It was just like the countless visits that had come before. Proehl talked to Poe about football, and Poe asked Proehl about his dad.
“Whenever Dad watched the games, he would always say, ‘There’s my buddy,’” said Kaitlen, one of Poe’s two daughters. “It would bring him so much joy during this rough time.”
It wasn’t just Poe who felt a special bond.
“This was my guy …” Proehl said. “He always wanted to talk and know more about you. That’s how you know people care about you. I think he cared about me, and I cared about him.”
Proehl’s caring nature extends beyond Poe.
“Austin is one of the most humble people you will ever meet,” said Colton Lee, Proehl’s cousin and a first-year basketball player at Randolph College. “I know for a fact he would tell you what he is doing is nothing extraordinary. It’s something he knows should be done.”
Outside of hospital work, Proehl also volunteered for Northside Elementary School in Chapel Hill. Because of this and other service work, he won the ACC Top Six for Service award in June.
“He was such a good sport and had all the kids engaged and singing with him as he learned how to love one of our favorite book characters, Pete the Cat,” Northside librarian Kathryn Cole said.
Proehl’s work ranged from playing tag with third-graders to reading Dr. Seuss to helping with class research projects. He went a few times a month during football season, but he’s trying to go every week this semester.
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“He works with kids,” Cole said. “He also talks with them, laughs with them and wants to get to know them in a real, genuine way. You don’t always get that kind of interaction with busy student athletes.”
Proehl invited a few Northside boys to a football practice last spring. He gave them the royal treatment — even arranging for special credentials. But for the boys, the highlight was throwing the football with Proehl and shaking his hand before practice.
“They were talking about it for days after,” Cole said. “And it certainly made an impact that he took the time to show them they mattered and were important. Their smiles were priceless.”
Proehl wants to give back to God and make a difference.
“I’ve realized just how blessed I am to have been around the people that I’ve been around for 21 years of my life,” he said. “I want other people to experience it. I want to impact people. Whether it’s the hospital, the elementary school, whatever it may be, I want to be able to bring light to people.”
Proehl was sitting at home in November when he got the text from the nurse. He dropped his phone.
“This isn’t real,” he thought.
Proehl had heard Poe’s condition was improving a week earlier. So the news that his friend died on Oct. 26 was a shock. The legacy of the relationship — and the sting of Poe’s death — remains. More than anything, Proehl wishes he could tell Poe thank you.
“It was more my pleasure to see him and go talk to him, I guarantee, than it was for him and what it did for him,” Proehl said. “He helped me out in so many ways, just talking to him, getting my mind off football sometimes, and just put everything into perspective for me.”
Proehl still remembers those conversations. Every time he steps onto the field, he plays for those who have impacted him — like Poe and the kids at Northside. And when Proehl headlines the UNC offense in Saturday’s spring game at 3 p.m. at Fetzer Field, he will think of Poe.
“Every time I went in there, he helped me,” Proehl said. “He brightened my day. He put a smile on my face. I felt like I owe it back to him.”