You see those kind-of-cheesy license plates on people’s cars around town all of the time. You know the ones, the “House Divided” tags where one family member went to Wake Forest and another is a die-hard Tar Heel supporter.
That could be the case for the Proehl family, but it’s not. In this instance, the father is understanding that his time in the spotlight was fun and rewarding, but now that his son is making a name for himself it’s time to sit back and enjoy the ride.
And, in following Providence High’s, Austin Proehl, a game-changing jack-of-all-trades, it seems the ride is just starting to take off.
Proehl’s father, Ricky, still holds the Wake Forest school record for career receiving yards (2,949) and touchdowns (25). After college, he spent 17 seasons in the NFL with six different teams and had 669 career catches for nearly 9,000 yards and scored 54 touchdowns. He’s currently a receivers coach with the Carolina Panthers, a position he’s held since 2011.
Although Proehl was hesitant to use the word “pressure” as an accurate description, there was a feeling of getting out of his father’s shadow. Growing up, Proehl said he always relished the fact that his dad was a professional athlete, but was eager to make a name for himself on the football field – something he’s certainly accomplished.
Despite being small – he’s listed at 5-10, 160 pounds – for a big-time college recruit, Proehl said he saw the hard work it took to make his dad successful and he went down the same path.
“Some days you’re like, ‘Man, I want to take a day off.’ But I knew it can’t happen in order to reach my goals,” Proehl said. “I had to be faster, I had to be stronger than anyone that I faced because I’m not exactly the size that every coach is looking for, but that helped me. My dad was in that situation his whole life so he pushed me.
“I had to have the edge. I had to use my abilities to beat my opponent. It helped me grow up and mature on the football field.”
That drive has translated to success on the gridiron, where Proehl helped lead Providence to the playoffs last season returning kicks, playing receiver, quarterback, defensive back and whatever else the coaches asked of him.
On the heels of his standout junior season, Proehl attended camps around the area – including at Wake Forest, North Carolina and Virginia Tech. He was offered scholarships by all three schools and had other offers from Ohio and the Charlotte 49ers.
Wake Forest wanted Proehl enough that they offered him a chance to play football and baseball – the other sport he’s a standout in as the Panthers’ starting shortstop each of the past two seasons.
In the end, Proehl decided to focus on football and chose to commit to North Carolina. He said Chapel Hill was the best fit for him, and his dad, despite his ties to Wake Forest, was his biggest supporter and cheerleader.
“It was a hard decision, but I’m so happy where I’m going to be and I’m excited about it,” Proehl said. “He’s happy for me. Now he’s a Carolina fan. He still loves Wake but he knew it was the best choice for me. Obviously we have a very close relationship and we can talk about stuff in depth. It’s good to have a role model like that. He’s my dad and I can go to him about anything.”
Proehl began his high school career at Greensboro’s Western Guilford High, where he started at quarterback as a freshman. He said he played particularly well during that year’s Homecoming game, which was probably the first time in his high school career he felt he had proved himself under his own merit, not the one his last name beckons.
“As a kid when I played in Pop Warner, I had a good year and I was kind of in the spotlight then,” Proehl said. “I’ve kind of grown up with (the name recognition). My freshman year, I had a good game at Homecoming playing quarterback and I think people kind of started noticing that I could play then.
“I realized I had to step up as a freshman and work my butt off to be the player that I wanted to be and the player that I was meant to be. Having my dad helping me train and work out in the weight room and on the field has helped me so much.”
Now that he’s an ACC recruit himself and a team leader for the Panthers, Proehl said he’s anxious to have a standout senior season.
With the hiring of new coach Justin Hardin, and the talent on the Providence roster that includes a fellow North Carolina commit, lineman Bentley Spain, and talent at all the skill positions, there is an excitement surrounding the Panthers.
“There’s good energy around our school, our students, our faculty. It’s cool to go to school on Fridays and hear everyone say they’re coming to the game to support us. That’s what high school football is all about,” Proehl said.
This season, Proehl is focusing on honing his skill as a receiver, a position he’ll play for the Tar Heels, with the emergence of junior quarterback Caleb York.
“I loved playing quarterback because of the leadership role,” Proehl said. “You get to really take charge as a quarterback and I love being a leader, but it’s good to focus on what I’m going to play later on.
“Caleb and I have a great relationship and it’s cool to be focused on receiver. I still get to move around to defense. I don’t come off the field much with kick return and punt return, but it’s fun and I love it. Being a senior, I feel like that’s my role now. I feel good with it and I’m going to continue doing what I’m doing.”
Those sentiments are good news for the Panthers, who employ more of an up-tempo offense than they have in the past – something that fits Proehl’s style perfectly.
“We’re going to move fast,” Proehl said. “I think teams are starting to pick up on that, but hopefully they won’t be able to keep up with us. We’re putting in new plays each week and we’re getting better and better.”
With expectations matching the Panthers’ talent level, a lot is expected of Providence this season. And that’s just how Proehl likes it best.
“I’m going to have tests for the rest of my life,” he said. “Going to Carolina, I’ll face big-time tests. You find out who you are by how you overcome and how you respond to those tests and I’m going to have to respond and hopefully that will be good enough.
“I love the pressure, that’s what I thrive in. The spotlight is where I thrive and that’s where I want to be.”