To learn more about the publication and how to subscribe, CLICK HERE.

Inside Carolina Top Stories