100 in 100: Alamance County’s Brandon Tate, an all-time return man

The Cummings High School standout starred for the Tar Heels and then in the NFL

Brandon Tate starred for the Tar Heels before becoming one of the NFL’s best return men, playing for the Patriots, Bengals, Bills and Saints during his 10-year career. (Lynne Sladky / AP Photo)

North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.

Alamance County

Brandon Tate

Tate’s first love athletically during his days at Burlington’s Cummings High School was basketball. He was a shooting guard who said he didn’t start thinking about a future in football until he was offered a scholarship to play at North Carolina.

“That’s when I really started to take it serious,” he said.

He took it seriously enough to set ACC and NCAA records for kick returns and total yardage while putting his name into the UNC record book next to that of Tar Heel legend and Hall of Famer Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice.

Tate got his freshman season off to a fast start by returning the opening kickoff in his fifth game 96 yards for a touchdown against Utah while finishing second in the ACC in kick returns and third in punt returns.

Brandon Tate (Stephen B. Morton / AP Photo)

As a sophomore, he was one of only three players nationally to return two kickoffs for touchdowns while becoming only the third player in UNC history to return a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in the same game. He finished his college career as the all-time NCAA leader in combined kickoff and punt return yards and barely missed becoming the 11th player ever to amass 1,000 or more yards in both categories.

Despite missing the final seven games of his senior season with a knee injury, Tate was selected by the New England Patriots in the third round of the 2009 draft. He played nine full seasons in the NFL with three teams. Although listed as a wide receiver who caught 71 passes for 1,099 yards, he is best remembered as one of the premier kick returners of his era.

“I’m a return man first and anything else after that is extra,” Tate said in 2016. “The way the league works, the more you can do, the longer you stay around.”