She Put in the Work, and It Paid Off

Taylor Robertson, Carolina football’s head student manager, is the first woman to take the role in the program’s 136-year history.  (Photo: Ira Wilder)

Senior Taylor Robertson was born in the middle of football season, and she’s never been too far from the field.

Football is in her blood. Her dad, Doug Robertson, has coached high school football around the Piedmont since 2001, and she grew up following him during practices and games, surrounded by helmets, cleats and hundreds of players that she considers older brothers.

Not much has changed — except now she’s in a much larger stadium, her father is in the stands and she’s in charge of the helmets and the cleats. Robertson is Carolina football’s first female head student manager, going back to the program’s inception in 1888.

Robertson said she didn’t face a glass ceiling that she had to shatter. Rather, she knows she’s simply the right person for the job. “I’ve worked towards it for three years,” she said. “And so, from the outside looking in, it’s like, ‘Oh, she’s a female.’ But for me, I know what I’m doing. I know how big a football field is and how many plays it takes to get into the end zone and all of that. So, the constantly being questioned part, being a woman in sports, it doesn’t have to happen now.”

Managers are responsible for distributing practice uniforms, scripting practices, replacing broken gear, carrying out drills, spotting balls, putting face masks on helmets, decaling helmets, measuring air pressure in the balls, working with physicians, packing a tractor trailer for away games, setting up lockers, emptying trash, stocking fridges and cleaning cleats, among other tasks.

Then there’s the nerve-wracking duties on the sideline, where Robertson is “even-keeled” and “focused,” head equipment manager Jason Freeman ’98 said. Robertson constantly fears what could go wrong, and she paces back and forth, a habit she picked up from her mother, who, while attending Doug’s games, strides anxiously while cheering the team. Robertson waits for players to run off the field with some equipment issue — a ripped glove or a busted cleat — and she must be prepared to fix it in an instant. That requires memorizing the uniform preferences of all 120 members of the football team, down to the shoe size. (Cedric Gray, senior linebacker, wears size 12 Nike Vapor Edge Speeds, she said.)

Day-to-day operations of the football program are overseen by Freeman, one assistant, an intern and a dozen student managers.

Robertson has been with the group since her first year. When she heard about the job opening through a family friend, she wasn’t entirely sure what an equipment manager did. All she knew was that it was a major time commitment. “I was like, ‘You know what? You miss 100 percent of the shots you do not take,’ ” she said. “So, I put my foot through the door.”

Robertson said she was overwhelmed when she was a first-year, and Kenan Stadium seemed bigger than it does now. But she was determined to finish the job, and she’s been working toward the group’s pinnacle position, head student manager, for three years.

When Freeman promoted her, he was more emotional than she was. “He brought me into his office, actually, sat me down, and he was already starting to tear up,” Robertson said.

“I’m very tenderhearted, and I was just so proud of her,” Freeman said. “She had put in the work, and it paid off.”

Freeman added that her effort shows up even when she’s not on the clock, just to handle jobs that need to be done. It’s that proactive leadership, that willingness to go the extra mile that makes her a key part of the team, he said.

Robertson waits for players to run off the field with some equipment issue, and she must be prepared to fix it in an instant. That requires memorizing the uniform preferences of all 120 members of the football team, down to the shoe size. Managers distribute practice uniforms, script practices, replace broken gear, carry out drills, put face masks on helmets, work with physicians, pack trucks for away games, set up lockers, stock fridges and do other tasks.  (Photo: UNC Athletics)

Robertson has continued to put in the work this season. She arrives at the stadium at 6 a.m. three days a week to prepare for and support practice, which typically lasts until 10:30 a.m. Afterwards, Robertson heads to class. She’s also at the stadium twice a week in the afternoons. On home game days, she’s at the stadium five hours before kickoff. When games are away, she’s at the stadium the day before, precisely arranging the locker room as if it were a barrack.

Freeman said that without student managers such as Robertson, the football team simply wouldn’t be able to function. “You only notice an equipment manager when something is wrong or missing,” she said. “So as long as we’re not noticed during the day, I’ve done my job, and the rest of my managers have done their job.”

Robertson’s grateful to be the first woman in the position, but she doesn’t want to be the last. In the group of 12 student managers, there are only two other women, a sophomore and a first-year. Robertson hopes they continue the trend she’s started.

When asked who inspires her, Robertson said “all the women in the building,” including Alex White ’20, director of recruiting; Molly Jacoby, director of recruiting strategy; Jessica Hryn, director of on-campus recruiting; and Jamesha Clanton, director of business operations. “I could keep going,” she said. “I’ve always looked up to the women on staff because they’re so strong, and they’re so independent. They’ve really taught me how to be a leader in my department.”

Though Robertson’s proud of her title, it’s not the reason she shows up every day. She does it simply because she loves football, a game that’s in her DNA. She began helping her dad on the field when she was about 11 years old — timing segments of practice, holding cards above her head to call training periods and blowing an air horn signaling practice was over.

Robertson helped her father do everything from mowing the field to folding uniforms. She and her brother held strings taut on the grass so her father could paint straight lines for game nights.

Doug said he was blessed to spend so much time with her growing up, bonding over the sport they love. He’s watched her grow from a baby on the sidelines, barely able to hold a football, into a valued leader, leaving a legacy at Carolina football. “Mack Brown really has a lot of respect for Taylor,” Doug said. “I know that because he’s told me, and it meant a lot to us as parents.”

Robertson doesn’t know where she’s headed after graduation, but she’s sure it’ll be on a football field — where for decades she built a relationship with her father. “Me and my dad, we’re so close,” she said. “And it’s because of football.”

— Ira Wilder

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