(Credit: Jon Gardiner)
(Credit: Jon Gardiner)

A Story Worth Telling

At the close of a football season, heads were held high.
February 13, 2013

Here’s to you, Mrs. Merritt, onetime lunch lady at Banks High School, Birmingham, Alabama. It is the day before the 2012 Belk Bowl at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium, and coach David Cutcliffe is discussing what he looks for in a potential recruit to his Duke University football program.

“I go in every one of these kids’ homes; in schools, I talk with teachers, counselors, principals, head coaches, assistant coaches,” Cutcliffe says of his Blue Devils, who, the next evening, will take the field against the University of Cincinnati Bearcats in hopes of returning to Durham as the first Duke football team since 1994 to finish with a winning record. Cutcliffe’s team would be the first to win a bowl game for Duke since January 2, 1961, a 7-6 victory over Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl.

“If I can, I’m going to talk with the people in housekeeping, I’m going to talk with the people in the lunchroom,” Cutcliffe continues. “If a young man’s not nice to that lady …” and here he pauses, a brief homage to Mrs. Merritt, who worked at Cutcliffe’s high school while he was a student and, later, head football coach. “I knew her, I respected her, and I can see her clearly in my mind’s eye.”

Through such interactions, Cutcliffe believes, across age, gender, position, with no social-status points to be gained, character is born, and character is what he wants on his football team.

Make no mistake: Talent comes first. “We obviously watch tape,” Coach says. “We’re in the business of recruiting real good football players. I hope that’s starting to show.”

It is. For many Duke football fans, the 2012 season—the university’s centennial season of football—will be remembered as the year a long-floundering program began to take hold of itself, the season some kids set about, in senior wide receiver Conner Vernon’s words, “making Duke football relevant again.”

It certainly was one roller coaster ride, a ride that began, in many respects, with a Fourth of July gathering of several players on Lake Tillery, about fifty miles east of Charlotte. That day, sophomore wide receivers Blair Holliday and Jamison Crowder collided with each other on jet skis. Holliday was very seriously injured; Crowder, unhurt, pulled Holliday, unconscious, from the water.

Though he’s still not back to a hundred percent, Holliday’s recovery has been remarkable. But when the team convened for fall practice, his presence was sorely missed. “Blair is a very outgoing, funny, joking kind of guy,” Vernon says. “Him not being there was kind of tough. But it made us stronger as a unit, and we came together and learned from it.”

“Coach Cutcliffe said we’re going to have to pull each other together; we’re going to have to support each other,” senior quarterback Sean Renfree says. “We did; we picked each other up.”

The team had been experiencing injuries and dismissals, as all teams do, but was feeling particularly snake bit, a sensation exacerbated, no doubt, by that legacy of losing. Still, the promise of a turnaround was within view.

"You write your own story."

A number of guys on the team had worked hard over the summer, on their own initiative, in pairs and clusters, on practice fields and weight rooms, and that extra work was beginning to pay dividends.

“As we came out of spring practice, we knew we had a good football team,” Cutcliffe says, “a real good football team. I don’t think anybody in our program would doubt we were going to be in postseason play.” Cutcliffe sensed this team had a collective character that would prevail, and he told his players they had “a story worth telling.”

“He would say that quite frequently,” Crowder says. “It meant a lot.” For this young man who’d been through a potentially debilitating experience, the message was instructive: “You write your own story.”

Through the summer and into the fall— inspired by Holliday’s recovery and adjusting to the loss of several other starters to injury—Cutcliffe watched his team rally: “I’m watching nineteen-year-olds, twenty year- olds, twenty-one, twenty-two handle adversity better than most adults.” 

The Blue Devils finished the regular season with a 6-6 record, the apex coming in game eight, a 33-30 win at home against UNC, snapping an eight-game losing streak to the Tar Heels and making the Blue Devils bowl eligible. Crowder, having moved into Holliday’s position in the starting lineup, was the hero that day, making an acrobatic catch for the winning touchdown on a five-yard pass from Renfree with thirteen seconds left.

“Don’t think for a second that [taking over Holliday’s position] wasn’t a factor in this,” Cutcliffe says. “He was going to get it done right.”

“Jamison was huge,” Vernon says. Crowder finished third in the ACC in receiving yards per game and fifth in receptions and was honorable mention All-ACC.

Meanwhile, Vernon was setting ACC records for career receptions and receiving yards. Renfree was named one of fifteen recipients of the 2012 National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete Award and is a finalist for the national Senior CLASS Award for football, given for excellence in competition, the classroom, the community, and character. Junior cornerback Ross Cockrell and freshman punter Will Monday were selected first-team All-ACC.

On the eve of the Belk Bowl, Cutcliffe takes his team’s pulse: “very hungry, very determined, very close,” he says. The team has spent Christmas together, eating each meal as a team. School’s on break; it’s all football—like being a pro team for just these few days.

Cutcliffe says that, regardless of the outcome of the game, he’s going to tell his seniors that “a lot of people, me included, are very appreciative of them leaving this place better than they found it.” This game, he says, is an opportunity to make a big statement on a big stage. 

But the ideal outcome isn’t to be. The Blue Devils go up 16-0, fall behind 27- 16, then, true to character, rally. With 1:20 left and the game tied, they drive to the five-yard line, where sophomore running back Josh Snead fumbles. Four plays later, Cincinnati scores on an eightythree- yard touchdown pass. Once again, Duke mounts a drive, but on first and ten from Cincinnati’s forty, Renfree is hit hard and intercepted for a touchdown— 48-34 is the final.

Making a statement: Despite Belk Bowl loss, the football team is banking on a soild foundation to carry it onward and upward. (Credit: John Gardiner)

After the game, the Blue Devils hold their heads high. Vernon attests to his teammates’ resiliency: “We had 115 guys who got behind each other.… This is a team; we’re going to be family for a long time.” He calls the game a step in the right direction: “This team will be back in a bowl game, I promise.”

The adage is that you learn more in defeat than in victory. Maybe coach Cutcliffe can feel illuminated by his Mrs. Merritt lamp in the night of this loss, feeling rewarded for his interest in character, or perhaps, he will upon reflection. It’s a good story, anyway, well worth telling, the narrative arc yet unfolding.

“I want every bit of it remembered,” Cutcliffe says after the game. “You don’t select and choose what you want to learn from a year; you make use of all of it. And it’s been that kind of year. We’ve had the highest of highs and felt some of the lowest of lows, when you’re looking at a youngster in the hospital. We’ve used every bit of that to grow.”

“We’re stronger, we’re better,” he says, and building from a solid foundation.

Somewhere, wherever she may be, Mrs. Merritt should be smiling.