UNC’s Proehl never counted himself out, even as everyone else did

Listed as “out for the season” since suffering a broken clavicle in September, the senior receiver returned for last Saturday’s win against Western Carolina

UNC's Austin Proehl was injured during his team's loss to Duke on Sept. 23 at Kenan Stadium. (Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports)

At 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, Austin Proehl has heard all the reasons why he shouldn’t be able to play football at the highest level.

And he’s done it anyway.

So instead of disappointment, the North Carolina wide receiver took it as a challenge back in September when a doctor told him that he wouldn’t be able to play again this season.

Listed as “out for the season” since suffering a broken clavicle against Duke, Proehl defied the odds again — along with the medical experts — by returning for last Saturday’s Senior Day win against Western Carolina.

He’ll play his final game in a Tar Heel uniform Saturday in his team’s rivalry game at NC State.

“He’s been wanting to play for a while, but each time they were checking him out they weren’t going to release him,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “Finally, (last) Tuesday we got word that they were releasing him. He wanted to play and he wanted to get back out there with his teammates, so I was happy for him and happy to see him get that opportunity.”

Proehl entered the season as the Tar Heels’ best, most experienced receiver with 70 career catches and four touchdowns.

Although his contribution wasn’t really needed against an overmatched FCS opponent, the senior made the most of his unexpected return by catching three passes for 52 yards in a 65-10 win against WCU. His presence has a chance to be much more meaningful against a Wolfpack team that enters the game as a double-digit favorite.

“He definitely makes us better,” fellow receiver Josh Cabrera said. “He makes us a lot better.”

To put into perspective how important Proehl is to UNC’s injury-riddled offense, consider that his 19 catches still ranks fifth on the team, even though he has missed six full games. His 322 receiving yards are second on the team, behind only Anthony Ratliff-Williams’ 499.

Proehl is one of six Tar Heels wide receivers or tight ends to miss significant time this season because of injury.

“He definitely does bring an element to our offense,” Elliott said. “He might be the best route runner I have ever played with.”

That’s a skill by which Proehl comes naturally, as the son of former NFL receiver and Super Bowl champion Ricky Proehl.

But while his name may have opened up a few doors for him that might not have otherwise been available to someone his size, the younger Proehl has earned a respected reputation of his own through a combination of confidence, a pair of sure hands and — as he proved by coming back from his “season-ending” injury — toughness.

He’s also scored points with his teammates for not giving up on them, even as the losses continued to mount and all of the Tar Heels’ preseason goals began to fall by the wayside. UNC is 3-8 (1-5 ACC) heading into Saturday’s game, with no possibility of earning a bowl berth even with a win.

“He could have easily packed it up and gotten ready for the (NFL) draft or the combine,” Elliott said.

That was never an option for Proehl.

“I decided from the minute I got out of surgery,” Proehl said, “that I wanted to come back and show people that I’m not going to just hang it up because of our record.”

Now that he’s back, Proehl has a chance to do something to improve his team’s record while ending the season — and his career — on a high note with an upset of the Tar Heels’ hated rival.

Win or lose, he’s just happy to be back on the field making a contribution instead of being stuck on the sidelines, where all he could do was watch helplessly.

“It’s not about me. This team isn’t about me and this season isn’t about me,” he said. “Each and every day you have guys walking out to practice, going into meetings with energy, a smile on their face and ready to win a game.”