Recently, Duke has seen its fair share of siblings play together. The three Plumlee brothers excelled on Coach K Court, Deondre and Dylan Singleton patrolled the secondary at Wallace Wade Stadium last fall, Robin and Lauren Blazing helped the Blue Devils’ field hockey team to a 2015 Final Four appearance and Leona and Lisa Maguire have kept women’s golf among the nation’s best programs.
It is uncommon, though, to see brothers playing at a high level in two completely different sports. That is why Joe and JT Giles-Harris have quickly established themselves as a unique sibling tandem in their first seasons of competition.
Four years ago, Duke men’s lacrosse head coach John Danowski made an unsuspecting recruiting trip to New York, a hotbed for budding prospects, when he stumbled upon a gritty 5-foot-10 defenseman named JT Giles-Harris.
Immediately, he was enamored.
“His club coach wanted me to watch a certain attackman and I said, ‘Sure,’” Danowski said. “They were playing against another really good club team, and when it was over, I said, ‘I want to know who [Giles-Harris] is.’ I loved his athleticism, his footwork, what I thought was his presence on the field, and I said, ‘I want to get to know who JT is.’”
Growing up in Nyack, N.Y., Joe and JT Giles-Harris spent much of their lives together. Sandwiched between a much older brother and a much younger sister, Joe and JT were just 15 months and one grade apart.
Their weekends were often spent playing one of many rec-league sports, and when they eventually reached St. Joseph Regional High School, the pair honed in on three—playing football in the fall, basketball in the winter and lacrosse in the spring.
“We pretty much did everything together,” JT said. “Anytime he was on a team, I’d make sure I got on that team too by either trying hard or playing up [a year].... Usually, it would be a lot easier so my mom could come to everything for us.”
Despite being the younger of the pair, JT committed to the Blue Devils for lacrosse before entering his freshman year of high school. Joe, on the other hand, did not even begin receiving collegiate offers until his junior season.
But the competitive nature between the two pushed the elder Giles-Harris brother to earn exactly what his brother had—an opportunity to be a Division-I varsity athlete at Duke University.
The only difference was that Joe would be playing football.
“When I started getting offers, Duke called, and it was kind of a surreal moment,” Joe said. “I called my mom and dad.... We came down here, saw the place, and after a couple of months went by, I just knew it was home.”
After redshirting during the 2015-16 season, Joe made his Blue Devil football debut in September 2016 as one of the team’s two starting linebackers.
Following an offseason in which Duke coaches had heralded the 6-foot-2 redshirt freshman as one of the team’s best newcomers, he did not disappoint. Playing in all 12 games, Joe—along with fellow starting linebacker and roommate Ben Humphreys—led the Blue Devils with 107 tackles, including 55 solo tackles as well as four sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery.
Although Duke’s season ended without a fifth straight bowl appearance, the first-year starter helped his team with 16 tackles in the Blue Devils’ biggest victory of the season against then-No. 17 North Carolina and proved to be a steadying force and leader for a front six that showed signs of improvement despite the defense’s overall inconsistency.
“He had an awesome year this year,” JT said. “I was so proud of him, and if he can keep that up, it’ll be even better.”
As fall turned to spring, there were questions as to how JT and his teammates would fare given their inexperience. After Duke began its season 2-2, surrendering 25 combined goals in the two early defeats, the starting backline of senior Brian Dunne, sophomore Cade Van Raaphorst and JT, a freshman, had to turn things around in a hurry.
And in the last two months, the Blue Devils have done just that—they have won eight of their last nine games, including five against top-20 foes, held opponents to 7.7 goals per contest during that span and skyrocketed to No. 4 in this week’s Inside Lacrosse rankings.
Opposite a cast of talented offensive weapons that has made plenty of headlines, JT and the Duke defense have shown their worth for a team looking to advance past the NCAA tournament’s first round for the first time since 2014.
“Being a three-sport athlete in high school and the positions he played in football as defensive back, running back, or receiver and in basketball as a guard, his athletic IQ is so high,” Danowski said. “He understands things very quickly. He just has a feel for the game.... He’s got God-given gifts, but it’s how smart he is that sets him apart.”
Like JT’s coach, Joe also marvels, but is unsurprised by the similarly quick jump that his brother has made in his first season for the Blue Devils.
“He’s just an athlete. He’s going to go out there and compete every time he gets a chance,” Joe said. “He never wants to be seen as the guy who is the weaker link. He’s been playing up his whole life, so he’s had no choice but to rise to the occasion.”
For the first time in their lives, Joe and JT are not taking the field together.
Instead, each member of the duo has spent time in the stands with their parents John, a former football standout at Southern Connecticut, and Lynn, a former runner and soccer player at SUNY Geneseo, watching their counterparts do battle against the rest of the ACC.
But instead of growing apart, the two have become even closer during their time in Durham. Although they will forever be connected by Duke, it is their brotherhood that makes the pair’s relationship as strong as it has been.
“If I give up a touchdown or I get run over, [JT] is going to let me know about it after the game. If somebody scores on him, I’m going to let him know,” Joe said. “It’s me just encouraging him and him encouraging me.... I get to watch him do what he’s better at, and he gets to watch me do what I’m good at.”
With the Blue Devils’ men’s lacrosse team making a push toward the Final Four, JT will certainly be a crucial piece if Duke hopes to bring home its fourth national title.
And you can bet that Joe will be in the bleachers cheering him on.
“He doesn’t make the same mistake twice,” Danowski said. “He rises to the challenge each week covering some of the best offensive players in the country.... He’s a player that his teammates gravitate toward just because of how well he plays on the field.”
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A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."