CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- After months of denials, the NCAA suddenly and unexpectedly changed its ruling and will allow UNC wide receiver Tez Walker to suit up and play for the Tar Heels.
Walker is a transfer student who was projected to be the Tar Heels' top receiving threat coming into the season. He was even elected to the Preseason All-ACC Football Team. However, a rule change made after Walker enrolled at UNC retroactively made him ineligible to play this season.
UNC petitioned the NCAA for a waiver, but the NCAA rejected that request earlier in the season.
Following that initial denial, head coach Mack Brown and Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz released statements criticizing the NCAA and expressing disappointment in the decision. The NCAA responded by saying it was receiving violent threats because of UNC's public stance on the case.
On Thursday, the NCAA released a statement blaming UNC for the months-long saga:
NCAA staff received new information regarding University of North Carolina student-athlete Tez Walker this week. Staff determined the new information qualifies Walker for a transfer waiver. The information had not been made available by UNC previously, despite the school's multiple chances to do so.
"It is unfortunate that UNC failed to provide this important information previously. While we must be careful not to compromise a student-athlete's right to privacy when it comes to sensitive issues, we want to assure the Division I membership and everyone watching how the new transfer rules are applied, that this meets the new transfer waiver standards. UNC's behavior and decision to wage a public relations campaign is inappropriate and outside the bounds of the process (that) UNC's own staff supported. Had the UNC staff not behaved in this fashion and submitted this information weeks ago, this entire unfortunate episode could have been avoided."
However, the NCAA did not reveal what the new information was that UNC allegedly did not submit. It's also unclear how the NCAA ultimately obtained the waiver-clearing information.
UNC Director of Athletics Bubba Cunningham flat out said the NCAA's justification "is not accurate."
"We are happy that Tez Walker is now eligible to play and enjoy doing what he loves to do. However, the justification provided by the NCAA today is not accurate. The University submitted all necessary information and documentation as it was made available to us at the time, and we still believe Tez met all standards for the waiver in early August. It is not clear why the NCAA delayed making the correct decision then, but we are pleased to get to the appropriate resolution now."
Nonetheless, Walker is now able to put on his pads and catch passes from star quarterback Drake Maye. Maye showed his excitement by sharing a picture of him and Walker embracing.
Walker released the following statement about the situation:
"I'm so excited and thankful that the NCAA has granted my eligibility to play this season. This hasn't been easy, but I'm looking forward to putting this in the past and moving forward. I always knew UNC was a special place, but it's proved it over and over again throughout the last few months. I've received so much support from the University, the athletics department, my coaches, the staff, and my teammates. Most of all, I've felt so much love from the fans. Whether it was people trying to pick me up on social media or fans chanting for me at the games, I've felt supported and I can't tell you how much it's meant to me. I can't wait to put on that jersey, run out of the tunnel, and play in Kenan Stadium. I've been dreaming of this for a long time and now it will be a reality. See everyone on Saturday."
Walker has missed UNC's first four games, all of which the Tar Heels won. He has reportedly been part of practice all season, meaning he is expected to have a smooth transition into the game plan as soon as Saturday, when the Tar Heels take on Syracuse in Kenan Stadium.
A team spokesperson told ABC11 that Walker will make his debut against the Orange. However, it remains unclear whether he will start or how much he'll be on the field.
Brown said he was "thrilled" to hear the news.
"We're so happy for Tez. Everything that's transpired over the last few months has been with the sole purpose of helping and supporting him, and now he's going to have a chance to live his dream," Brown said in a statement. "We want to express our gratitude to the people at UNC who have worked tirelessly to assist Tez. We never gave up. We also want to thank the NCAA for being willing to re-examine Tez's case, and ultimately deciding to grant him his eligibility. This is, and always has been, about the welfare of this young man, and we can't wait to see him on the field doing what he loves to do."
In Chapel Hill, business are excited, too. Carolina Sportswear already has an NIL deal with Walker on a custom line of Tez tee shirts. Store manager Holly Dedmond said excitement's already been building around the football program due to the team's hot start, but she's predicting an even bigger boom for business.
"We're 4-0 for the first time in years and years and years," Dedmond said. "And so, you know, we're all looking forward to the game this weekend and the next two weekends. We have home games. So, it's going to be a busy few weeks here in Chapel Hill for the stores and the restaurants and the bars."
Down the street at Carolina Brewery, fourth-generation owner Robert Poitras is equally excited.
"My phone has been blowing up the last hour," said Poitras. "It is just awesome news for the Tar Heels and in effect, you know, I'm happy for Tez Walker. I mean, student athlete, came here under expectations, got a bad deal it appeared, and now he's able to play."
Willie Barron graduated from UNC in 2018 before opening his own business on Franklin Street this year. He's buying into the hype too.
"I don't think people understand how big of a deal UNC sports around here are," Barron said. "Even for a lot of the businesses on Franklin Street, it brings so many people to Chapel Hill when we keep winning and it really fuels our businesses on the weekends."