When he retired from the NFL after a 16-year professional career, Ethan Albright had two main priorities.
"First, like a lot of NFL players, I took some time to get my health right," Albright says. The Greensboro native (and Grimsley High alum) returned home with his family, and before long, he was ready to begin phase two of his post-playing career plan: finding a way to stay in touch with the game he loves.
"When you're a player, you always think you're going to play forever," says the 2007 Pro Bowl selection. "But eventually you get to the point that you can't play anymore. And in my case, I had 30 years in the game, and I had played ever since pee wee football. It's hard to leave the sport that has been so good to you."
Several of Albright's teammates had entered broadcasting at the conclusion of their playing careers, and the former long snapper--and owner of one of the best nicknames in football history, The Red Snapper, in tribute to his position and hair color--thought he might be a fit for the profession as well.
Before the fall of 2013, he secured a spot doing radio analysis for the Guilford County high school game of the week. That felt like a reasonable place to begin.
But then, a few weeks later, he was having lunch with former Carolina roommate and teammate Rick Steinbacher, a fixture on the Tar Heel Sports Network since the fall of 2005. Steinbacher's increasing duties as a senior associate athletic director meant he needed to be more flexible on gameday, and he knew his time as a radio analyst might be ending. Steinbacher will still do road games in 2013, but during home games his duties will take him away from the booth.
That meant the Tar Heels needed a new radio analyst to work with Jones Angell during games at Kenan Stadium. And Steinbacher knew someone who might be a solid fit--Albright. Soon, a lunch designed to let two old friends catch up with each other had turned into figuring out how Albright could step into Steinbacher's gameday role.
"Sometimes," says Albright, "things happen fast."
Steinbacher thinks the move will be well received.
"Ethan is one of the hardest working, most dependable persons I've ever known," Steinbacher says. "He values the importance of preparation, is a great teammate, and fun to be around. Carolina fans will enjoy his perspective on the great game of football."
Albright has a built-in advantage because he's joining a veteran team. Angell is in his third year as the play-by-play voice of the Tar Heels but his 14th year overall on the network. And Albright expects to talk regularly with Steinbacher about how to make the transition.
"The biggest thing Rick told me was to be myself," Albright says. "When you're a player, you know how to prepare for the games. I don't know yet how to prepare as a broadcaster. Rick said he's going to help me do that, and I'll learn very quickly between doing the high school games on Friday night and the Carolina games on Saturday."
One of the most elusive factors in any broadcast booth is the chemistry between the people wearing the headsets. Every fan at some point believes they could walk into the booth and describe a game. They usually underestimate how difficult it is to describe the game while also interacting with the person next to them, who might have his own ideas of how to describe the game.
To that end, Angell and Albright watched Carolina's scrimmage together this past Saturday, and they'll do it again this coming Saturday. It's the broadcasting equivalent of the exhibition season. Already, Angell has been impressed.
"Two things stuck out to me when watching the scrimmage with Ethan on Saturday," Angell says. "The first was his knowledge of the game. He was picking out things on almost every down that he found interesting or important. Second was how respected he was with other lettermen. Numerous lettermen were in town on Saturday and seemingly every one of them knew Ethan and went out of his way to talk with him."
That first point is an important one. Nearly two decades in the NFL means there is no doubting Albright's knowledge of the game. Now his job becomes conveying that knowledge to Tar Heel fans who might have a few less professional starts to their credit.
The new analyst cites ESPN's Ron Jaworski as a role model for combining preparation, high-level insight and an accessible style.
"It's going to be a challenge for me to learn how to tell people what I see in a way they can understand," Albright says. "I don't want to talk down to people. I want to talk in a language people understand and relate to, and that's something I look forward to doing each week."
Albright will attend Carolina's season opener at South Carolina on August 29 and observe the broadcast in a non-on air role. His debut on the Tar Heel Sports Network will come on September 7, and he will be in the booth for each of the Carolina home games this season.
Adam Lucas is a GoHeels columnist.