By: Pat James
Photos By: Jeffrey Camarati
From the May 2021 issue of Born & Bred
When watching her play or hearing her speak, it’s impossible to ignore the impact that the men in Brianna Pinto’s immediate family have had on her soccer career. Recruited to North Carolina by Anson Dorrance when he coached both the men’s and women’s teams, Brianna’s father, Hassan, was a forward for the men’s team in the early 1990s. He went on teach Brianna, 20, and her brothers, Hassan Jr., 23, and Malik, 18, the game from an early age. And as much as Brianna excelled at it, her brothers did, too – Hassan Jr. is currently a member of the USL League One’s Richmond Kickers, and Malik is a freshman midfielder at Princeton.
Naturally, because of this common bond, Brianna’s father and brothers have been a top topic of just about every interview she’s done in her three years on the UNC women’s soccer team. But while she didn’t play soccer herself, Brianna’s mom Meleata – a former Tar Heel softball player – is just as passionate about it.
She’s also just as responsible for her daughter’s immense success.
“To be following in her legacy as a Carolina athlete, it’s truly special,” Brianna said. “She gets to show me the Carolina that she knows and loves, and I’m kind of living the dream right now. I dreamt of coming here and playing soccer for Anson my entire life, and without her investment in me and her unconditional love and her willingness to drive all over the Earth to support me, I really wouldn’t be where I am. I’m incredibly grateful for all that she does.”
Among the many ways in which her mom has helped her, Brianna said she’s always appreciated having parents who are extremely active and actually showed her how to play sports growing up instead of explaining them. Meleata and Hassan, of course, wouldn’t have had it any other way.
From taking the kids with them to watch them play tennis to holding family kickball games at Finley Practice Fields, Meleata said she and Hassan taught them how to compete.
“Athletics has always been such a central part of my husband and my life that we wanted to share that with the kids,” Meleata said. “And so as they entered elementary school and we started introducing them to different sports, we would talk about our competitions. … That competitive drive is really with both of us. So I think Brianna especially saw that and wanted to root for me. Just being her mom, she was like, ‘Oh yeah, I want mom to beat dad.’”
Although Hassan’s sport ultimately became all three children’s favorite, Brianna did give softball a try. She played for about two years, and even taught herself how to switch-hit, Meleata said. But the sport’s slow pace – especially in comparison to soccer – couldn’t hold her attention.
“I respected that and just loved that she even gave it a shot,” Meleata said. “Our motto really was you can try anything, and every season I asked if she wanted to try tennis or golf or swimming. She always came back to soccer. So I certainly wasn’t going to stand in the way of that.”
Just as long as academics remained a priority.
For as long as Brianna can remember, her and her siblings’ performance in the classroom was something Meleata was passionate about. She set an expectation for them to accomplish more than just what they did on the field – and certainly gave Brianna something to which she could aspire. Before Brianna was born, Meleata served as an associate producer at ESPN, a role in which she won an Emmy Award. She then became an associate producer with MLB and later a marketing coordinator with UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health before deciding in 2009 to pursue a master’s degree in marketing and strategy at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. That eventually led her to a successful career in the tech industry, highlighted by stops at IBM and Lenovo. She’s currently the director of integrated marketing at Dude Solutions, a software company in Cary.
Brianna said Meleata’s Emmy rests on the mantle at the family’s home and that she used to brag about it to her friends growing up. As much pride as she took in it, it meant that much more to see her mom work tirelessly toward her master’s degree.
“That was pretty special to watch that process and be old enough to remember it,” said Brianna, who was 9 when Meleata enrolled at Fuqua. “Eventually, I’d also love to go back and get my master’s and then create a viable career in business; that’s ultimately why I applied to Kenan-Flagler (Business School), because of the inside of the business world that she has shared with me, and then also how she’s related that with sports.”
Two months before enrolling at UNC, back in June 2018, Brianna spoke at the FIFA Congress in Moscow as part of North America’s joint bid to land the 2026 men’s World Cup. For about a minute, she detailed soccer’s importance to her and to the world in a speech that she crafted with President Barack Obama’s former foreign policy speechwriter. And in the end, FIFA voted in favor of the bid, partly thanks to Brianna.
Ever since then, Brianna has dreamed of working for FIFA, a goal she’s spent the last three years working toward as a student at Kenan-Flagler and through various off-the-field ventures. The latter has included her work with U.S. Soccer’s Athletes’ Council and serving as a student-athlete representative on the Rams Club’s FORevHER Tar Heels advisory board.
While all of that, in addition to playing for a national championship program, might sound like too much for one person to handle, Brianna said her mom has been critical in helping her make decisions about what she can and cannot take on.
“She provides the clarity in the decisions because she’s very thoughtful in how she approaches things and she thinks about long-term implications of what one decision has over another and the pros and cons,” Brianna said. “And she also encourages me to invest in other parts of my life. … She just gives me advice every single day. I’m so, so grateful for it. Like, I truly don’t know where I would be without her.”
She’s thought about that a lot over the past few months.
On Jan. 13, Sky Blue FC selected Brianna with the third overall pick of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) Draft. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the draft was held virtually via videoconferencing and web streaming. That, however, didn’t matter to Brianna, who was able to celebrate the moment at home with her family – including her mom.
“She’s seen all of the hardship that I’ve gone through and all the tears that I’ve cried for this game,” Brianna said. “And to finally hear my name called in the 2021 NWSL draft was just a testament to (my parents’) unconditional love and their investment in me as a person. And to have my mom there and just give her a hug after that was something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. It was just such a special moment.”
Due to an NCAA waiver, players picked in the NWSL Draft could play for their schools in the spring season before joining their club teams. That’s what Brianna opted to do, with hopes of checking one last item off her UNC bucket list: winning the national championship.
That would be a dream come true for Brianna, who, from the time she was three, had every intention of playing soccer at Carolina. So strong was her desire to do just that, that when she committed to the Tar Heels as a high school freshman, Meleata said she was slightly concerned that perhaps she and Hassan had “brainwashed” her into making that decision.
The last three years, though, have been a blessing.
“To have her here, at UNC, at our alma mater and have her walk the brick pathways that we traveled, it’s been incredible,” Meleata said. “And I just can’t even describe how proud I am of her, the platform that she’s been able to embrace while she’s been at UNC, just the growth that she’s undergone in the last three years. It’s been honestly a dream come true. And I know that sounds cliché, but when I say she was three and she said, ‘This is what I want to do,’ and to see her live it out, I couldn’t be prouder as a mom.”
This story originally appeared in Born & Bred magazine – an exclusive publication shared with Rams Club members.
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