Finding healing on the soccer field

A Carolina senior from Greensboro launched the UNC-Chapel Hill Global Soccer Society with the goal of creating a more avid soccer fan base at Carolina — while also paying tribute to his dad.

Hudson Owens gets his love of sports from his dad.

Whether it was watching a game on television or attending Saturday afternoon youth soccer games, sports always connected the two.

When his father passed away from cancer last spring, that connection – paired with one of their last conversations – fueled the student to bring to Carolina what his dad once gave to him: a love for soccer.

“He told me to do what I was passionate about doing in this world,” said Owens, a senior business administration student at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. “From that conversation I had with him, he has helped me learn to put myself in uncomfortable situations and to drive after what I’m passionate about.”

Just months after losing his father, the Greensboro native launched the UNC-Chapel Hill Global Soccer Society with the goal of creating a more avid soccer fan base at Carolina — while also paying tribute to the man who instilled that passion in him.

“The mission of the Global Soccer Society is to take that global soccer culture that is more passionate and deep-rooted than you might see locally and bring it to UNC, grow the student base for soccer and up everyone’s passion and culture for soccer,” he said. “Channeling the organization and what I can do through the organization is a way to honor my dad. And I think that is a form of healing.”

A new culture

A swimmer growing up and then an avid tennis player later in life, John Owens was always an athlete. It was a love he wanted to pass on to his kids.

He didn’t expect them to follow him into swimming, but John made sure they were introduced to as many sports as possible.

For Hudson, soccer was the perfect fit.

“I started playing soccer when I was 4 years old, played all the through high school and then elected to pursue studies instead of soccer in college,” he said. “He’s the one who introduced me and was by my side through all those years.”

Soccer was their connection, and when John passed away in May, 2015 at 50, Hudson leaned on the sport to help him grieve.

Using some of the entrepreneurial skills he learned at Kenan-Flagler, he created the Global Soccer Society during the fall semester of his junior year. The organization’s initial goal: improve the soccer culture at Carolina, be it via Friday pick-up games, FIFA Soccer video game tournaments or volunteering with youth soccer teams.

“Pretty much anything and everything to do with soccer that sounds like fun we try to put it out there for students to engage in,” Hudson said. “By us adding all these soccer events, I think that really draws more and more people into the sport and really enriches that environment.

“Hopefully I can look back about 10 years from now and see a much more vibrant UNC soccer culture at the games and throughout the University.”

But creating a group of soccer fanatics wasn’t enough for Hudson. He wanted to do more to honor his dad.

Savoring a good day

Much like Hudson, Shay Payne first stepped on a soccer field not long after learning to run. At 3, he was already hooked.

But that budding soccer career came to an abrupt pause last spring, when he was only 10 years old.

“He was diagnosed right before Easter with Osteosarcoma, which is a type of bone cancer,” said Tracy Payne, Shay’s mother. “They started treatment pretty much right away.”

In August, Shay had surgery at UNC Children’s Hospital to have a portion of his bone removed to eliminate a tumor. For months, Shay and his family traveled from Wilmington to Chapel Hill weekly for chemotherapy treatments.

“Typically we’ll come on a Monday and get out on Thursday or Friday after chemo and be home for the weekend, then come back again,” Payne said.

The treatments were hard. The travel was tiring.

Then something special happened. At the same time Shay was receiving his treatments, Hudson began reaching out to the Children’s Hospital looking to connect patients with Carolina’s men’s soccer team.

“One of the things I said to myself was ‘No matter where this organization goes, I want one really positive impact from it that I can look back and be satisfied,’” Hudson said. “With the passing of my dad, that’s what brought the idea of incorporating the pediatric cancer hospital into this. This event is one thing I can hang my hat on. It’s one extremely positive thing I can look back on and be OK with.”

The connection created the opportunity for Shay to serve as the honorary captain for the Tar Heels’ first-round ACC Tournament game Nov. 6.

“When they asked me in the clinic if I wanted to go out there on the field it was just awesome,” said Shay, who completed his chemo treatments earlier this month. “My favorite part was getting to go out there and put the soccer ball on the field and getting to shake everybody’s hands. It was really cool.”

From the stands, the Paynes savored every moment.

“This has been great, coming for a soccer game instead of going to the hospital for chemo,” Tracy Payne said. “It was great to have a good reason to come to Chapel Hill. It really does add a little sunshine, and we can forget that he’s sick. He can just be a kid and have this great experience.”

Hudson did, too.

“I think it’s huge for his family members to see him smile and have that enjoyment because not every day when you’re going through cancer is a good day,” he said. “You really have to savor the special moments when you can.”