Forty years ago, had you given Gene Devine the option of playing in the NFL or owning a restaurant, it would have been no contest. The tight end would have taken the pros in a heartbeat. Nowadays, it's the same deal—no contest—but the answer has changed.
If Devine is not busy running his restaurant, then you can rest assured he is about to do something for it. During the day, it may be a broken air conditioning unit he’s tending to; at other times, he may be calling up offices to put ads in the local papers. Each night, Devine is at the restaurant making sure that everything runs smoothly. His only downtime is usually the 40 minutes between the time he comes home from the restaurant and goes to bed.
This dedication is not just to earn a living—it’s for the people and town he serves.
Gene Devine, Trinity '75, is a household name for many around the Durham community and Duke University. Few people have a stronger passion for Durham and Duke than the former Duke football tight end and owner of Devine’s Restaurant and Sports Bar located off of Duke’s East Campus on Main Street. Since 1978, Devine has provided local residents and Duke students with a hot spot to watch a Duke football game or have a fun night on the town.
Devine’s love for Duke and Durham dates back to 1971 when he joined Duke’s football team, then coached by Mike McGee. Back then, Devine was known for his athleticism. As a former All-American in basketball from Massachusetts, Devine also wanted to play for the Blue Devil basketball team, but he soon realized the difficulty of juggling both sports and stuck with football.
“I asked Coach McGee if [playing football and basketball] was a possibility,” Devine said. “He said, ‘You can play basketball, but you got to start in football first.’ So he made it pretty difficult for me.”
Although the football team forced him to give up competitive basketball and took up most of his time in college, Devine values the lessons that he learned as a football player. McGee instilled discipline in his players and showed them how to represent the University, Devine said.
After his graduation in 1975, Devine did not initially intend to stay in Durham. Like many of his fellow teammates, Devine hoped to play professional football in the NFL. After being passed over in the NFL draft, he was invited by Lou Holtz—who at the time was the head coach at N.C. State—to try out for the New York Jets in Long Island. But a hit to the head during his tryout left him with a neck injury, delaying his chances of playing NFL football for a year—or so he thought.
That was when Durham quickly reined Devine back in.
Instead of returning to his home in West Bridgewater, Mass., he returned to Duke to treat his neck.
“I did revisit [going home] quite a few times,” Devine said. “I made a decision to go on my own way.”
While recovering from his injury, Devine realized the business opportunities that Durham had to offer. A local general contractor took him under his wing and exposed Devine to contracting. Devine soon acquired his general contractor’s license and purchased a building—now the home of Devine’s.
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Devine quickly found a way to put his new building to use, filling a hole he saw in the social scene for the community and Duke students. At the time, students usually drove to Chapel Hill whenever they wanted to step off campus. He decided to open a restaurant and bar to keep students closer to Duke and bring more business to Durham. Before he knew it, he had abandoned the pro football route.
“I was kind of entrenched and although I wanted to go in the direction [of playing football], I made the decision not to,” he said. “Hindsight being 20/20, I would have liked to have thought that I had the ability to make it [to the NFL].... The one thing that kept on occurring to me is its only half of one percent that can make it. The odds there are pretty low.”
Running a restaurant was not without its own set of challenges, however.
When he first opened shop, he had little experience in restaurant management. But he relied on McGee’s lessons about discipline and commitment to overcome tough times. Devine’s dedication and sacrifice of time ultimately helped him learn the different facets of running a restaurant.
“It’s a difficult business. There were a lot of tough times. There were a lot of times when you ordinarily thought you would want to give up,” Devine said. “But you pushed on. You’re in it for the long haul. You have to get people and train them correctly and coach them, so to speak. You have to put on all of the different hats [as an owner]. Before you know it, you’re in the right position and good things are going to happen.”
Throughout the 37 years of running the restaurant, Devine has valued his relationships with local customers. He has established connections with past and current Duke coaches, such as men's basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski, men's lacrosse head coach John Danowski and former football coach Steve Spurrier—now the head coach at South Carolina—who, along with his assistant coaches, would visit Devine’s after games.
Today, Devine’s is known for its flexibility. Local residents can eat, listen to live music and watch a sporting event while students relax and socialize on the outdoor patio.
“When we started out, we had hands-on commitment and when you get [students] down here and get to know peoples’ names, they want to host functions here," Devine said. "Now of course we’re not the size of other places in the area. I think a lot of it is just we care about the connection with Duke because I’m from Duke and we care about the people at Duke. While people may or may not know that I was in sports there, that shouldn’t be an overriding factor. A lot of it is they feel comfortable coming in here.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that John Danowski's son Matt, an assistant coach, was head coach. The Chronicle regrets the error.