Nakeie Montgomery’s talent on the Koskinen Stadium grass is already well-established.
Over the past four years with the Duke men’s lacrosse team, he’s tallied two USILA All-America distinctions (third-team and first-team), an All-ACC nod and three trips to the Final Four. Next spring, he’s set to use his extra year of eligibility for a fifth season of lacrosse.
But before then, he’ll be taking his skills 500 feet east into Wallace Wade Stadium, spending the fall as a member of the Duke football program.
“I’ve got that competitiveness in me that I just cannot escape,” Montgomery told The Chronicle. “I’m excited. I’m ready.”
Football isn’t new to Montgomery. His dad, Deandre, played the sport at Texas Southern alongside NFL Hall of Famer Michael Strahan. In fact, Nakeie played football (first flag and later with pads) before he even learned what lacrosse was. He eventually starred in both sports in high school at The Episcopal School of Dallas, where he set the school record with 31 rushing touchdowns.
At that time, lacrosse recruitment came earlier, so Montgomery committed to Duke men’s lacrosse when he was just 14 years old. A couple years later, football recruiting picked up. Montgomery received nine total Division I offers to play football, with several Ivy League schools offering him to play both sports.
But with Duke, Montgomery valued the combination of elite academics and elite athletics. Hence, he said the only school he truly would’ve considered going to instead was Stanford. However, the Cardinal (who do not have a Division I Varsity men's lacrosse team) wanted him to walk onto their football team, and Montgomery ended up sticking with his commitment to the Blue Devils.
“Who knows if I ever would’ve even come to Duke if [Stanford] had given me a football offer,” Montgomery said.
Now, though, he gets to play both his childhood sports in Durham, a process that began before he even stepped foot on campus.
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‘When are you gonna be 22 again?’
Montgomery said he’s been thinking about going out for the football team ever since his freshman year. He initially came to Duke wanting to play both sports as a Blue Devil, but didn’t think he was “mature enough at the time” to pull it off.
This past winter, though, he finally decided he’d give it a shot and one of the first people to help turn his dream into a reality was none other than men’s lacrosse head coach John Danowski.
When Montgomery told Danowski in February that he was thinking about playing football in the fall, the latter immediately asked how he could help. He eventually got Montgomery in touch with Kent McLeod, the director of player personnel for Duke football, who told the lacrosse star to reach back out after the lacrosse season ended.
“They were very respectful of lacrosse season,” Montgomery said. “They were just like, ‘Hey, keep that thought. We'd love to have you. Hit us up after lacrosse season if you’re still interested, and we'll talk then.’”
A little over a week after Memorial Day weekend, Montgomery did just that. He later spoke with Duke football head coach David Cutcliffe, and the rest is history. However, perhaps none of that would’ve happened without Danowski.
“He believed in me…. With guys like that around me, man, I just feel like I can do anything,” Montgomery said.
Danowski himself comes from a football background. He was a backup quarterback at Rutgers in addition to starring on the lacrosse team, and his dad, Ed, was an All-Pro quarterback and two-time NFL champion for the New York Giants in the 1930s.
But that’s not the only reason he supported Montgomery’s quest to get on the gridiron.
“You have this opportunity to live your life, and to make an impact,” Danowski told The Chronicle. “And if there's something that you love doing, you're gonna regret it—five years from now, you're gonna say, ‘Wow, could I have?’ Or ‘What would that have been like, if I had tried?'’’
“[Danowski’s] thing is, if you don’t do it you’ll regret it,” Montgomery added. “Like when are you gonna be 22 again?”
‘Wants us to be All-Life’
Danowski didn’t need to go out of his way to connect Montgomery with the football program, especially as lacrosse season was just beginning. But in doing so, he was accomplishing another aspect of being a coach, a part of the job Montgomery has noticed in his short time playing for Cutcliffe as well.
“They're also just like life coaches,” Montgomery said. “Coach Danowski and Coach Cutcliffe alike, they don't really explain things in just football talk. They explain things in life talk, like this is why we work hard, because one day, you're gonna have a family—things like that to actually get us ready for life, and to groom young, 18-year-old men into the mature 22, 23-year-old men that we are when we leave.
“That’s both of their missions, and that's what both of them do at heart…. As much as [Cutcliffe] wants everyone to be great football players and be All-Americans and All-ACC, he also wants us to be All-Life, like he wants us to be All-Family, All-Everything when we grow up.”
Although Montgomery has spent less than two months with the football program, he says this similarity “couldn’t be more clear.” It’s a side of college coaching that people often forget, but one that stands out once you’ve gotten the rare opportunity to play for two of the most well-respected coaches in completely different sports.
““First and foremost, coaches are educators,” Cutcliffe wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “We are teachers at our core. We have the opportunity to help the young men in our program become great husbands, fathers, co-workers and community leaders. One of our most significant responsibilities as coaches is to prepare them for life after Duke, and it is one I cherish and enjoy very much.”
‘Do it the right way’
A die hard Dallas Cowboys fan, Montgomery calls Dez Bryant his hero. In the personal narrative he wrote for UNCUT Duke last fall, he emphasized the influence Emmitt Smith has had on his life. He said other NFL stars he looks up to include DeAndre Hopkins and Marshawn Lynch.
However, they’re not the only ones who’ve paved the way for Montgomery’s shot at a lifelong dream.
A few years before Montgomery came to Durham, Brendan Fowler played three seasons of football for the Blue Devils while simultaneously earning first-team All-America and ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors for Duke men’s lacrosse. Former Maryland star Jared Bernhardt, last year’s Tewaaraton winner as the top player in college lacrosse, is set to play college football for Ferris State this fall.
“I think everyone kind of wants to test out the water. I think the people who do are just risk-takers and people who just believe in themselves,” Montgomery said. “Like I don't think that anyone thinks Jared Bernhardt has a seed of self doubt in himself. It kinda makes sense that Jared Bernhardt would take a risk like that. It makes sense that Brendan Fowler, like such an alpha, would take a risk like that. And yeah, I mean, I wanted to take a risk like that.”
Now that Montgomery’s taken the risk, his focus has turned to making it count. Duke football is still in the midst of fall camp, just a little more than two weeks away from its season-opener against Charlotte Sept. 3. Until then, Montgomery says it’s all about putting in the work and getting better every day.
“If I’m gonna do it, gotta do it the right way,” Montgomery said. “Gotta do the whole thing.”