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What I would have missed

I was a phone call away from never knowing any of you. When springtime rolled around in 2004, acceptance letters arrived in my mailbox from several schools I should have been ecstatic to attend. But there was one that I wanted more than all the others, and when I logged online to see if I had made the cut, I encountered the stomach-punch feeling that comes when you're placed on a college waitlist.

Mindful of the long odds I faced at Duke, I quickly got over the disappointment and settled on Notre Dame-the school I had been groomed for through 14 years of Catholic education and a lifetime of Irish heritage. With my $500 deposit, I officially became a member of the Fighting Irish.

But a few days later, the phone rang. Christoph Guttentag, the father of the Duke undergraduate community, had decided he wanted me in his family after all. For me, it was a no-brainer. Despite the cosmic pull I was supposed to feel toward Notre Dame, I knew Duke was where I belonged. Much to the chagrin of my father, who grew up idolizing ND like so many Catholic kids of his generation, I spurned the Golden Dome for the Gothic Wonderland, and haven't stopped hearing about it since.

Since that day, every once in a while, I wonder what my life would be like had I never received that phone call. And even more so, I sometimes wonder if I made the right decision. I wonder if the kid who would graduate from Notre Dame May 18 would be more capable, more content, a better person and better "armed for life" (as a certain campus celebrity would say), than the kid who will graduate from Duke May 11.

Of course, I will never know. But what I have come to realize is there are certain circumstances and experiences that are so quintessentially Duke that I never would have had the opportunity to encounter them elsewhere.

If I did not come to Duke, I would have never:

Played basketball in Cameron. Even in an intramural game, there is something supremely magical about running between those baselines and competing on the most hallowed stage the game can offer.

Helped tear down goalposts. After Duke's 16-13 win over Clemson my freshman year, I sat atop the crossbar until the sheer weight of students sent everything plummeting to the ground. To the girl who broke my fall: Thank you, and I'm sorry.

Experienced a true TAILGATE, the most fantastically irresponsible University-sanctioned event I've seen. Considering the cornucopia of spandex and barely clothed beer-soaked bodies at our Saturday morning ragers, I'm not so sure the ND priests would go for it.

Witnessed the fascinating way people cling to different social groups on this campus. There is something amusingly tragic about the middle-schoolish manner in which many students divide themselves in Duke's party scene.

Been involved in covering a major international media event. The lacrosse case touched us all in many different ways, but I will never forget how it brought me to realize the impact words-written, spoken, silenced-can truly have on people's lives.

Traveled around the country covering college sports' best teams. FSU men's basketball fans storming the court twice during and after an upset of No. 1 Duke, men's lacrosse coach John Danowski's voice quivering as he described what his players meant to him after falling a goal short of the 2007 national title, Justin Papadakis' back-to-back shootout saves to steal an ACC men's soccer title from North Carolina-I saw and covered them all first-hand.

Jumped out of a plane with members of the U.S. military. I never imagined one of my last assignments for The Chronicle would involve 60 seconds of free fall strapped to an Army paratrooper.

Spent a weekend at Myrtle Beach. After the rigors of finals, nothing can substitute for the fulfillment gained from a weekend of bad decisions in the South's trashiest beach town.

Traversed the Notre Dame Stadium sideline feet from Irish football head coach Charlie Weis.

Actually, I might have experienced that one.

These flashes represent an incredibly small sample of the wealth of experiences I have had at this place. But flashes define what we will take with us when we leave. They are what make Duke what it has become to each of us.

The only thing I can know for certain, at the end of a college career that almost wasn't, is that it's been a hell of a ride. And looking back, though I might change some things, I certainly wouldn't want to be graduating as anything but a Blue Devil.

John Taddei has worked on The Chronicle for four years. He is currently a Towerview associate editor and sports senior writer.

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