From obscurity to stardom: Mike Chatham has storybook career
Jeff Linville Staff Reporter
Even three decades later, it plays out so sweetly it could be a Disney movie.
A college walk-on buried on the depth chart suddenly rises up to become one of the best college football players in his conference.
Mike Chatham was a standout at Elkin High School in 1975, but wasn’t offered a scholarship to attend UNC-Chapel Hill.
Still, since his older brothers were Tar Heels, Mike decided to enroll at UNC and hope for the best as a walk-on.
Mike had been a tight end his junior year at Elkin, but was moved to running back because of injuries. He shined in that role, but it didn’t carry over to college.
“I didn’t expect to come and start playing,” Mike told sportswriter Ron Green Jr. “I didn’t think it would be as bad as it was. … There were so many good athletes, I didn’t prepare myself for it.”
Chatham wanted to play tight end again, but he weighed only 175 pounds. The coaching staff moved him to defensive back instead for his freshman year.
He decided to make use of his time on the school JV team by hitting the weight room and packing on muscle.
After redshirting a year and only playing special teams as a redshirt sophomore, Mike had bulked up to 210 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame as a junior.
He was fourth on the team’s depth chart at the start of the season, but started to turn heads in practice.
Early on, Mike was admittedly inconsistent, making a great catch one play then dropping a pass on the next.
“Consistency is the biggest thing when you’re not on scholarship,” he told Green. “You won’t get as many looks as the other guys they have money invested in.”
After playing his way up the depth chart, Mike saw action in the first game of the season.
Then in the third game, Mike caught his first pass against Army, good for 26 yards.
The next week against Cincinnati, he caught eight balls, including his first touchdown reception.
Mike said the TD came on a broken play. As the quarterback scrambled, Mike broke off his pattern and got behind his defender. Quarterback Matt Kupec found him for the score.
That would be a recurring theme for the two. At a time when teams didn’t pass that often, the UNC school record for TD catches in a season was only seven.
By the end of the year, Chatham broke that record with his eighth TD reception, which tied the ACC mark at the time.
On that red-zone play from the 3-yard line, UNC receivers coach Jack Himebauch would later tell the Raleigh News & Observer, “Before the touchdown, the Duke players were yelling, ‘Watch Chatham.’ He proved himself to be someone the defense has to respect.”
With 29 catches and eight TDs, Mike was named to the All-ACC team.
Mike finished his career in 1980 with 49 catches in the regular season and nine more in two bowl games.
“The things that make him a good receiver are his all-around athletic (ability) and his great concentration on the ball,” Himebauch told the school newsletter at the time.
A 1989 News & Observer article named Mike one of the all-time best walk-ons in ACC history.
The Hall of Fame induction ceremony will be held in the Surry Community College gym at 4 p.m. Saturday.
Note: Mike Chatham’s high school teammate Jeff Hayes was the placekicker for the Heels in those college days. Hayes, who went on to have a nice NFL career as a punter, was inducted into the Sports Hall of Fame two years ago.
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