Jorge Figueroa leads a not-so-secret double life as “that guy” of UNCW Athletics

Ethan Marsh, Contributing Writer

“It’s fun. I mean, I get it everywhere. I can be at the grocery store and people say, ‘Oh, you’re that guy!’”

Even though he denies it, Dr. Jorge Figueroa is one of those local celebrities that one only knows when they see him. He is known as “that guy.”

Figueroa, a public health program professor at UNCW for a little over 10 years now, has developed a well-known but also discrete persona among UNCW’s populace. This occurred through attending UNCW athletic events sporting a teal goatee and tattooing both the old and new sports logos on his biceps.

He is one of UNCW’s most unique figures.

“That guy”

Going to UNCW basketball games is one of Figueroa’s favorite things to do. When asked about what his favorite things to do outside his teaching job, the answer is almost always attending athletic events

“Probably to come to athletic events here at UNCW,” he said. “I generally make it a policy that if I have any students who are on any teams, I will make it to at least one of their events during the semester … So that gets me to pretty much to all the sports one time or another.”

His notoriety as “that guy” came from attending basketball games – the most highly attended events on campus. Figueroa credits the video operators of Trask Coliseum’s jumbotron for giving him face time with the crowd

“Probably the jumbotron,” Figueroa said. “I think that that it makes it impossible to be inconspicuous.”

Figueroa’s status as “that guy” – and the story behind him assuming this status – is one that developed over time.

On each bicep is a UNCW athletics tattoo. One is the “old” logo used prior to 2015, the yellow Seahawk outlining an ocean wave of teal and navy.

The tattoo on his other arm is much newer. In collaboration with the athletic department, Figueroa unveiled the new, modern logo at a UNCW basketball game in 2015.

“They approached me and asked me if I would be interested in getting a tattoo of the new logo. I said (it was) hard to say if I hadn’t seen it.” Figueroa said. “They made arrangements for me to see it, after having I signed non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements. And I said, ‘Yeah.’”

When Figueroa went to have the tattoo done, the tattoo artist had to sign the same agreements, as the design of the new logo being shared anywhere was not legally or ethically allowed. This process helped build his persona at UNCW.

“They decided to have it done so that it would be ready to unveil at the same time that the new logo was unveiled. I made an appointment with the tattoo artist,” he said. “He had to see the image, design the tattoo and do it all in one sitting. He had to destroy any edgings, drawings or renderings of the tattoo he made and could not take pictures of it.”

He introduced this tattoo at a basketball game later on, and he figured his persona grew from there. New T-shirts had been handed out to the students for the occasion, and Figueroa went out wearing the new T-shirt himself for the unveiling.

“What happened at the basketball game which was the big rollout,” Figueroa said. “I went out wearing the new T-shirt then I ripped off the sleeve off my right arm and showed off the old tattoo. And then I turned around and ripped off the other sleeve and showed the new tattoo.”

Figueroa enjoys being a part of a university with an intense spirit. Athletics are a part of that – the tattoos are a part of that.

“Being a part of an institution that has such a noble mission and has so many committed people that work towards that mission is a pretty cool thing to be associated with,” he said.

His life as a Professor

Figueroa values his teaching job at UNCW and the fact he can have an impact on someone’s life in many different ways.

“I think my whole life has been one of service and that has taken lots of different forms – from running non-profit, holding public office, being a firefighter, I was actually on a mounted police force,” Figueroa said. “Let me tell you: Carrying a gun, riding a horse and chasing bad guys – it does not get better than that.”

Helping others is his motto and something he’s done throughout his life. Teaching at a university is just his last stop on this ride of service.

“I have done lots of cool things but the common element has been focusing on helping other people,” Figueroa said. “What I love about teaching is that whole concept of if you drop a pebble in a pond, the ripples just extend. And you don’t know what those ripples are. But you know, you touch a student, have them think of something in a different way, help them decide a new career. And that keeps rolling on. It is incredibly rewarding.”

A life-changing moment

There’s a part of Figueroa of which the student body and beyond likely is not aware. Eight years ago, he was diagnosed with Stage IV splenic marginal zone lymphoma – a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that was discovered in a routine physical screening.

“They thought with treatment, I could get two years,” he said. “They gave me less than five percent of making it five years. That was eight years ago.”

Figueroa likes to joke about his challenges with his diagnosis, but he does recognize the reality of it as well.

“I like to joke that my lifelong character flaw of procrastination has paid off,” Figueroa said. “I have never been in remission, I’m not in remission now. I will not be cured, no one ever has been. It is not what I am expecting.”

When he passed the five-year mark, Figueroa celebrated by getting a tattoo.

“When I hit that five-year mark, I decided to kind of just recognize the milestone. So I got my third only other tattoo … On my back, which is of Saint George slaying the dragon.”

He has decided to look at it in an optimistic fashion and enjoy life to the fullest, which includes doing as much good as he can to make life better for others.

“I think the fact that I have such a sense of belonging really keeps me motivated, keeps me energized,” Figueroa said. “Walking down the halls, I’m especially fortunate that my office happens to be in Trask, where most of the athletes are.”

Figueroa said he appreciates being located in “athletics” part of the university thanks to the department that he teaches in. It gives him the ability to feel that he belongs to a special entity and it gives him a cause.

“I can’t walk down the halls without seeing some athlete who usually acknowledges me, gives me a high five,” Figueroa said. “I just get that sense of support and family and belonging every day. That is definitely a source of energy and motivation.”

Life lessons

As a well-known figure in the Seahawk community and inspirational figure, Figueroa has learned many lessons through and is happy to express it to everyone.

“When you are at the end of your life, you don’t look back over your life and think about how much money you made or what car you drove, none of that matters,” Figueroa said. “Ideally, you shouldn’t have to wait until the end of your life to come to that realization.”

He knows there is a greater purpose to this life – that there are much more important things to strive for and ultimately, at the end of the tunnel, that’s what people remember.

“You can spend a greater percentage of your time doing those things that are truly valuable and truly important. That truly bring joy to your life rather than getting stuck on the grind of doing things because you are supposed to or you think you should,” Figueroa said. “And realize that they don’t bring you joy. And that they don’t make the world a better place, that they don’t strengthen your relationships.”

Figueroa has experienced a lot since being diagnosed with cancer, through the things he has done, and through athletics at UNCW. The things are truly what makes life his own.

“Life is precious,” he said. “Enjoy it.”