Degrees of Success

October 1, 2007

If it's true that everyone loves a winner (just ask Mike Krzyzewski), and delights in knocking a loser (just ask a pre-2004 Red Sox fan), you might imagine that the Blue Devils gridiron gang would be in the doldrums. Last season's 0-12 record was painful for everyone involved. Duke is playing eight teams this season that went to bowl games last year (a postseason honor the program hasn't enjoyed in more than a decade). In November, they'll go helmet to helmet with Notre Dame, which has sent more players to the National Football League than any other program in the country. And so far this year, the Blue Devils are ranked dead last in what ESPN's Pat Forde calls a "meat-grinder conference full of enormous state universities."

But all that seems to matter to the 2007 squad as it embarks on the ninety-fifth season of Duke football is a fresh start, a clean slate, a scoreboard that is set, at the start of each game, to 0-0. "To this day, people ask me if I regret coming to Duke to play football," says senior Chris Davis, who plays safety. "And I always say no, because I know that we can and we will win.

Prospecting goal: Like many other players, quarterback Thad Lewis was drawn by the value of a Duke degree—"I knew I needed to have a fallback plan once the football deflates."

Prospecting goal: Like many other players, quarterback Thad Lewis was drawn by the value of a Duke degree—"I knew I needed to have a fallback plan once the football deflates." Jon Gardiner

"Every game is Christmas day. I can't sleep on Friday night."

Players like Davis will tell you that their main regret from last year is that their graduating teammates went out on such a low note. And then it's right back to the present, the matchups they are most psyched about, the fierce loyalty they feel toward the coaching staff and one another, the personal goals they're determined to achieve. It's as if they are immune to the negative remarks lobbed their way. They believe, with absolute conviction, that they are winners.

During the season, the players wake up before dawn five days a week for intense physical training and conditioning. They keep pace academically with their peers; Duke has consistently ranked at or near the top of schools that graduate the majority of its football players on time. (The university holds the record for winning the American Football Coaches Association/College Football Association's Academic Achievement Award: twelve times since 1981.)

 They say that most of their classmates and professors know how hard they work, although they still encounter the "dumb jock" stereotype from time to time. "There are people who think I'm stupid because I'm a football player," says one. "I like to prove them wrong." And even though they come from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, and are the most racially and ethnically diverse varsity athletic team at Duke, they have formed a cohesive bond. Devastating losses and harsh critics can't dampen the excitement and determination the players have for a sport that most have pursued single-mindedly since they were in elementary school.

"I guess you can learn a lot and grow as a person by going to a bowl game," says Richard Keefe, a sports psychologist and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke, "and that would certainly be great. But I've watched this group of student-athletes suffer heartbreaking defeats and then pick themselves back up and enter the next game with total commitment and enthusiasm."

Touch and go: Last year's season closed with a devastating one-point loss to UNC It's as if they are immune to the negative remarks lobbed their way. They know, with absolute conviction, that they are winners.

Touch and go: Last year's season closed with a devastating one-point loss to UNC It's as if they are immune to the negative remarks lobbed their way. They know, with absolute conviction, that they are winners.. Jon Gardiner

A year ago, Thaddeus Lewis was an eighteen-year-old freshman unexpectedly catapulted into the high-visibility, high-pressure role of quarterback when teammate Zack Asack was suspended for plagiarism. (Asack returned to school this fall.) Lewis had been a star at Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High School in Florida his senior year, was named the sixty-fifth best high-school quarterback in the country by Scout.com, and had been aggressively recruited by universities like Michigan State and Pittsburgh. But calling the play in the first huddle of his college career against Wake Forest, Lewis was understandably nervous.

"I was trying to be a leader to people who were older and more experienced than me," says Lewis. "It was difficult."

Duke would go on to lose to the Demon Deacons 13-14 that hot September Saturday. But from the confident, glass-half-full perspective of the players, there are many reasons to focus on the positive. Two games last year were decided by only one point, including the one against Wake Forest, which went on to play in the Orange Bowl. And this year's team is deeper and more seasoned: Duke is the only ACC team to return all eleven offensive starters from last year; on defense, five players return including sophomore Vince Oghobaase, whose freshman performance earned him All-America and All-ACC honors after logging twenty-eight tackles.

Still, even though Lewis' freshman performance was remarkable—he connected on 180 of 340 attempted passes to set a new freshman record of 2,134 yards and eleven touchdowns—he and his teammates know that they have an uphill battle to return Duke football to its former luster as a bowl-worthy team. The last time that happened was in 1995, when Duke lost to Wisconsin in the Hall of Fame Bowl.

Lewis, who was reared by a single mother in a poor, inner-city Miami neighborhood known as Opa-Locka, has already proved skeptics wrong. "A lot of people didn't expect me to make it out" of Opa-Locka, says Lewis. "Where I grew up, I saw people making bad decisions and going after easy money. I was determined to get out of the neighborhood and be somebody."

With college recruiters showing up at his high-school games and wooing him with offers, Lewis had his choice of colleges. Why then did he choose Duke, which had fared poorly in recent years, and where basketball, not football, was king? "I had a great visit to Duke and really liked the people here," says Lewis, recalling how students had hung a spray-painted bed sheet from a West Campus dorm window that read, "Thad Lewis, Duke Wants You!"

He also liked the idea of helping to turn around a struggling program, rather than playing a minor role with a pigskin powerhouse. But what really sold Lewis was the shining lure of a Duke degree, a sentiment voiced by many of his fellow players. "I knew I needed to have a fallback plan once the football deflates."

Even though Lewis has high hopes for going pro after college, he knows that his Duke diploma is more likely to be the key to long-term professional success. His teammate senior Patrick Bailey, who's winding up his undergraduate coursework in electrical and computer engineering, echoes Lewis' ambitions. "I'll see how far football can take me," says Bailey, a defensive end who was recruited by Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, among others. Eventually, though, he's got his sights set on an engineering career that focuses on digital or linear control systems.

Raising the bar: Marcus Lind holds the team record for squat lifts—585 pounds

Raising the bar: Marcus Lind holds the team record for squat lifts—585 pounds. Jon Gardiner

Metallica's heavy-metal anthems are blasting over the speakers in the Yoh Football Center's ground-floor weight room. It's 9 o'clock on an already humid Thursday morning, just a few days before the team is officially permitted to begin preseason practice. Sophomore Marcus Lind and two teammates take advantage of the nearly empty room to do bench presses, reverse flies, and lateral raises. Lind is an inscrutable 300-pound Swede whose Nordic good looks and rock-solid muscles cause heads (especially female) to turn when he's out in public. He began playing football at the age of thirteen, and was named to the Swedish Junior National Team a mere two years later. At Duke, he holds the team record for the squat lift at 585 pounds. That's a couple of hundred pounds more than a killer-whale calf.

Lind is a reserve offensive guard, recruited from Fort Lauderdale's St. Thomas Aquinas High School, which sent ten football players from Lind's class to play in Division I schools. Perhaps not surprisingly, Duke was not on Lind's radar before he came to the U.S. for his senior year of high school. But through his high-school coaches and his American host family, Lind learned about Duke's increasingly international student body, its top-ranked academic programs, and the opportunity to contribute his considerable physical talents to the football team. "I knew right away this was where I wanted to be." (He also told Duke about fellow Swede Pontus Bondeson, a sophomore defensive lineman who matriculated with Lind.)

As he sets his sights on personal bests—getting bigger, faster, stronger—Lind becomes part of a tradition dating back to 1888, when Duke posted its first football victory, against the University of North Carolina. Surrounded by football memorabilia—photographs of Duke's Rose, Sugar, and Orange Bowl teams and motivational posters with messages such as "Talk is Cheap, But Seein' is Believin' " and "When You Stop Getting Better, You Stop Being Good"—Lind says that he is determined to do everything in his power to make the current team better. When (not if) that happens, he says, the crowds and accolades will follow. "Once we win a few games," he says, "then people will start caring about us more."

He's right, of course. But it will take time, maybe more time than Lind has to play at Duke. Most sports analysts say the Blue Devils will be lucky to win three or four games this year. More important, Duke needs to field a team that makes steady progress toward becoming competitive against the tough-and-tougher teams in the expanded ACC. When sports writer Jim Young '95 wrote about football's glorious past and uncertain future ("Blue Devil Football: First and Long,") in the July-August 2003 issue of Duke Magazine, the Atlantic Coast Conference had not yet expanded to include the University of Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College.

At a football summit held in January, more than 200 former players came back to campus to hear from head coach Ted Roof and his staff about the current state of the program, and to offer their support. Among those returning were quarterback Anthony Dilweg '88, who played for the Green Bay Packers and the Los Angeles Raiders; Leo Hart '71, quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons and Buffalo Bills and an inaugural member of Duke's Athletics Advisory Board; and wide receiver Chris Castor '83, who played for the Seattle Seahawks.

Castor says that as a former player who competed for teams that won only two and four games in a season, he can empathize with what the current players are going through. "I realize that our current team wants nothing more than to get a win under their belts and use that as a stepping stone to more success," he says.

But his advice for the current roster has nothing to do with on-the-field competition. "Keep things in perspective," he says. "Our players are student-athletes, and the student part always comes first. The day will come when every current player will walk off that field for the last time, and their life after football really begins.