Duke football coach David Cutcliffe relishes the chance to introduce his wife and children when he finds himself in ballrooms or banquet halls giving after-dinner speeches.
And at times, standing there looking out at alumni and fans, he catches the perplexed expressions when he introduces Marcus Hilliard as his son.
Marcus is black. Cutcliffe is white.
He says the puzzled looks haven't surprised him since he arrived at Duke early this year and began to whip up support for the program.
“A lot of people here don't know the story,” Cutcliffe said.
The story is about a football coach who was born and raised in the deep South during segregation, but has since provided a life for an African-American teenager who never knew his own father and whose mother died.
When Marcus Hilliard needed a home, stability and guidance, Cutcliffe and his wife, Karen, offered it. They fulfilled a promise to Marcus' mother: They gave Marcus a college education at Tennessee, where he is a senior.
Marcus is as much a part of the Cutcliffe family as the couple's other son, Chris, and their daughters, Emily and Katie.
“Marcus is unbelievable,” Cutcliffe says. “This goes deep. I think it was meant to be.”
Chris Cutcliffe was a new kid in Oxford, Miss., in 1998, where his dad had just been hired as the new head coach at Ole Miss.
The first day at middle school, he encountered what he remembers as a polite, cheerful sixth-grade student who asked: “Hey! Do you need help?”
It was Marcus who showed Chris around. The boys wound up in some of the same classes, played together and hung out together.
“Our relationship was almost like brothers from the beginning,” Chris said.
Marcus felt at home with Cutcliffe and the rest of the family as the strong friendship developed. Marcus called the coach “D” and when Karen went shopping for her three children, she bought for Marcus as well.
By the eighth grade, Marcus' mother, Geneveieve, had been diagnosed with lung cancer. She died just before her son entered high school.
Marcus says Geneveieve, a school teacher, taught him to always work hard. She instilled a desire to succeed. She never asked the Cutcliffes for financial help, but talked frequently with Karen and made one request as death neared: Please make sure Marcus gets a college education. Karen promised her that would happen.
The day Geneveieve died, Marcus walked into her bedroom for the last time and assured his mother that he would be fine. When death struck, it “nearly blew me away,” he said. And for a while it left him struggling to find his way.
He remained close to the Cutcliffes, but moved in with an older half-brother, Vincent Hilliard. There, he recalls mostly staying in his room, watching TV or reading a Bible, amid an atmosphere of drugs and alcohol. Marcus remembers strangers streaming in and out, sometimes carrying guns.
“Our mother had cancer; I had to take care of everything; things got out of hand,'' said Vincent Hilliard, who would serve time in prison.
Later, Marcus moved in with a half-sister but then left over what he said was a disagreement about money.
“I never could get comfortable,'' Marcus said.
Fit right in
At the Cutcliffe household, there was no family meeting.
Karen just told her husband one day that Marcus, who had remained in day-to-day contact with the family and often spent the night, was moving in for good.
That was fine with Cutcliffe and the children.
“Chris and Katie never flinched in sharing their life with Marcus,'' Cutcliffe said. “Emily doesn't know Marcus as anything but a brother.”
To all the children, Marcus is “brother,” a brother who fit in from the start.
“I've never had one bit of trouble with him,” Karen said. “He's been a blessing to us.”
Marcus calls Karen “Mom.” And in 2005, David Cutcliffe remembers walking through their home in Knoxville, Tenn., where by then he had returned as an assistant at the University of Tennessee. He heard Marcus refer to him as “Dad” for the first time.
That was a proud moment, Cutcliffe said.
“In our family, we have no problem saying: ‘I love you,'” Cutcliffe explained. “Marcus joined right in, saying: ‘I love you, Dad.' That does mean a lot.”
Cutcliffe grew up in Birmingham, Ala., and was raised in a devout Catholic home with five siblings.
He was there during the combustible, civil rights movements that ripped through the South.
“It was a volatile time,'' said Cutcliffe, who attended now defunct Banks High School. “We had a little integration at the end of my high school career.”
Cutcliffe's mother, Frances, helped give him perspective on race, he said.
“[She] never saw color. She taught you to treat all people the same,” he said.
When Cutcliffe was 15 years old, his father was killed in an automobile accident. His coaches became influential at a time when he needed a male role model and he became immersed in a world where athletes – black and white – played side by side and developed lasting bonds.
A father figure
“He's been a father figure to me,” Marcus said. “I can go to him with anything, any time. He'll answer my questions, give me advice.”
Cutcliffe treats his children the same, with love, discipline. And added, “I'm not a soft father.”
One night while in high school, Chris and Marcus “rolled” a neighbor's lawn with toilet paper. The next morning, David and Karen had them cleaning up the debris and apologizing. Marcus said they never trashed another yard.
While on the staff at Tennessee, Cutcliffe arranged for both to work as student football managers. They're there now, roommates, and still working the sidelines for the Vols.
Last summer, Marcus also pulled an intern shift in Duke's football office. He carries a 3.1 grade point average in communications at Tennessee and says he wants to coach.
“I think he could be a tremendous teacher,'' Cutcliffe said. “It has worked out well. He will graduate next spring and his mother will be smiling from heaven.”
Sometimes, Marcus wonders what might have happened if he hadn't befriended Chris that day at the Mississippi middle school, if he hadn't known the Cutcliffes.
“Really, there's no telling,” he said. “I could have taken the wrong road several times and ended up not doing any good.”
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