Farewell, Captain Kirk
That’s Kirk Urso raising the NCAA championship trophy on the cover of the August issue of Tar Heel Monthly, the one that proclaims Carolina men’s soccer to be the Tar Heels of the Year. Early Sunday morning, Urso passed away in Columbus, Ohio.
The Carolina community is in shock over the passing of the captain of the 2011 national champions. Urso played in 91 games as a Tar Heel and started 80. He scored 18 goals and had 24 assists in his Carolina career. This spring, Urso was picked up by the Columbus Crew in the first round of the MLS Supplemental Draft. He started and played the full 90 minutes of the first five games of his professional career. In June, he had surgery for adductor tendonitis and was recovering in Columbus.
I can’t say that I knew Kirk well, but I did get to talk to him for Tar Heel Monthly on several occasions. In each of those times, I was struck by his kindness and patience with a soccer neophyte such as myself.
It wasn’t hard to fall in love with the 2011 men’s soccer team. They were the type of team that made viewers want to understand the game better. The Tar Heels came into the season with high expectations, then imposed their style of play on opponents and adapted when necessary. The team operated as a well-oiled machine, each player knowing his role as well as that of his teammates and his place on the field. At midfield, Urso was always on the move, his blond hair whipping in the wind as he ran. He exemplified Carlos Somoano’s points of emphasis: Patience, positioning and pace.
When Elmar Bolowich left the program last spring, it was Urso who had campaigned for Somoano to get the full-time job as head coach. As captain, he led a team loaded with future pros that had reached the College Cup three straight years. With Urso wearing the captain’s armband, the Tar Heels broke through to capture the championship in thrilling fashion. “There’s definitely a sense of almost, relief, in that you got the job done and you finished it,” Urso said the next day. “Obviously, we’ve kind of left our legacy on this program, and I think years down the line and even months down the line, we’ll be looking back on this and just realize how special it is.”
At the postgame press conference, Urso had said that there was “something extra” about the 2011 Tar Heels. “It was a family,” he said, “and if we would have had the worst season in the world, we would have still loved each other.”
In watching Urso, that was clear. Watch the sequence at 11:25 in the season highlight video below. The Tar Heels are trailing Coastal Carolina 2-1 in the second half of an NCAA Tournament game. After a Mikey Lopez shot rebounds back into the field, Urso, wearing the captain’s armband, tracks down the ball and unleashes a shot with his left foot that rockets into the corner of the net from 30 yards away. After the score, Urso opens his arms in celebration, turns to the home crowd and runs along the Fetzer Field track. In that moment, as in the moments following the national championship, Urso is the picture of unbridled joy.
In the days since Urso’s death, the tributes that have poured in indicate that Urso was as impactful off the soccer field as he was on it. Carlos Somoano called him “an inspirational student, teammate, friend, leader and captain.” Elmar Bolowich said Urso was “exemplary in every aspect.” Former Tar Heel teammate Matt Hedges wiped his eyes during a moment of silence held for Urso in Sunday’s MLS game between Dallas and Portland and was given a fan-made banner afterward.
Upon the death of a person before their time, it’s become cliché to remind ourselves to seize every day, and get the most out of every moment. In his 22 years on Earth, Kirk Urso did just that. He made an impact on the pitch and off of it. His was a life well-lived.