Austin Proehl can’t wait until football season next year. The 21-year- old communications major at Carolina will be a starter, a wide receiver for the Tarheels, and for the first time in his college career his dad plans to be in the stands for every game.
That’s because his dad, Ricky Proehl, is quitting his job as an NFL coach to be able to watch his two sons play football.
“I’m really looking forward to being able to look up after a big play and see him and the rest of my family in the stands. It means the world to me because I just want to make him proud,” Austin tells PEOPLE.
Austin and his younger brother Blake, 18, have always idolized their dad.
“He’s been my role model,” Austin says. “Growing up watching him play for so long and always wanting to be around him, it’s been hard having him gone all the time — but I knew he was doing what we all love.”
The elder Proehl played seventeen years in the NFL as a wide receiver before becoming a coach for the Carolina Panthers, a team he helped take to the Super Bowl last year.
But this past week, Ricky Proehl, 48, gave up his job on the sidelines coaching wide receivers so that he could watch his oldest son’s senior year on the football field.
“I said, ‘I can’t pass this up,’ the elder Proehl tells PEOPLE. “He’s got one year left and I couldn’t handle not seeing him play.”
This past season, Austin really started to make some big plays, but because of the intense nature of being a coach in the NFL, his dad only managed to get to two games.
“It killed me,” Ricky says. “To not be there for him when he came out of the locker room and say great job, or be there sometimes when he didn’t have a great game … Austin never said anything about it, but not being there for him was tough.”
Ricky has tried being there for his kids over the years, coaching both boys in pop warner football and helping their older sister with her soccer play. But he says he missed a lot of holidays and birthdays over the years.
“My family has made a lot of sacrifices for me. There have been a lot of times where I haven’t been there for them,” he says.
Moments after telling his kids about his plans to leave the job he loves, he heard back from Austin.
“He sent me a text,” Ricky says. “I tell you what – it was special. It just really stopped me in my tracks.”
The text said in part, “I just wanna say thank you. Obviously having you as my coach and a dad is something I could never thank God enough for. You’ve truly shown me how to be a man. I love you.”
Blake, who just got a full scholarship to play the same position as his brother and father at East Carolina, says, ”Football has been everything to us. I think it’s the best decision for my dad. Obviously he loves what he does but I think it was the perfect time because it’s Austin’s last year and now he’ll get to be there.”
Ricky says he is most looking forward to the things other families take for granted: “Just being a dad and being able to get to the games. I can’t wait to be sitting up there in the stands and watching him play and I know I’ll be proud. It makes me smile just to think about it.”