The blue team. The JV guys. The parentheses. North Carolina fans have called the walk-ons all of those things and more over the years, but seniors Daniel Bolick, Van Hatchell and D.J. Johnston and juniors Stewart Cooper, Patrick Crouch and David Dupont have added another title to that list – Blue Steel.
Bolick pauses with a smile when asked to define Blue Steel. How does one define a tradition borne on the UNC bench? While the walk-on program at most Division I schools is a revolving door of nameless players, that’s not the case in Chapel Hill.
At UNC, it’s about carrying on a dream -- a childhood dream -- one that is viewed as a piece of Blue Heaven.
The Blue Steel movement caught on this season. At the end of North Carolina’s 84-64 win over N.C. State at the Smith Center on Jan. 29, fans chanted their group name. The chant was at its optimum in Saturday’s pre-game introductions and when the walk-ons went to cut down the nets after three of them started against Duke on Senior Night.
The six players have accounted for only 20 of UNC’s 2,319 points this season, so it is understandable to question the worth of the walk-on tradition. The role of Blue Steel is to push the scholarship players in practice, to give them a look at the opponents’ offense and defense, and to breathe fresh energy into the team.
The six know their roles and what they are a part of.
“It’s what North Carolina Basketball is a part of,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said. “100 years ago I would’ve died to have been one of those guys. We always have walk-ons. They’re always going to be great representatives of the university. They’re going to be North Carolina people to the bottom bone of their body. They do a great job for us in practice, and usually kids have really done a great job in the classroom, and really stand for the right things as a student athlete.”
They are Carolina basketball, and they each have their own story.
Bolick’s connections to UNC and the Chapel Hill community are natural. His father, Neil, ran track for the Tar Heels, so he was taught to cheer for Carolina as a kid.
“Just growing up I remember watching Eric Montross playing,” Bolick said. “My Tar Heel love started there.”
Bolick’s roots are planted in Chapel Hill, and now in the Carolina basketball family. Growing up in Chapel Hill, Bolick led Chapel Hill High School to a conference championship and East Chapel Hill High School to a conference tournament crown, so he already felt a part of the community. He also understands that the people of Chapel Hill are playing vicariously through him.
“Being able to keep in contact with old high school teachers, even old middle school teachers, middle school coaches from around the area [and] all of my buddies from high school that I’ve been close with my entire life, it’s almost like I can see it in them that they almost feel like they’ve made it as well,” Bolick said.
Every day is a family reunion for Bolick, and at times he is starstruck. The senior walk-on is not only getting to see Tar Heels he only saw from afar as a kid from the stands and a television screen, but getting to play with them.
Former Carolina greats Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse, Sean May have been among the Carolina greats that have come back to Chapel Hill to practice and workout with the current Tar Heels.
“We do have that same Carolina blood flowing through our veins,” Bolick said. “Like from the best NBA All-Star down to the walk-on. I don’t think it’s really going to set in until maybe a few years later, but I think it’s just part of the tradition we have here.”
Fighting back tears, UNC senior Van Hatchell shook Williams’ hand.
“Wow, it was like it didn’t happen,” Hatchell said. “I remember very quickly feeling like kind of like a satisfaction about, ‘You know what? You did all you could do. You got as far as you could get in this sport.’”
Williams had just cut Hatchell, the son of UNC women’s basketball head coach Sylvia Hatchell, leaving the senior with a void. So he went on fall break like every other normal college student and later that week started work at an internship.
And then it happened. This time there were no tears, and the handshake was a welcoming one.
“I got called back to be with Coach (Williams),” Hatchell said. “He said, ‘Ever since I cut you, I thought about bringing you back.’”
Williams knew that while Hatchell may not have been the biggest, strongest or fastest, but he had the ability to contribute in other ways.
“He’s been around the table, and talked about making sacrifices, and what’s so important in the team,” Williams said. “I think that insight helps him be a better teammate. I’ve always felt comfortable around sons of coaches.”
Playing for his father, Sammy, at Cresset Christian Academy in Durham and helping his mother with her camps, at practice and in the film room, Hatchell grew up a gym rat and basketball junkie.
“The greatest thing is he’s having such a positive experience,” Sylvia Hatchell said of her son. “He absolutely [relishes] every minute, every second that he is doing something with the team. You know whether it’s running, lifting weights, traveling, cheering on the bench he just absolutely is having a blast.”
Hailing from Pennsylvania, Johnston is the only out of state member of Blue Steel, but his connection to Carolina Basketball may be the deepest. His father Donn Johnston played for the Tar Heels from 1971-1973, including a trip to the 1972 Final Four.
“It’s awesome,” Johnston said. “I know my dad has always been proud of me, but to have something like the Carolina basketball family in common is a really cool thing. It’s something we’ll have forever.”
Johnston had a choice to make before he could join the team. He made it through the first cut of tryouts for the UNC Clef Hangers, a popular a cappella group on campus.
“[The Clef Hangers] said I had to make a commitment one way or the other,” Johnston said. “I chose basketball .... I’ll sing in the locker room, and shock people from time to time, because they have no idea that I can sing.”
His two rebounds -- including one offensive – in the opening 1:35 of the Duke game was assuredly music to the UNC coaching staff’s ears.
Johnston gives Winston-Salem native Stewart Cooper credit for coming up with the name “Blue Steel.” Being a team player, Cooper quickly includes the other five.
“It sounds kind of cheesy, but it’s a dream come true for all of us,” Cooper said.
While Johnston and Hatchell are the singers of the group, Cooper is the dancer.
“Most people don’t know that about me,” Cooper said. “They wouldn’t think a tall, goofy guy would be, but I can get down pretty well.”
Cooper is also credited with obtaining the 2,400 sticky notes that the group used to cover John Henson’s car, in a video prank that circulated around the Internet and was even posted on ESPN.com.
Crouch grew up in the Asheville, N.C. mountains dreaming of playing Division I college basketball.
His mother, a graduate of UNC, and his father, a Wake Forest alum, made ACC hoops a staple of his childhood.
With nine points this season, Crouch is the leading scorer of the group, a badge of honor that is good for laughs.
“I don’t think any of us are a main guy,” Crouch said. “We’re just kind of a unit really. That’s kind of how we see ourselves. I just got lucky enough to get two great passes from Dan [Bolick].”
Like Bolick, Crouch thinks playing with former Tar Heels is one of the biggest perks about being a part of Blue Steel.
“The Carolina Family is so recognized,” Crouch said. “I didn’t realize how hands-on it really was until I got here and got this opportunity. Playing with Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse ,those guys coming back is pretty incredible. And they get to play with Blue Steel. I’m sure they appreciate that too.”
Greensboro, N.C. native David Dupont takes his role with Blue Steel seriously. After all, his group’s responsibility is to help the scholarship players get better and prepare for the games.
He noted an appreciation for the bond he shares with the other walk-ons.
“Just being on the team is a dream come true,” Dupont said. “Blue Steel, we all played JV together, some of us two years together. It’s a really tight-knit group. It’s just a great experience.”
The highlights of the walk-on experience for Dupont are playing for a Hall-of-Fame coach in Williams, playing with former Tar Heels and being forever a part of the Carolina basketball family.
Blue Steel made it a mission to expand its reach by creating a Twitter page (@Real_BlueSteel). The players take turns tweeting and updating their followers with news and jokes.
“It’s really fun,” Cooper said. “The whole Twitter thing, we have like 5,000 followers.”
It’s a team effort, and no one is getting left out.
“[For games] we actually asked to be announced as Blue Steel, instead of as individually,” Dupont said.
The popularity of their efforts was further evidenced by the interest in the “Feel the Steel” t-shirts. Chapel Hill Sportswear sold its first 200, and had to order 800 more. The t-shirt, of course, was a group idea.
Hatchell asked his friend Evan Bell if she would design the shirts. Bell, a senior Journalism-Graphics Design major from Greensboro, used her artistic abilities to create one of the hottest commodities on Franklin Street.
“I would love to see Roy in one,” Bell said of the shirt. “When Van first came to me about this we did it as a joke. He [Van] showed it to Roy and the guys, and they liked it so much. And they were like, ‘We really need to actually do this.’
“I had no idea it was getting sent to the NCAA for compliance. I had no idea Chapel Hill Sportswear had picked it up. It was kind of a surprise.”
The group has sparked excitement for what was a relatively backseat tradition. But because Bolick, Cooper, Crouch, Dupont, Hatchell and Johnston embraced their roles and utilized their creativity, they’ve added a new layer to the Carolina basketball walk-on tradition.
Aside from the tweets, the videos, the chants and the T-shirts, Blue Steel is what a fan can identify with, because most Tar Heel fans grew up dreaming of one day donning the same uniform. While fans dream of playing like John Henson or Harrison Barnes, they can relate to the everyman quality that defines the walk-ons.
That's what it means to Feel the Steel.