Sexton's Redemption

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – People watch collegiate athletics for a variety of reasons, including school pride, the love of amateurism or even for gambling purposes. But it's stories like that of North Carolina quarterback Cam Sexton that turns everyday people into diehard fans.

There are plenty of Tar Heel superstars that have earned national distinction on the Kenan Stadium field. Names like Charlie Justice, Lawrence Taylor and Julius Peppers, to highlight a few.

And then there are also names that UNC fans immediately recognize, not for career achievements, but for specific moments in time.

There's Domonique Williams, a running-back-turned-fourth-string-quarterback, who led the Tar Heels to a 10-6 victory over rival N.C. State in Charlotte, N.C., on ESPN's Thursday night coverage in 1999. More recently, there's backup defensive tackle Khalif Mitchell, who forced a T.A. McClendon fumble on the goal line in the final seconds of 2004's dramatic 30-24 victory over the Wolfpack.

Last Saturday afternoon in South Florida, it was Cam Sexton's turn to stamp his name in the history book that each Tar Heel fan has tucked away in his or her mind. In what could have been the perfect storybook ending, the red-shirt junior overcame two long seasons of criticism and self-doubt to emerge off the UNC bench to lead North Carolina from a 14-point deficit against Miami, throwing two fourth-quarter touchdowns, including the game-winner from 14 yards out to Brooks Foster with 43 seconds remaining.

"I feel like at that point, I had kind of arrived at what I had dreamed [about]," Sexton told reporters during Monday's press conference, referring to his emotions following that final touchdown pass. "I had hoped to get back out there and had fought for it, so at that moment, there was a little bit of reward for the hard work."

But this is no ending for Sexton – this is a new beginning.


"Dad, I feel like my dreams are falling apart around me."

Sexton told his father those words earlier this year, shortly after learning that red-shirt freshman Mike Paulus had emerged from spring ball as incumbent T.J. Yates' backup at quarterback.

The downward turn began during his first spring practice in 2005, when he suffered a broken ankle. Sexton was then thrust into a difficult situation of competing with red-shirt junior Joe Dailey for the starting quarterback spot. With John Bunting on the way out and chaos ruling the day, the then-red-shirt freshman struggled, completing just 42 percent of his passing attempts (57-of-136) for 840 yards with four touchdowns and eight interceptions. He finished the season 1-4 as a starter.

"There was no doubt times that I thought about transferring and that I was down," Sexton said. "I can't tell you how many times I called my parents and said, ‘I don't know what to do, guys. I don't know where I go from here. Why is this happening to me? What did I do to get here?' And they were my strength. They pulled me through it and kept me positive. And I overcame a lot of things myself. I've never lost my confidence, and just kept plugging, knowing that if my opportunity comes – which I felt like it would – that I would be ready."

But in the end, the bonds that Sexton had formed within this program were too tight to allow him to go elsewhere and start anew.

"I love this place and I love my teammates and I really love my coaches," Sexton said. "I knew that they were going to have us ready to play. This coaching staff is excellent. I've got a lot of great friends here, and I've thoroughly enjoyed my time here. Not always on the field until now, but I've really enjoyed playing here. I really love this place. I couldn't see myself anywhere else. I didn't want to be anywhere else."

Regardless of who you may pull for, stories like this don't come along every day, or even every season. North Carolina football hasn't had this type of feel-good story in a long, long time.

"Sometimes you have to be very careful about labeling any individual early in their career," head coach Butch Davis said. "If people would have labeled Troy Aikman after the 1-15 season, they might not have dreamed that he might have gone to the Hall of Fame.

"And certainly with Cam being a starting quarterback several years ago, you look at the situation in which he was trying to operate under, and now obviously he's grown and matured. His supporting cast is probably a little bit better, and it's a little healthier environment right now… I guess the best lesson that any young football player could [learn] is watching how Cam Sexton has handled the last 18 months."

A more mature and wiser Sexton spoke to reporters on Monday, redirecting praise aimed directly at him to his teammates, and more importantly, he made sure to offer his story as motivation for other players that may be having troubles in the background, away from the cameras and audio recorders.

"Maybe they're down, maybe they're up, maybe they're injured or they're struggling," Sexton said. "I just hope that somehow maybe my story can inspire at least somebody to know that [I've] been down. I've been hurt. I've been benched, demoted, promoted – I've been through the gamut of it. And I just said, ‘You guys just have to keep plugging. Keep plugging. Look what happened to me.'"

Sexton lined up for a play during practice last week, and admittedly threw a bad pass in Hakeem Nick's direction. As usual, the standout wide receiver made a great play to pull the ball in. When Sexton offered his thanks to Nicks for saving him, his teammate replied, "Cam, I'm here to bring you back to life."


But just as quickly as the pain and frustration from the past two years subsided on Saturday afternoon, the jubilation of a last-minute victory can become a distant memory. Sexton understands the volatility of the situation. If he were to throw a costly interception or call a questionable audible that resulted in a North Carolina loss against Connecticut this coming weekend, there will no doubt be individuals in the crowd that will chalk up the Miami performance as a fluke.

That's the life of a quarterback.

"I also realize, through the bad times, that that's just one game," Sexton said. "It is a beginning, but I've got to go out and prepare twice as hard this week and be ready to go, because it's all well and good that I played well against Miami, but if I don't play well the rest of this stretch, it's going to be for naught."

Regardless, Saturday's play was a crucial rebuilding step for this highly-touted recruit from Laurinburg, N.C. that committed to North Carolina just days following in-home visits from Bobby Bowden and Steve Spurrier.

Sexton displayed why many recruiting services considered him an elite-level quarterback coming out of Scotland County High School against Miami, completing 11 of his 19 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns. He averaged 22.0 yards per completion and 12.7 yards per attempt, and in an ironic and completely unexpected twist, his play jumpstarted the defense after a miserable first quarter of play.

"As a quarterback, we talk about the game slowing down, but for me, it's being able to see the field well and see what they're doing on defense and see how we're reacting to it on offense," Sexton said. "I felt like I was seeing it well. So my confidence just went through the roof then and I felt like, ‘Hey, you're here, you're ready. This is going to work out for you.'"

Sexton will start his first game this weekend since Oct. 19, 2006, but more importantly, he's living his dream.

"I've never dreaded practice, but I don't think you'll find any football player out there that absolutely cannot wait to get to practice," Sexton said. "It's tough and that's football, but I cannot wait to get out Tuesday and I'm surely ready for Saturday, because I'm having fun playing football again."

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