Coming off the field, Kenny Anunike was almost to the Duke locker room when athletic director Kevin White grabbed him. White had slapped hands with and extended congratulations to the other Duke players, but he had more to say to Anunike, and for good reason.
Not only did Anunike have back-to-back sacks to knock Wake Forest out of field-goal range on a critical fourth-quarter drive, the sixth-year defensive end is the only player whose Duke tenure is as long as White’s. He arrived on campus not long after the athletic director in 2008.
“We have a great friendship. He’s my guy,” Anunike said. “He said a few other things, but I can’t really tell you all of that. That’s between me and him. We’ve been working together to basically revamp this program and that’s exactly what we’re doing. And we’re not even done yet. There’s more to come. I promise you that.”
Anunike fought through four surgeries on his left knee and a fifth on his right ankle, not to mention an appeal to the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility, to be here for this: Duke, ranked No. 25, moving one step closer to the ACC Championship Game with a 28-21 win over Wake Forest.
The Blue Devils have nine wins for the first time since 1941. Anunike wasn’t on that Rose Bowl team. It just feels that way sometimes.
Anunike’s teammates call him “Night Train” and “Gramps.” He came in as a tight end in David Cutcliffe’s first recruiting class, along with Sean Renfree and Donovan Varner and Matt Daniels. Now 23, he completed his degree in biological anthropology and anatomy last December, and if he stays at Duke any longer, he may accidentally end up with tenure.
All of which is a long way of saying he’s been around for the entire Duke resurgence, from 4-8 and 5-7 and 3-9 and 3-9, to 6-7 and a bowl game, to this: 9-2 and the Coastal Division title theirs to claim with a win next Saturday at North Carolina.
“I’m so glad I came back and I can still be a part of this,” Anunike said, and so are the Blue Devils because without him, Duke might not still be in this position.
After falling behind 14-0 early, the Blue Devils were were clinging to a 28-21 lead early in the fourth quarter with Wake Forest driving. On 2nd-and-15 from the Duke 28, Anunike shot through the line and dragged down Deacons quarterback Tanner Price for a loss of 7. On the next play, he did it again for a loss of 13, and Wake Forest was forced to punt.
“How nice is that? And I saw his eyes. There was intensity and elation in his eyes,” Cutcliffe said. “He walked right toward me coming off that field. I can see him in my mind’s eye right now. I was so happy for him, for his dad, for his mom, for his siblings. The Anunikes are a special family.”
Ross Cockrell, another long-suffering redshirt senior, albeit with a mere five years in the program, intercepted Price with 21/2 minutes to go to seal the win, and the Blue Devils survived to face the Tar Heels with a spot in Charlotte on the line.
Things are going so well for the Blue Devils, it’s fair to wonder whether Anunike will try to conjure up a seventh year of eligibility somehow, some way.
“Seven years is a long time,” Anunike said. “I don’t know about that. I’ve got to move on sometime.”
Not quite yet, though. After six years at Duke, the Night Train is finally coming to the end of the line. It’s been a long, long time, and he’s come a long way, but he still has a few stops to make.