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After time in the booth, chaplain finds his calling

When Craig Kocher, associate dean of the Chapel and director of Religious Life, sits down tonight to watch Duke's game against North Carolina in the Dean E. Smith Center from his home, he'll be dealing with a bevy of deep and drastically different emotions.

Passion, for the Tar Heels he grew up loving and idolizing.

Nostalgia, for his college job as the Tar Heels' women's basketball radio voice, the first step in what he believed would be a long broadcasting career.

And sorrow, for the unavoidable memory of his broadcasting partner, roommate and closest friend Stephen Gates, who died in a car crash in 2003.

"One of the reasons why the Carolina women's basketball program continues to play such an important role for me is because of the depth of my friendship with Stephen," Kocher said. "I do think that gives it a kind of nostalgia, but also a feel of friendship and perspective."

And for a Carolina-sports-or-bust boy who became a chaplain at the one place he previously despised, it's all about perspective.

Kocher was born in Chapel Hill, raised in Chapel Hill and went to college in Chapel Hill, so it's no wonder that he claims to bleed Carolina blue. As a sophomore, a sudden opening to be the women's basketball play-by-play announcer for the Tar Heels Sports Network freed up, and Kocher jumped at the chance. He was afforded the opportunity to travel with the team and call the games, and he even has two ACC championship rings from the Tar Heels' triumphs in 1997 and 1998, which he said he counts among his most valued possessions.

But more than the trips or the rings or even the job itself, it was always about just being a part of the Tar Heels' team.

"It felt like the pinnacle," Kocher said. "If you could be a part of Carolina Basketball, then boy, you'd made it. This was the childhood dream.

"It wasn't ever going to happen for me as an athlete. That was very clear. But I loved communicating, I love to use words, and I love to be in the thick of it."

Put like that, and the once-unclear parallels between sportscasting and preaching are easier to see. And in describing the abandoning of a long-held childhood aspiration for a career in the clergy, Kocher deftly displays his precise use of language.

"Essentially, I decided that I didn't think it would be fulfilling," Kocher said. "It would be exciting-but I didn't think it would be fulfilling in the kind of meaningful way when I imagined what I'd be doing over the next 40 years of my life."

So, he got over his near-visceral loathing of the Blue Devils, which he said was very hard to do, and went to Divinity School in Durham-all while staying on as a broadcaster for the Tar Heels to help pay his tuition bills. He met his wife, Abby, a die-hard Blue Devils fan with two Duke degrees who is also on the Chapel's staff, and gave his life to the church.

Tonight, the Kochers will have some friends over to watch the game-Craig and Abby seated on opposite sides of the room, as always, to diffuse the tension. He will cheer for his Tar Heels just as loudly as ever, but can now be genuinely happy for his Duke friends if the Blue Devils win, something his undergraduate self would have found unthinkable.

But he'll also recall fond memories of broadcasting games and the time he shared with Gates, his partner in the booth.

Right after accepting the position as assistant dean of the Chapel in 2003, Kocher received the news about his dear friend.

When Kocher describes his philosophical transformation from sports fanatic to sports enthusiast, he says, "Sports aren't all there are in life," "It's a great hobby" and "In the end, it's just a game."

Wise clichés, yes, but clichés nonetheless.

It's when Kocher talks about Gates that he sits up and speaks from his heart. Kocher had already chosen the pulpit over the sound booth, but this event stands the tallest in confirming his conviction in his choice of profession.

"It's not that I didn't have perspective already, but that was really hard to go through," Kocher said. "I've got a great picture of the two of us broadcasting a game from Cameron [Indoor Stadium,] in the crows' nest. It's one of my favorite pictures."

So he'll give in to it all over again-the drama and the excitement of sports that has captivated him almost since birth. But then tomorrow, he'll be back to his studies and his teachings, examining what he calls "a world aflame with religious tension and possibility."

He will always love sports and cherish North Carolina, and now, Duke. The pictures of his past will evoke nostalgia but also a sense of making the right decision. For the childhood dream was not far off-a different message, sure, with a different audience.

But in the end, Kocher still found his true calling.


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