It was nearly an hour after the final whistle blew and my friends began spilling out of the stands below to rush the field.
Postgame press conferences had just finished and I was finally leaving Wallace Wade Stadium. You could still feel the excitement in the air after Duke's 48-30 win against Miami last November—the Blue Devils' sixth straight triumph, which propelled them back into the AP top 25 for the first time in 20 years.
I passed through the stadium's North Gate. Defensive end Kenny Anunike was packing up his SUV with his mom about 20 feet ahead of me.
The victory was a special one for Anunike. It was more than just his Senior Day—it was his third.
Anunike had been through about as much as a player could have during his six-year career at Duke. A position change from tight end to defensive end, multiple knee surgeries and years lost due to injury. After making a strong comeback and anchoring the Blue Devil defensive line in 2012—his fifth year—en route to the team's first bowl appearance in nearly two decades, Anunike had a choice to make. He already had an undergrad degree in biological anthropology and a masters under his belt, but was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA—one final chance to play football.
Kenny decided to give it one last shot.
He had become the Van Wilder of Duke football—the kid who just wouldn't leave college. During his final season, Anunike was the last remaining member of David Cutcliffe's original Duke recruiting class. Lest to say, there was no shortage of grandpa jokes in the Blue Devil locker room.
It was during those last two seasons that Kenny and I got used to seeing each other a couple times a week at football events. Slowly but surely, we became friends in only the way a student reporter and a student-athlete could—every interview ended with a joke and a smile.
Kenny glanced up from the open car door and called me over. As I congratulated him on the win, he wrapped me up in the type of hug that only a menacing, 6-foot-5 teddy bear could give.
As we looked out over the field he had just played on for the final time, we talked about his six-year roller coaster ride. I asked Kenny if it was all worth it. He took me back to the last game of his fifth year—the heartbreaking 2012 Belk Bowl. "I knew it wasn't meant to end on that field in Charlotte," he said.
Anunike came back because he thought he had something left in the tank—less than a year after that conversation in the Wallace Wade parking lot, Kenny had made the Denver Broncos roster as an undrafted free agent.
Just like Anunike's career was meant to end after the 2012 Belk Bowl, Kelby Brown and Braxton Deaver's careers weren't meant to end on Duke's practice field, where they each suffered torn ACLs within a one-week span this August. Both were granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA Monday, and both admitted they had reservations about making a final comeback.
By playing a sixth season, Brown and Deaver will make the Blue Devils incredibly deep at both linebacker and tight end in 2015. Planning for both players' presumed departures, Duke went out and recruited high-caliber replacements during the latter half of Brown and Deaver's careers. The 2015 Blue Devils will feature Brown at linebacker alongside young studs Chris Holmes and Zavier Carmichael and four-star commit Ben Humphreys. Teaming up Deaver and four-star commit Tyler Petite will give Duke two big-time targets at tight end.
With the return of two outspoken leaders and All-ACC playmakers, the Blue Devils have the chance to be just as good—if not better—next year than they are today. Should they perform to their potential, both Brown and Deaver have a shot to be NFL draft picks. New life has been breathed a pair of football careers that once appeared to be over.
Unlike the majority of the decisions football players make, the decision to return for a sixth year has nothing to do with their team—it's a purely personal choice. Just like any college student nearing graduation, they get to decide what they want to do with their lives, whether that means getting a job or going back to school. Both Brown and Deaver had the option to say that they didn't feel like dealing with the physical toll of major college football anymore—that they preferred to move on to the next phase of their lives. They chose to take one last ride because they felt as though they each had unfinished business.
It wasn't until that conversation in the parking lot with Kenny Anunike that I understood what a sixth year really means to a player. It's more than an opportunity to play the sport you love for the last time or a last-ditch effort at a professional career—rather, it is a chance to seize back control of something that has been taken from you.
Here's to hoping Duke's two newest Van Wilders make the most of that opportunity.
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