Dealt a hand with far more misfortune than they deserve, the Blue Devils have bonded together in the face of adversity, revealing more to head coach David Cutcliffe about their character than perhaps he ever wanted to know.
Duke endured a tough few months away from the gridiron this summer, collectively absorbing the pain of losses felt by two teammates. Senior running back Shaquille Powell lost his younger brother, Malachi Briggs, to cancer in mid-June, and redshirt freshman cornerback Johnathan Lloyd’s mother, Angela, also passed away.
The deaths added even more weight to what has already been a heavy emotional burden on the Blue Devils in recent years, testing the strength and will of everyone in the program. But that emotion has been funneled and diffused into a group that sees itself as more of a family than a football team, with a leader in Cutcliffe to chart a course for Duke through stormy seas.
“My philosophy is this: Everything we do every day should prepare them for those types of difficulties, not just injuries but anything that comes at you,” Cutcliffe said. “I don’t think that you can handle extreme adversity in your life if your habits aren’t good on a day-to-day basis, so you try to build a group of people that are equipped for whatever comes your way.”
During the last few seasons, Cutcliffe has seen that philosophy put to the test far too often.
In July 2012, then-sophomore wide receivers Jamison Crowder and Blair Holliday collided while on jet skis, leaving Holliday in critical condition. The Sherman Oaks, Calif., native would recover, but his football career was brought to an abrupt end, and he remained on the team as an undergraduate assistant.
Later that year, coach Jim Collins’ wife, Geri, passed away after a two-year battle with cancer. In December 2013, backup quarterback Brandon Connette was told his mother would require emergency surgery to treat brain cancer. A California product, Connette would transfer to Fresno State after the Chick-fil-A Bowl to be closer to her as she went through treatment. And last summer, punter Will Monday learned that his mother had been admitted to the hospital with a blood clot, and she began receiving treatment for lung cancer that had spread to her brain.
Cutcliffe’s door has remained open as his players and coaching staff deal with each situation, a veteran head coach ready to provide counsel for any Blue Devil needing assistance.
“He is just very upfront with us,” redshirt senior defensive end Britton Grier said. “He just lets us know what’s going on and how it can potentially affect us. If we need anything we don’t have to feel ashamed or afraid to go talk to him.”
Despite the string of success—three consecutive bowl appearances and back-to-back nine-win seasons—Duke has faced its share of bad news on the field as well. Right before the start of the 2014 campaign, stalwarts Kelby Brown and Braxton Deaver each suffered torn ACLs that ended their seasons. After being granted a sixth year of eligibility last November, Brown rehabbed hard all throughout last season—only to sustain another ACL tear this summer.
After a year-long suspension, redshirt junior Jela Duncan returned to the backfield, but was sidelined early in camp with a partially torn pectoral muscle. And just a week before the season opener, starting cornerback Bryon Fields went down with an ACL tear as well, thrusting sophomore Alonzo Saxton II into a bigger role. The injuries triggered a next-man-up response inside the locker room—the show must indeed go on, beginning Thursday in New Orleans—but also reinforced Cutcliffe’s lessons about developing personal resolve.
“Every single day, we’re obligated to build something inside of us that’s far greater than any adversity or any horrific event that we’ll face. And if you focus on doing that, you’re going to be okay,” Cutcliffe said. “No lecture by me is going to work at that point if we haven’t done our job on the front end.”
In September 2014, Powell discovered that his brother had late-stage cancer.
Briggs’ cancer treatment seemed to be progressing, but took a turn for the worse earlier this year. Enrolled in Duke’s first summer session, Powell stayed in Durham as long as he could, but as his brother’s condition worsened, he flew home to be with his family. Briggs passed away in mid-June.
“My family needed me and my brother needed me, so that’s what I needed to do,” Powell said of his trip home.
Powell stayed at home in Las Vegas for more than a month, thanking his professors for being especially accommodating. Instructors recorded lectures and gave him the time he needed to get his work done when he returned to campus in late July as the Blue Devils prepared to open camp.
His teammates and coaching staff gave him the space he needed to mourn, but were always available when called upon.
“It’s not really something you can bombard somebody with,” Deaver said. “There’s nothing but family here, and that’s what’s awesome about Duke football.”
Assisting a teammate going through a death in the family can be a difficult balancing act of attempting to strike the right chord between checking in to offer support and allowing the appropriate amount of personal space to grieve. But when Powell returned to the field to reunite with his teammates, they were waiting for him.
“When he came back it was kind of like seeing a family member you hadn’t seen in a while. Everyone was nostalgic,” redshirt freshman wide receiver Chris Taylor said. “I know personally, the minute I saw him, I ran up to him, gave him a big hug.”
It was the perfect example of how Cutcliffe has taught his players to react to the difficult situations they find themselves in.
“The other part of [dealing with tragedy] is teaching people how to be great teammates,” Cutcliffe said. “When you’re surrounded by great people and great teammates, doesn’t it make it a whole lot easier to have the right people around you to pick you up?”
Amrith Ramkumar and Jake Herb contributed reporting.
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