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Kirk Urso

Eight months after he helped lead the North Carolina men's soccer team to a national championship, Kirk Urso died early Sunday morning in Columbus, Ohio, where he had been playing for the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer. He was 22.

Few details emerged on Sunday about Urso's death. According to the Columbus Dispatch, police were called to a Columbus bar at approximately 12:50 on Sunday morning. Authorities transported Urso from there to a hospital, where the paper reported that he was pronounced dead at 1:50 a.m. An autopsy is scheduled for Monday.

"We are deeply saddened by the death of" Urso, Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer, said in a statement. "Major League Soccer mourns his death and sends our condolences to his family. MLS will hold a moment of silence for Kirk at today's two league matches."

Urso, a midfielder at UNC, played in more matches than anyone in school history. He finished his senior season with three goals and seven assists, and he was an all-NCAA tournament and second-team All-ACC selection. Urso was a native of Downers Grove, Ill.

Ben Speas on his Twitter account posted a tribute to Urso on Sunday morning. Speas and Urso played alongside each other both at UNC and on the Crew. Speas posted a picture of him and Urso standing with the Tar Heels' national championship trophy, both smiling widely in the moments after their 1-0 victory against Charlotte.

"I feel sick, speechless," Speas wrote. "Just doesn't seem fair. [You're] forever in my heart Captain Kirk. I love you brother."

In addition to Speas, Mia Hamm was one of many members of the national soccer community who offered condolences through Twitter as news of Urso's death spread on Sunday. Hamm helped lead the UNC women to four national titles between 1989 and '93.

"All our thoughts and prayers are with Kirk Urso's family, friends and teammates," Hamm wrote. "Heels."

News of Urso's death especially shocked T.J. Scholl, who graduated from UNC in May and befriended Urso in 2008, when they were both freshmen. Scholl and Urso lived at the same time in Carmichael dorm on the UNC campus.

They traded text messages on Saturday night, Scholl said, and Urso had been at home watching the Olympics.

"We talked about him coming down to visit, coming to the beach and fishing," Scholl said. "He loved to fish. I texted him again about 10:15, 10:30 and never heard back so I figured he fell asleep."

Scholl was at church at 9:30 Sunday morning when he received a text message from another friend informing him of the news. At first, Scholl said, "It didn't register to me."

"There's a group of five to 10 of us who were close with Kirk and we all found out about the same time and we called each other," said Scholl, who interned in UNC's athletic communications office and at times worked with the men's soccer team. "I'm still in disbelief and shock that something like this could happen to someone so young and in such good shape."

Before college, Urso played on the U.S. under-17 national team, and he scored a game-winning goal in 2007 in the second round of the under-17 World Cup. But the reputation Urso built at UNC went beyond soccer and he was known for his campus involvement.

Urso served on the student-athlete advisory council and played a role in the Carolina Leadership Academy, which was recently renamed for former athletic director Dick Baddour. After former UNC soccer coach Elmar Bolowich left for Creighton in February 2011, Urso campaigned for longtime assistant Carlos Somoano to be promoted.

"He came pretty much representing the team to express their support for Carlos," said Baddour, who eventually promoted Somoano to head coach. "He did that with me, and he also did it in a team meeting."

Somoano last December became the second first-year coach in NCAA history to lead a team to a men's soccer national championship. He was traveling and unavailable for comment on Sunday, according to the university, but described Urso as "our captain on and off the field" in a story UNC's department of athletics website published last December.

In a statement that UNC released on Sunday afternoon, athletic director Bubba Cunningham expressed admiration for Urso's leadership qualities. Cunningham didn't assume his role at UNC until midway through the fall sports season, but he said it quickly became evident that Urso "was a natural leader."

"His enthusiasm was contagious to all who knew him," Cunningham said in the statement. "He had a positive and inspirational impact on his team, and many other student-athletes at Carolina."

Baddour, meanwhile, described Urso as "the epitome of a student-athlete." Urso graduated with a degree in economics, and was named the ACC's academic scholar-athlete of the year after his junior season in 2010.

The UNC men's soccer team gathered for a practice on Sunday morning, where Urso's former teammates learned of his death.

"I was told no one spoke for a long time," Scholl said. "They just sat there and stared."

(Raleigh) News & Observer

Published in Charlotte Observer on Aug. 6, 2012
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