While the world is home craving sports and looking toward the recently-released NFL schedule, three former Blue Devils checked in with head coach David Cutcliffe to discuss their days donning the blue and white, how Cutcliffe's teachings help them as professional athletes and more.
After a successful April virtual gathering of former Duke men's basketball champions, the DukeNY Alumni Board followed up with a trio of former Blue Devils currently in the NFL: New York Jets wide receiver Jamison Crowder, Jets long snapper Thomas Hennessy and New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones.
Cutcliffe opened the conversation with a test for his former standouts, rooted in a core philosophy of the Duke football program: the “55.” Asked to recite the first five of the "55," Hennessy, without missing a beat, listed off “alignment, assignment, effort, execution, finish.”
Jones was next up and explained the application of this philosophy both on and off the field.
“You have the five principles for five seconds each play, and if you are able to sustain that in a football play, you’re likely to be successful,” Jones said.
Jones went on to discuss how all five concepts apply more concretely on the gridiron, but also serve a role away from the field, whether a former player is in the NFL or any other industry.
“As a New York Giant, as a professional football player, it’s making sure you have your priorities aligned,” Jones said of the first principle, alignment. “For me, football is my job, trying to become the best quarterback and understanding how important that is.”
Crowder, the eldest player of the trio, spoke about how the concepts lend themselves to his family and as a veteran in the Jets' locker room. In particular, alignment and assignment stand out in setting an example for family, peers and younger players in his organization.
“I definitely apply the '55' to real-life scenarios now and I will as long as I am around,” Crowder said.
The discussion then turned to the football program’s “man's rule," which Cutcliffe opened up to the players to explain.
“Be where you’re supposed to be. Doing what you’re supposed to be doing. As well as you can possibly do it,” the three said in union.
Cutcliffe later recalled his first impression of Hennessy, saying “he almost made a bad mistake by bruising his head coach’s hands.”
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Hennessy and Cutcliffe were in the locker room together after the long snapper first arrived at Duke. The head coach had not seen Hennessy snap the football in person yet, so after a brief warmup, Hennessy snapped Cutcliffe the ball.
“I absolutely could not believe it,” Cutcliffe recalled. “You talk about execution day one and knowing that this guy had a shot at being a professional athlete.”
Fast forward almost eight years later and up the road in New Jersey, it is a different person who is receiving the snaps this offseason.
“My wife is catching my snaps. We met at Duke,” he said of his wife Christina, a former Blue Devil volleyball player. “She’s doing a great job. She wears two wide receiver gloves and she used to drop a few when we started, but now she rarely drops a snap during our sessions. If she does, it’s my fault.”
The conversation then steered toward the players' road to Duke, including Crowder’s first offer from the Blue Devils just days after a Duke coach attended Crowder’s high school basketball team watching his teammate Issac Blakeney, who ended up on the football roster as well.
At the time, Crowder was a junior and did not have any football scholarship offers at the time, but that would soon change.
“I had 24 points and three dunks. After the game, [the coach] came up to me, shook my hand and said he really enjoyed watching me play,” Crowder said. “That was Tuesday night and then Thursday when I got to school, [Monroe High School head] coach [Johnny] Sowell called me into his office, and [Duke] had given me an offer.”
Cutcliffe also reminisced about Crowder's unique path to Durham.
“I’m a big fan of dual-sport athletes," Cutcliffe, who also played high school basketball, said. "And when I heard about the basketball displayed, there was no doubt in my mind."
Jones, another high school basketball player, then chronicled his long-winded recruitment story that resulted in him originally committing to Princeton. He first described the typical quarterback recruiting process, which for many starts at a very young age.
“I wasn’t one of those guys,” Jones said. “Initially, I was slow to grow…. Played my sophomore year at probably 130 pounds, 5-foot-10, so I wasn’t going to be recruited off that. Grew a little bit my junior year, played better, got some DI-AA Ivy League interest, which I was certainly excited about.”
The Charlotte native planned to make a final push in order to garner interest from bigger programs during the summer before his senior year. But that strategy hit a wall when Jones broke his wrist, which concluded his summer camp travel season. He then committed to Princeton at the end of the summer.
“I was excited about that, but still thought in the back of my mind that I could play bigger football and wanted to, if at all possible,” Jones said. “Going through my senior year, I played better. Through that first half of the year, I sent my tape out and tried to get some interest.”
At the same time, the Blue Devil program was on the rise.
“If I could find a way to go to Duke, to play for Coach Cut, to study at a school like Duke, that was an ideal situation for me,” Jones said.
But in order to make that situation come true, Jones needed Cutcliffe to feel the same way, and that did not take too long. Cutcliffe remembered his first time watching Jones’ game film and speaking to the quarterback's high school coach.
“When [Jones'] coach called and asked me to watch the tape and he made the comment, ‘I think he’s better than maybe the Ivy League level,’” Cutcliffe said. “I looked at it and Daniel, I went crazy. I immediately called him back and said, 'Absolutely.' It literally took me about a half of a game.”
With Jones, Cutcliffe received more than just a talented quarterback, as it was his work ethic and character that placed him into an elite category.
“I knew after you were with us through camp and the first fall redshirting. I told our coaches, I said, ‘Daniel quite likely is going to be a first-round draft choice,'" Cutcliffe said. "And some of them looked at me a little odd, [asking], 'How do you know that at this stage?' I just do."
Later, all four panelists detailed how the campus culture, the strive toward excellence both on and off the field, brought them to Duke. The feeling of family and community both in Duke football and within Duke as a whole was also a common sentiment.
Forever Duke is much more than just a slogan for Cutcliffe and his players. The lessons and concepts they learned in their years on the gridiron in Durham will last a lifetime, from their professional football careers to whatever endeavors they pursue after they hang up their spikes.