Injury derails Duncan's return

<p>Redshirt junior Jela Duncan is out indefinitely after suffering a partially torn pectoral muscle early in fall camp.</p>

Redshirt junior Jela Duncan is out indefinitely after suffering a partially torn pectoral muscle early in fall camp.

This story doesn’t have a happy ending, or an ending at all, really. But it’s one worth telling.

Very few football players get to go out on top. Most fade into obscurity or have their careers cut short by injury and are then replaced by bigger and better players who fans flock to follow. That’s how the system is set up, and it’s that way because it works best. But not every player gets the same treatment or chance for coverage, and in this space, I’d like to highlight a player who may never truly get his full time in the sun: former suspended and now-injured running back Jela Duncan.

In 2012, Duncan burst onto the scene as a rookie at the perfect moment. For the first time since the 1994 season, Duke was in a bowl game and had made it there on the backs of two 1,000-yard receivers in Conner Vernon and Jamison Crowder, a tried-and-true quarterback in Sean Renfree and a relatively obscure running back—Duncan. The Charlotte, N.C., native rushed for a team-leading 553 yards and added four touchdowns, all while doing so as a back who wasn’t all that heavily recruited out of high school.

Like the past two seasons, 2012 didn’t end on a high note, as the Blue Devils lost their final five games, including a disappointing 48-34 defeat at the hands of Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. But there was always 2013.

That was the year Duke truly burst onto the college football scene, taking the ACC Coastal crown with a 10-2 regular season record, winning eight straight to close the regular season. Duncan didn’t lead the team in rushing again—then-redshirt junior Josh Snead claimed the top spot, but we’ll get to how in a moment. That didn’t mean Duncan did not have his fair share of memorable moments, however.

In Duke’s final regular season game—against rival North Carolina, no less—Duncan both played his smallest and most important role. Playing on the road, it was neither Snead nor Duncan taking charge, but current starting back Shaquille Powell, marking the first, but not last, time in his career that he would lead the team in rushing.

Duncan finished that game with just 2.8 yards per carry, but contributed perhaps the game’s most important reception.

You see, although he’s earned his keep by being a bruising back, Duncan quickly established himself as a viable part of Duke’s offense by being the best running back option in the passing game. Although a great blocker, he would wreak havoc on opposing defenses whenever he leaked out of the backfield. And that’s exactly what happened against the Tar Heels.

With just more than five minutes remaining, Duncan ran an angled route out of the backfield that sent him streaking toward the middle of the field. When quarterback Anthony Boone saw all his options were covered, he hit his check-down, who hit the open field.

Duncan took the pass and ran for 29 yards, flipping the field to North Carolina’s 33-yard line and forcing the Tar Heels to burn a timeout. Five plays and three precious minutes later, Ross Martin booted the game-winning and division-clinching field goal.

That play would be the last great play Duncan has made on the football field.

Following the 2013 ACC Championship, a game in which Duncan—who contributed five carries for 16 yards and a reception for eight yards—and all of the Blue Devils were far from their best against eventual national champion Florida State—the news broke: Jela Duncan wouldn’t be returning for the 2014 campaign due to a Duke-issued suspension that stemmed from a violation of University academic policy.

The suspension, paired with the illness of Brandon Connette’s mother, set a dark cloud over the team heading into its bowl game. The Blue Devils would go on to play and lose in the Chick-fil-A Bowl without Duncan. The offense had a field day in the shootout, including Snead, who rushed for 104 yards and a score to put him ahead of Duncan on the season total list.

With Powell, Snead and incoming freshman Shaun Wilson taking charge in the backfield, the worries were tempered for the 2014 season, but still, Duncan’s downtime could have resulted in his disappearance. But that’s not what he had in mind.

Instead of using the down year to rest or get away from campus, Duncan committed to adding on to his already-stout 5-foot-10 frame. After just six months, Duncan looked like a new person, or as if the old Duncan had consumed a new person. But he wasn’t just lifting weights—Duncan also had two shoulder surgeries performed to fix lingering issues and recovered from both.

He came back and re-enrolled this past spring and seemed on the fast track to rejoining a true stable of backs. Duncan, paired with every-down back Powell and a home-run hitter in Wilson, would make for a devastating combination in the ACC Coastal, with all three having the ability to switch out seamlessly to adapt to any situation. The now-redshirt junior even flashed off his receiving skills in a preseason scrimmage.

But this season, like the last, could be over before it began.

Duke announced Aug. 11 that Duncan would be out indefinitely due to a partially torn pectoral muscle. That kind of injury could take between five to six months to fully heal, meaning Duke’s biggest back faces an uphill battle to get back on the field.

The classic overused trope goes that sports, like life, aren’t always fair. Something can break your way or break your leg—the uncertainty involved is a big part of why fans tune in week-to-week. It’s why they want to watch their team play every game and why we all hold our collective breath during the pointless NFL preseason and somehow even more terrifying offseason.

Duncan’s case is one that screams potential being spoiled. And maybe it is. He could have been a true four-year back had he stayed out of trouble and stayed healthy. But despite what some fans would have you believe, life does not start or end at football, at least not yet.

So although Duncan’s story may come to a premature close, it’s still one that deserves to be told. His fingerprints are all over Duke’s 2012 and 2013 success, and though names like Jamison Crowder and Anthony Boone will go down as the integral parts of the revitalization of Duke football, Jela Duncan’s name, and the names of scores of others, should be right there with them.


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