Team captain A.J. Wolf, far left, locks arms with teammates Jela Duncan, Thomas Sirk, and Shaun Wilson. Along with other injured players, like DeVon Edwards, below, Duncan and Sirk have formed an ad hoc support group.
Team captain A.J. Wolf, far left, locks arms with teammates Jela Duncan, Thomas Sirk, and Shaun Wilson. Along with other injured players, like DeVon Edwards, below, Duncan and Sirk have formed an ad hoc support group.

Sports: Life after injuries

Duke football captains rely on each other to move forward after abrupt ends to their college careers.
Writer: 
December 16, 2016

Some days are better than others,” says DeVon Edwards, sitting in the Yoh Football Center a week after knee surgery, his crutches propped against the adjacent chair. “Some days I wake up and it hurts, and I think, ‘I just don’t want to do anything.’ And I’m mad for no reason, and I wonder why I had to deal with this.”

The five-foot-nine Edwards was almost an afterthought. He was a two-star recruit with no scholarship offers until late in his high-school senior year. By the time head coach David Cutcliffe could scout Edwards, football season was over, but one trip to Covington, Georgia, to see Edwards in basketball practice convinced the coach. After a redshirt season, Edwards was vexing opposing coverage teams and coaching staffs with his elusiveness and speed; in his first three years, he tallied six career touchdown kick returns, one shy of the NCAA record. But during the fourth game of 2016, the redshirt senior cornerback and All-American return specialist tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), medial cruciate ligament (MCL), and meniscus in his left knee. He has no remaining NCAA eligibility.

“I wanted to help my teammates. I wanted to be able to play with my friends for one last year,” Edwards says. “[Duke] is where I grew up, and for it to be taken away before you’re ready, it kind of scars you.”

The injury landed him on the list of Duke stars who had their 2016 seasons cut short: Quarterback Thomas Sirk suffered an Achilles tendon tear in training camp in August, as did running back Jela Duncan in late October. All three are redshirt seniors, and all three are team captains; the on-field loss is monumental, as is their frustration. Yet as the players recover from these setbacks, they’ve formed a de facto support group to discuss their situations and their progress, progress they hope will lead from the operating table back to the football field and beyond.

Sirk was the charter member, victimized—just a week prior to Duke’s first game—by his third Achilles tendon injury as a Blue Devil. Compared to Edwards, he’s an elder statesman who’s all too familiar with the difficulties of rehabilitation.

“You have to retrain your mind, retrain your body. Walking has been the most difficult thing. It’s like being a kid, teaching yourself to walk again,” Sirk says. “It definitely helps, having gone through it before and knowing what to expect. But it doesn’t make it any easier when it comes time to do it.”

This year Sirk had to grapple with the added emotional burden (and duty) of being a captain while sidelined. A key resource has been former teammate Kelby Brown ’14, M.Div. ’15, who suffered four ACL tears during his career as a middle linebacker at Duke. As a captain for his final two lost seasons, he is more than well-acquainted with Sirk’s predicament. So in the leadup to the season opener, he texted the quarterback and invited him to grab lunch.

“I just knew that that first game was gonna be a frickin’ bear for him,” says Brown, who worked as a student assistant for Duke following his ACL tear last July. After the 2014 injury, “I watched the first game up in Coach Cut’s office, basically by myself up there. It was terrible.”

With a smile, Edwards recalls the Oreo milkshakes and Heavenly Buffaloes wings his teammates and coaches took the time to bring him while he was cooped up post-surgery. These initial weeks, however, can be just the beginning of the isolation for the injured; their healthy teammates inevitably have to prepare for one game after another. And as Sirk, Edwards, and Duncan become more occupied by recovery exercises (Edwards estimates a third of his day is spent rehabbing), they lost hours on the practice field with their peers. Brown admits that it was a struggle to stay involved emotionally, to not feel left behind. “The thing about college sports is it doesn’t wait around for you,” he says. “The show’s gotta go on.”

Some of the best support, then, necessarily comes from those who can best understand. When Edwards and then Duncan went down, Brown added them to the lunch group; the quartet tried to convene once a week to check in and, mostly, just chat. They brainstormed how to remain leaders from the sidelines. They discussed how to tutor their replacements—especially important in Sirk’s case, as he had to teach freshman quarterback Daniel Jones how to deal with coverages, blitzes, and fronts. They shared tips for coping with rehab. They commiserated about the daily hazards of lower limb injuries that require crutches or other equipment, meaning everything from carrying a tray of food to using the bathroom invokes an additional calculus.

The discussions also carried an undercurrent of the unknown, of that ever-present question: “What’s next?”

“I’m in that stage of life now, so I can kinda share how it’s been a transition,” says Brown, who is currently applying for medical school. “I want those guys to start to think about what they’re passionate about and what they’re really gifted in outside of football.”

The three captains still aim to play football again, although those goals are tinged with uncertainty. None was previously projected as a sure-fire National Football League draft pick, so successful recovery and rehab will be especially important. (Sirk may have the best opportunity to return to the field: Because his injury occurred in the pre-season, in November he received a sixth year of NCAA eligibility.) At worst, these next few months will be crucial for reassessment; as Edwards says, in addition to writing his thesis and continuing to get healthy, he’s excited to take the time “to set my new goals and create my path.”

But a sense of belief pervades—from the athletes to the highest reaches of Duke football.

“Coach Cut said to me, ‘We’re gonna get through this,’ ” says Edwards. “We got through these past few years, and we’re not done yet.”

  • Lucas Hubbard '14 is the Clay Felker Fellow staff writer at Duke Magazine.