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Monday, December 7, 2009

UNC Soccer standout, her talent and God-centered character

Profile: Tobin Heath
University of North Carolina's soccer standout Tobin Heath raises the bar for the Tar Heels through her talent and God-centered character.
By Dave Pond

At the University of North Carolina, there’s an old saying passed down from generation to generation: “If God isn’t a Tar Heel fan, then why is the sky Carolina blue?”

The university’s women’s soccer program, which captured its 21st national title Sunday afternoon with a 1-0 victory over Stanford is arguably the cream of the NCAA’s crop—a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by midfielder Tobin Heath, who grew up keeping tabs on the ’Heels from her home in Basking Ridge, N.J., before committing to play for legendary coach Anson Dorrance in the storied program.

“North Carolina was basically the only school I knew about when it came to soccer. You always hear about the Tar Heels,” said Heath, who tallied a pair of assists during College Cup weekend, earning a spot on the All-Tournament Team. “So, when I got serious about soccer, I knew that Carolina was where I wanted to go because I wanted to play among the best players in the sport.”

Heath’s YouTube-worthy soccer skills were just part of what made the 2005 New Jersey Player of the Year a highly sought-after recruit, Dorrance said.

“Tobin came to Chapel Hill as a wonderfully spiritual, selfless young woman, and through all the successes she’s had, she remains the same caring person that she was when she arrived,” he said. “You have to attribute that to her character and to a family that has the right value system. We’ve been privileged to have her choose to come to the University of North Carolina.”

UNC players are asked to govern themselves by a set of core values—and subsequent peer reviews—while they are members of the soccer program.

“Tobin’s teammates have a huge amount of respect for her,” Dorrance said. “It’s just fantastic. In every aspect, Tobin is beyond being just an ordinary soccer player. She is a young woman of deep character who receives universal respect.”

A U.S. National Team member, Heath was thrust into the international spotlight a year ago, as the youngest player of the U.S. Olympic soccer team and one of just three collegiate players named to the squad. She saw action in three games and helped the Americans win gold in Beijing.

“That experience—you can’t really put a price tag on it,” said Heath, who first trained with the U.S. National Team in 2007, which was her sophomore season at UNC. “It’s pretty cool that I was able to go do that at such a young age, and experience the big games at the highest level of competition in the sport.”

After missing UNC’s first game of the 2008 season due to the Olympics, Heath tallied eight goals and eight assists, helping the Tar Heels to a 25-1-2 record and an NCAA national championship. It was a profile-raising year that could have swelled the head of even the most humble athlete. But not Heath, said Tom Anderson, her long-time prep coach and a friend whom Heath regards as a spiritual mentor.

“Tobin has accomplished a lot in her young years, but she’s never once gotten on a high horse,” said Anderson, president of New Jersey’s Players Development Academy (PDA). “She’s always willing to come up to the PDA. Even though Tobin’s a star at Carolina, plays for the national team and has won an Olympic medal, she’s genuinely happy to come back and kick the ball around with a bunch of 9- and 12-year-olds.

“There isn’t anybody who has had the opportunity to play with Tobin who doesn’t sense her excitement about playing, and that enthusiasm rubs off on everybody,” he continued. “Much like her soccer ability, when Tobin is around people, her faith just comes out. She likes to be around people and share the gospel with them. Just like her soccer game, she works at her faith.”

From an early age, Heath knew of the gospel and of Christ’s longing for her. It wasn’t until her soccer career began to take off—when she began to travel intensively for tournaments and camps—that she began to understand who God really was.

“I grew up in a very loving, Christian family that showed me from the beginning what true love was, but it took me a few years to realize that my faith didn’t revolve around my family but around God, who He is and what He has done in my life,” she said. “Your faith can’t depend on where you grew up or the type of environment you grew up in; it has to be unique to you. When I decided to figure out who Jesus was for myself, I really started to understand the true God in my life. Ever since then, I just want to know more and more about Him. Every day is a new day in which I learn to love Him more and understand that I need more of Him in my life every day.”

With a soccer schedule that includes events on the collegiate, national and international level (and the notoriety that comes from playing in such a high-profile position) Heath is intentional about carving out time for God before anything else on her calendar.

“You have to be in the Word constantly,” she said. “That’s the number-one way the Lord speaks to me. I can always tell in my relationship with Him when I need to get in to my Bible—even when I don’t feel like it—because I know I really need to hear God’s voice.”

Heath attends Kings Park International Church in nearby Durham, N.C., as well as several campus ministries, all of which offer high-profile athletes like her an opportunity to get out of the public spotlight and focus on what Christ can do with their lives.

“For most athletes, organizations like FCA, Athletes in Action and Champions for Christ feel like home,” she said. “It’s a sanctuary. They are groups of like-minded students who are dealing with the same struggles, temptations and problems, all while trying to find the balance between being a students and athletes.”

From her earliest years in soccer, Christianity and the sporting world have always gone hand-in-hand, offering Heath a way to not only share Christ with others, but to be held accountable in her own walk.

“You always want to find out more about your sport and your game, and once you do that, it allows you to get to that next, deeper level,” she said. “In a soccer setting, you can figure out a lot about someone just by watching the way they practice or play the sport. When soccer and faith come together, it’s a testimony to what I believe in and who I believe in, and I try to live my life in a way that glorifies God. You’re going to stand out from other people, and that’s what makes people ask you why you’re different, how you’re different, and why do you do certain things. And it’s through those opportunities that you are able to tell them about who Jesus is and what He has done in your life.”

Throughout the season, Heath meets with a group of teammates for game-day Bible studies, all with an open-door policy to anyone interested in coming to hear God’s Word, to listen or ask questions.
“We try to have our Bible study right after our pregame practices,” she said. “It’s a time for us to pray, talk, share about what God is doing in our lives and focus on His Word. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s usually a pretty powerful time, too. I really enjoy when new people show up, and want to hear what He’s all about.”

As her faith has matured, so has Heath’s confidence in sharing her faith. It is even evidenced by Dorrance, her nationally known coach and a devout Mormon, who has coached for more than three decades at Carolina.
“One night earlier this semester, Tobin and her Christian housemates invited us over to talk about faith,” he said. “In 33 years of coaching, that’s the first time it’s ever happened to me.

“Tobin is a really sweet, open-minded, kind and thoughtful girl who happens to be this incredible soccer player,” Dorrance said. “It’s kind of neat having her here and seeing what she does with her life.”

Heath’s collegiate playing career ended Sunday, and she will leave Chapel Hill as a three-time NCAA women’s soccer champion. She has treasured the opportunities that have come with being a senior and leader in the program and hopes to continue to play for the U.S. National Team—and claim a spot on America’s 2012 Olympic squad. But—in a show of her extreme faith–Heath is open to whatever, and wherever, God leads her.

“Just talking about God gets me fired up and energized about His plans for me,” she said. “He is in charge. Wherever He wants me to go, I’ll go. Whatever He wants me to do, I’ll do. I try not to look too much into the future. I’m a firm believer in that today has enough going on for me to worry about. But whatever I do, I’m going to do it for Him.”

A Coach's Perspective

“One of my favorite stories came out of our team banquet last spring. At our banquet, we allow all the graduating seniors to give a final address to the whole team. We’ve been experimenting with this banquet for two or three years, and we’ve got it cleaned it up enough to invite the chancellor and the athletic director to it. So they came to this soccer banquet with their wives… of course one of the reasons they came was that we were coming off a national championship, and I think that they wanted to be a part of this celebration of our team.

Well, one of our players, a graduating senior, stood up and started talking about her recruiting visit to UNC. Here I am, sitting at the table with the chancellor and his wife, and the athletic director and his wife, and she starts talking about how she packed all her “hot” clothes because she couldn’t wait to go down to Chapel Hill and have a typical recruiting weekend, and I’m thinking “Oh my gosh, where is this story going?” I’m sitting at the table sweating under my suit about what this graduating senior was going to tell the chancellor and the athletic director about her recruiting trip.

She talks about being all excited about what she anticipated was going to be a rip-roarin’ recruiting weekend, and I’m thinking, “Oh my gosh, this could be humiliating!”

Then she talked about being all set to go out, and she finds Tobin in her dorm room, and Tobin says, ‘Hey, why don’t we go out into the woods and sit around and chat?’ What was hilarious is that this story – the potential ramifications of going downtown into Chapel Hill, burning the town to the ground – turned into Tobin taking this girl out into the woods near the dorm and just chatting with her about her life in Chapel Hill. The whole, potentially wild and crazy night was defused by this sweet kid who just wanted to get to genuinely know and care for this player we were recruiting, rather than entertaining her in the bars of Chapel Hill. It was a perfect ending to a story that could have gone in a very different, dangerous direction.”

– UNC women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance, as told to Dave Pond

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