CHAPEL HILL -- It was during an orientation meeting last summer when each Tar Heel freshman was asked to introduce himself and offer one word as the consummate descriptive term for his ability, personality and essence. It got around to a tiny short-haired kid from West Virginia who stood up and said in full voice, "My name is Ryan Switzer. Baller."
Translated from the world of teen-age and locker room slang, a baller is someone who "has game," who has reached a superlative status, who's good and knows he's good. With it comes a certain swagger and air of confidence—his 103 career touchdowns and 8,100 all-purpose yards in high school the evidence.
"He meant it not in a bragging or boastful manner," head coach Larry Fedora said. "It meant he thought of himself as a play-maker. He believes that."
Fedora considered what he'd just watched on Heinz Field in Pittsburgh moments before, Switzer darting for 65 yards for a punt return in the second quarter and following with a 61-yarder for the game-winner in the waning moments, the latter the coup de grace in a 34-27 Carolina victory.
"Ryan believes he's a play-maker," Fedora said. "At halftime, I said, 'Good job, but we're not through. We need another.' He said, 'I'll do it, Coach.'"
Up in Section 104 in the southeast corner of Heinz Field where a smattering of Tar Heel fans gathered to watch on an overcast and mild afternoon for mid-November in western Pennsylvania, Michael Switzer focused his camera toward the action and reflected on the chapters of his son's athletic evolution that stacked together to bring Ryan to this moment.
There were the spin moves at the age of two at the YMCA in the family's hometown of Charleston, W.Va.
"Ryan's running up and down the court, dribbling with both hands," Michael says. "He spins and turns his hips and I'm saying, 'Oh my God, did you see that?' I've got that on tape somewhere. We have five kids so I've got an unbelievable amount of footage. But I'm looking for that. I'll find it some day."
There were the youth soccer games that developed and sharpened the boy's speed, coordination and innate feel for anticipating and reacting to his teammates and opponents.
"Soccer is one of the best developmental sports for kids in general," Switzer says. "It was great for Ryan. The ability to get in and out of traffic with the ball between your feet—that's harder than running the football. It's difficult. But he could do it effortlessly."
The elder Switzer reflected on his son's high school career as an I-formation tailback, where his team's bread-and-butter runs were between the tackles and the 5-10, 175-pound runner had to learn to avoid contact against much bigger players, not just to gain yards but to remain in one piece.
"His ability to see things at the second level and judge where the other guy is going is outstanding," Michael says. "Ryan can judge how fast you are and he would know where his cut-back lanes would be because he'd know the angles they'd take. Football is all about angles, and he'd learned that playing soccer and basketball as a kid."
Dad remembered another family drive from Charleston up I-79 the 230 miles to Pittsburgh and this NFL venue on the shores of the Allegheny River. The year was 2005 and the occasion was Ryan's participation as a 10-year-old in the regional Punt, Pass & Kick competition and the ensuing halftime introduction at a Steelers-Bengals game.
"I reminded Ryan of that when we saw him Friday night," Switzer says. "I think he'd forgotten about it. I said at the time, 'Wouldn't it be neat if you could play here again someday?' Of course I had no idea ..."
As thousands of fans at Heinz Field and a regional TV audience dropped their collective jaws on Switzer's second scoring jaunt—he started left, hit the boundary, crossed to the right and exploded to daylight, all the while using about a dozen gears—his dad merely thought he'd seen this movie before.
"When he cut to the sideline, I guarantee you he already knew where those cutback lanes were," Switzer says. "He knew where each of his teammates were—there was a man on every man.
He was reading those blocks, he knew which way they'd fall, and in two steps he's at full speed."
Switzer's running was a work of art as was the blocking of his teammates. Fedora was quick to note that Switzer had "10 guys out there with him, making it happen, selling out, blocking their butt off," those 10 by name being Eric Ebron, Tre Boston, Romar Morris, Ryan Mangum, Damien Washington, Mack Hollins, Mark McNeill, T.J. Jiles, Des Lawrence and Brian Walker. Washington rode one Panther for a dozen yards and then pancaked him on the first TD return, and Lawrence and Boston had two of the decisive blocks on the second score. The key was to double-team the Panthers' gunners on each return and give Switzer a sliver of working room and let him do the rest.
"He gets bottled up, he can shift and change gears and then put on the jets," says Tar Heel offensive coordinator Blake Anderson, who happened upon tape of Switzer early in 2012 and started the recruiting process. "He can outrun everyone who has an angle. He's not afraid of traffic. He's got home run speed and can make something out of nothing."
Adds Gunter Brewer, who coaches Switzer as a slot receiver and in the return game and used his coaching roots and contacts in West Virginia at Marshall University in the 1990s to further Carolina's sales pitch with the Switzers: "His ability to flip the field is phenomenal. No one can cover him in space. Florida State, West Virginia, Penn State—he could have gone anywhere he wanted."
When the game was over and the Heels had leveled their record at 5-5 after a sullen 1-5 start, Switzer did the media gauntlet and had just a few minutes to visit with some three dozen family members and friends before mounting one of four team busses for the ride to the airport and the fight home to Chapel Hill. He kissed his two-year-old sister and shook hands with Rasheed Marshall, the 2004 Big East Player of the Year as a West Virginia quarterback who young Ryan befriended and idolized as a boy.
And he had a special hug for Clifton Reid, a longtime friend who suffers from autism and Down's Syndrome. Ryan was asked years ago by his middle school coach to mentor some "special needs" kids, and he developed a particularly close relationship with Reid. Switzer brought Reid with him to Chapel Hill last October and both were in the stands when Gio Bernard made his epic return against NC State, Switzer saying it wouldn't have felt right to sign with Carolina if Reid hadn't visited himself and signed off on the deal. Now Switzer's three returns for touchdowns in two games is making Bernard's exploits seem tame.
"It was a special time up there with all the Carolina fans and parents when Ryan scored those touchdowns," Michael says. "Clifton's a big part of our family. He understands the game of football because he's been around it so much. He was telling everyone he and Ryan are best buddies, he was hugging everyone in sight. It was overwhelming, really."
Special, indeed—from Switzer's feats to the Tar Heel defense carving up Pitt with seven sacks, from Marquise Williams' two running touchdowns to the Heels spurting ahead, lurching back and finally dispatching Pitt on Switzer's return and a crucial 4th-and-1 defensive stop. Turns out there is more than one baller on this team headed into the climax of the 2013 season.
Chapel Hill writer Lee Pace (email@example.com) is now in his 24th year writing "Extra Points" and 10th reporting from the sidelines for the Tar Heel Sports Network. His unique look at Tar Heel football will appear weekly throughout the fall.