When I first met David Cutcliffe, he almost hit me in the face. We were out on the practice field behind Wallace Wade Stadium where he was quarterbacking an open Duke football tryout.
His fourth throw came at me harder than I expected, and my hands, slick with an oily layer of caffeinated sweat, saved me out of pure instinct, grabbing the football just inches before it crashed into my nose. As I flipped the ball back to the quarterback, a team manager stepped over with a Gatorade bottle in her outstretched hand.
“Man,” I squeaked out between gasps for air. “He can still throw the ball a little, can’t he?”
She just smirked and moved on—I could feel her eyes rolling as she walked away—leaving me to wonder why I’d showed up to the open football tryouts in the first place.
I was one of four hopefuls who answered the quarter-page Chronicle advertisement, showing up at the Yoh Football Center a little after 10 a.m. one steamy Thursday morning in September.
Minutes before, the 5-foot-10 head football coach had emerged from his team’s end-of-practice huddle. Flanked by two assistants, he jogged over to the four of us stretching on the sideline of the practice field. A few of the players took glances our way, but most simply ignored us. There were 28 walk-ons already on the team, Ethan Johnson, the assistant director of football relations, had told us on our way down to the practice field.
“How ya doin’ fellas?” Cutcliffe drawled, running his eyes back and forth past all of us before asking for our names and hometowns. His suddenly unwavering eye contact made more than one of us look away as we answered in turn.
“Well, y’all don’t look like linemen,” Cutcliffe deadpanned with a sideways glance at his assistants. “Why don’t we try you out for the skill positions?”
I barely stifled a laugh. Although the four of us had all been high school athletes, none of us had any competitive football experience, and thus, no “skills” to speak of.
Junior Josh Neiser, the most athletic-looking of the gang, is a muscular Ohioan with Beach Boy hair who played second base in high school but wants to be a running back. He dragged along his slightly less rectangular fraternity brother and classmate, John Watts, also a junior, who has his sights set on a tight end spot. Freshman Jack Willoughby wanted to be the next Will Snyderwine, who went from walk-on to first team all-American in just two years as a kicker. I also went in as a tight end, hoping that being 40 pounds lighter than the average Duke player at that position would not be a dealbreaker.
Willoughby was led off towards one end of the practice field as the rest of us waited for quarterback Sean Renfree to finish a post-practice drill. He was throwing quick slant passes to a receiver cutting right to left across the middle, each tight spiral hitting his target perfectly at eye level about six inches in front of his face.
“Hell, even I might be able to catch those,” I thought. My confidence grew further as I looked to my right to see Cutcliffe windmilling his right arm slowly, like an old pitching machine trying to heat up.
Although feeling confident, I let Watts and Neiser start off our first test—the fade route. Designed to test our speed, presumably, we lined up on Cutcliffe’s left before sprinting downfield, looking back over our right shoulders after 10 yards to find the ball in the sun. Our signal-caller frowned as he let off his first pass, an attempt that forced Neiser to slow down and spin around to salvage the short throw. The pass to Watts was only slightly better, and I lined up, prepared to outrun Cutcliffe’s effort.
He looked over at me before grunting “Go,” sending me flying—by my own low standards, at least—past the 30-yard line. I glanced back over my shoulder, fully expecting to see the ball crash into the turf yards behind me, but it was nowhere to be found. Tilting my head until it felt like I was running backwards, I found the ball about two yards above my head—and still moving with more speed than I could muster—eventually falling well beyond my reach.
“Don’t slow down,” a chorus of coaches, Cutcliffe included, yelled as I sheepishly made my way back to the line.
Sufficiently chastised, I managed to hold my own during the next 15 minutes as Cutcliffe kept us on our toes by throwing low, high and behind us on about 12 different routes, including slants, hooks and others I never knew existed. He stayed relatively quiet throughout, offering few words of advice or encouragement between throws.
By the end I was embarrassingly out of breath, blinking sweat out of my contacts, trying to pull it together before Cutcliffe and his staff broke their huddle to come debrief us.
Cutcliffe’s post-tryout speech preached the life values and lessons we would learn by being a part of a varsity athletic team—talking points mastered by every college coach in the nation. As he continued, though, the tone of his voice began to sound like the one I imagine him using while in a high school recruit’s living room.
“Have we all made it?” I thought to myself, thoroughly confused.
He spoke of the self-discipline that would come through attending mandatory team meetings at 6 a.m. three weekday mornings, the thrill of running down the tunnel onto the field for home games and the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. It would keep us in great shape, he continued, and give us access to extraordinary medical staff and academic services.
When he jogged off, the four of us stared back at each other, eyebrows raised. There didn’t really seem to be a downside; well, besides the 30-plus hour a week commitment without a chance at ever playing in a game. Even practice snaps would be hard to come by that low on the depth chart.
So, would it really be worth it? The three guys struggled to voice their sentiments, though all seemed to feel strongly committed to joining if they got an official offer. Sure, it’s a big time commitment, they repeated in various forms, but…. Each stopped there, puzzled by his inability to articulate something so clearly defined in his mind.
It was just worth it.
Compared to their unwavering belief, though, I still felt like an agnostic as we left the practice field. I didn’t think I had the drive to dedicate myself fully to the team for the chance to experience second-hand competition at the highest level, no matter how much I missed being part of a team. The three guys I had tried out with, though, were ready to drop everything just for that chance.
Johnson led us back the way we came, along the Wallace Wade track, up through the tunnel, past the locker, weight and training rooms, up the stairs near the indoor practice area, by the team meeting and finally into the team dining facility, which is really Yoh’s coup-de-grace.
Offering an unhindered view into Wallace Wade through an enormous window that stands 20-feet high and stretches past dozens of circular wooden tables stuffed closely together, the four of us pretended to listen to Johnson while staring out at the beautifully manicured expanse of grass below, a better view than from any luxury box.
And suddenly, I understood.