With one game to go, the football team has compiled eight wins and 38 losses in my time at Duke. This means the seniors on this football team lost 30 more games than they won, and fifth-year seniors lost 50 games before they won nine. Despite these facts, I encourage everyone to show up early for Saturday’s game against North Carolina to support a group of young men who never gave up even in face of the greatest adversity.
When I first became a sports reporter for The Chronicle three falls ago, I could not wait to interview the football team. I was clearly the only one on the staff—and the only one in the universe, for that matter—who had that sentiment. I thought being able to watch a Division I-A football team practice would be an exciting event, no matter how bad the team was compared to other ACC schools.
I was wrong. Even in practice the team failed to look impressive—dropping passes, committing turnovers, missing tackles, etc. But as the season progressed and the losses piled up, I was impressed that the team’s collective effort did not subside. “If you are a senior with two games left in a winless season, why would you continue to push yourself to the brink of exhaustion in practice every day?” I asked myself.
The next season the team was much improved. But in many ways the 2002 season was the most frustrating of the last four years. The squad finally competed against ACC opponents and ended a nation-leading 23-game losing streak in its first contest of the season. The team still ended up losing five games by five points or less en route to a depressing 2-10 record. Despite their chagrin, the players continued to push on deep into the season.
2003 featured the best talent in years, with half a dozen players showing legitimate NFL potential. But after a 2-1 start, Carl Franks’ squad quickly regressed until a 42-0 halftime deficit to Wake Forest sent Franks packing. With newly minted head coach Ted Roof’s mantra “Finish 1-0,” the team was competitive in all but one of its final five games and ended the season winning two of its last three contests.
The current season, however, turned out to be a transition year. The team lost most of its best players, injuries plagued Duke all year, and the incredibly popular Micah Harris died tragically in the off-season. Duke barely won its easiest game, against the Citadel, and lost embarrassingly to Connecticut. With injuries healing and the team gelling, the Blue Devils progressed, nearly pulling off a win against Wake Forest and playing Florida State more competitively than ever before. With two games left and a 1-8 record, Duke’s players, especially its seniors, could have easily dogged the final contests of the season.
But the team’s relentless late-season work ethic continued again this season. All the sprints and weight-lifting exercises briefly paid off as Matt Brooks blasted a 53-yard field goal that perfectly bisected the uprights with no time remaining. The three points lifted the spirits of a team in over its head in the ACC and depressed a sea of arrogant fans dressed in orange.
“It would have been really easy for some individuals to pull the plug,” Roof said. “We came in and anticipated to have a better record but we didn’t. The leadership and the core and the work ethic and the preparation haven’t varied, and I really have a lot of respect for our seniors for providing that.”
The continued work ethic of this senior class has set the framework for continued Duke success. With the enthusiasm Roof has instilled in the team and the expertise of the assistant coaches he has brought to Durham, the Blue Devils will go to a bowl game sometime before the current freshmen graduate.
So this Saturday, get to Wallace Wade early to honor a group of individuals that worked hard, then suffered setbacks, worked harder, suffered even worse setbacks, and then continued to work harder than all but few can imagine. Not many will remember this group in the years to come, especially if Duke starts to produce winning teams. Let’s thank the group while we still can.
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