CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — When you hear the phrase, “Ball is life,” soccer is not the mind’s typical association. However, when it comes to dedication, that is exactly the mindset senior defender Boyd Okwuonu has needed in order to pursue his dreams of becoming a professional soccer player. He started playing soccer at the age of four in his home state of Oklahoma, where the sport wasn’t popular.
This made it crucial that his efforts as an up-and-coming force in the sport left no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was always all in. Okwuonu’s hard work earned him a spot on the U.S. U-14 National Team, and then the U-15 team.
At 15, in order to continue his pursuit, he made one of the hardest decisions in his life when he had to move away from his friends and family to join the U-17 team in Bradenton, Fla.
— Boyd Okwuonu
After living away from his family for two years Okwuonu moved back to Oklahoma at 17 and began commuting three and a half hours after school each day to play for the FC Dallas youth club team. A semester later he made the decision to get an apartment with a teammate in an effort to avoid the nightly commute alone. Though the price he was paying through his daily sacrifice seemed steep, it was paying off.
Okwuonu made the national team at every level of the program prior to college and before making the decision to commit to UNC he was ranked No. 4 in the country by College Soccer News. He was also ranked 13th in the nation and first in the south by Top Drawer Soccer.
With rankings like those Okwuonu could have chosen to go anywhere he wanted. “I chose UNC because we are not just a team,” he said. “This is the only place that challenges me both on and off the field. This program requires its players to raise the standards and be exceptional in the classroom and on the field. When I came here all my teammates, especially Kirk Urso treated me like a little brother and guided my growth in becoming a better person. My relationship with Kirk showed me that I did not join a team, I joined a family.”
Like many athletes with the drive Okwuonu thrived on, he says his sole goal was to become a professional athlete. He quickly learned that goal was not far-reaching enough as the length of his career was not a guarantee and he would have so much life left to live when it was over. So he set additional goals to earn his degree and to pursue a career in the oil industry or own a company once his professional soccer career was over.
Okwuonu’s experience at UNC instilled in him a new ambition to increase his knowledge, knowing he’d have that far beyond his soccer career. His UNC experience has given him a mindset that continues to help him discover new passions to pursue for while he fulfills his soccer dreams.
“Carolina has helped me grow as an all-around person not just as a player,” he said. “Attending Leadership Academy and having all these mentors and advisors around me has helped me become who I am today. Leadership, responsibility, organization… I could go on with list of things that I have learned to help me grow and become a better man, player, and maybe even a father one day. It has structured my life and has showed me to never be content with mediocrity.”
After twice being named as a finalist for the MAC Hermann trophy, the most prestigious individual award in college soccer, and being named the 2013 ACC Defender of the year it is clear that Okwuonu remains one of the best on the field while experiencing so much growth off of it. As he finishes his geological sciences degree and plays his final year at UNC this talented center-back realizes he has become a man who recognizes a deeper meaning to his honors.
“The accolades and recognition that I receive are great and I am thankful for all of them but I am not satisfied,” he said. “I want to continue to improve and be the best that I can be. I will never be complacent because there is always room for improvement. Most importantly, the awards that mean the most to me are the ones you win with your team. There is no better award than being ACC Champions or National Champions because this is a collective goal that we work towards all year and it takes effort from everyone on our team.”
Comparing the mindset Okwuonu has now with the one he had upon arrival to campus highlights the impact UNC has on the vast majority of its student athletes. In the case of Okwuonu it took a driven soccer player and made him a driven individual who appears poised to do great things long after his collegiate and professional soccer days are over.
As his time at Carolina winds down, Okwuono is eager to offer advice to young student-athletes. “Build relationships with as many people as you can because you can learn a lot from one another,” he says. “You never know how that person may impact your life.”