Erik Highsmith stepped on the Kenan Stadium field as a true freshman in 2009 and made an instant impact. By the time he concluded his Tar Heel career he had amassed 166 receptions (4th all-time at UNC), 2,047 receiving yards (8th), and 14 receiving touchdowns (7th).
The Vanceboro, N.C. native signed as an undrafted free agent with the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, but didn’t make the final roster. Next was a foray into the AFL, before opting out of a bad situation. Highsmith kept training to potentially prolong his playing days before ultimately making a decision on his next career move: the United States Army.
I’ll go ahead and get this question in first because I’m sure plenty have asked you about it since you made the decision. What made you decide to enlist in the Army?
First, I would like to say, I had a great time with the Vikings. Being apart of a NFL roster was a dream come true. I had a good training camp, I ran good routes as always and I caught the ball well. Unfortunately, we were receiver heavy. We had a lot of veteran receivers who the coaching staff trusted and I respect that. I gave it my best shot and I appreciate the Vikings organization for giving me a chance. After I was released by the Vikings, of course I tried to get on another team. I still had an agent and I still was training hard just in case my phone rang. After the 2013 season was over and I still hadn't received any calls from an NFL team, I decided to give the AFL a try. I played for the New Orleans Voodoo for about half a season until they stopped paying us properly. With no guaranteed contract and the risk of injury, I decided to leave because the risk wasn't worth the reward to me. After that I still worked out hoping to get a tryout with an NFL team, but it didn't happen. I applied for jobs throughout the Raleigh and Chapel Hill area, but once again no one called back. I'm not the type of person to just sit around and not do anything with myself because I feel like I was put on this earth for a purpose. I felt like I can do something to help others. That's what I always wanted to do. So I sat down with my family and told them I'm considering joining the Army because I would still be apart of the greatest team on earth. Of course my family still wanted me to pursue my football career, but I had to look in the mirror and be honest with myself. My window is closing and time waits for no man. So I made the decision to join the military. I'm still fairly new to the military lifestyle and I'm learning everyday. It has its good and bad days just like any other job, but I'm trying to make the most of it. I know it's a stepping stone to bigger and better things. I still have bigger dreams and goals, the military will just help me get there.
During those first few days did you ever stop and ask yourself ‘What did I get myself into?’
To be honest, I second guessed myself everyday for the first two weeks about whether I should be here or not. The first two weeks were hell. I wanted to quit every day. But every day I used to wake up next to a chubby 18-year-old fresh out of high school, and tell myself, ‘You know what, if he can get up and go through this uncomfortable environment, so can I.’ That's what really made me stay motivated to get through basic training.
Do you plan on staying in and eventually retiring from the military and what goals have you set that you’d like to accomplish in your career?
I don't plan on retiring in the military. I want to use this experience as a stepping stone. Hopefully to get a master’s degree and possibly become a collegiate coach when I get out in 2018.
What was your most memorable moment or game during your time at UNC?
My most memorable moment at UNC was in 2012 against NC State. We haden't beaten them my entire career at UNC until then. We came out on a mission and nothing was going to stop us. The atmosphere in the stadium that day was magical. Our home crowd was the loudest I've ever heard them and Gio (Bernard) put the icing on the cake with the great punt return. It was a perfect way to end my senior year.
Do you think the football program has finally turned the corner on the way to being a legitimate national championship contender?
Of course I do. I have had multiple coaching staffs throughout my career at UNC but the way Coach (Larry) Fedora runs his program is what helped UNC get over that hump. He motivates his players and coaches to go out and dominate the game in all phases. I can see UNC football program being nationally ranked for years to come. I would (love) to be a part of that coaching staff one day.
What was tougher for you - making it through basic training or being a college athlete?
Basic training was probably one of the hardest things I did in my life. I'm not saying that I physically couldn't do it, but it was also the mental stress combined with the physical. It was just different than anything I've ever done. Football came natural to me. Basic training was something I had to really focus on. I doubted myself several times throughout the training but in football I never doubted myself. I had the utmost confidence on and off the field.
For information on what you can do to show your support for soldiers who suffered injuries and disabilities during their time in service visit The Wounded Warrior Project .