About six picks remained in the NFL draft when Austin Duke’s phone rang.
Duke, the former Independence High and Charlotte 49ers receiver, had stopped paying attention to what teams were on the clock or who they were selecting. But once his phone buzzed, his mind started racing.
“I recognized the number and I was like, ‘Oh, OK, I’m going to get drafted,’” Duke recalled. “(Carolina Panthers receivers) coach Lance Taylor was on the phone and was like, ‘Man, we liked you out here at local day and we told you we were coming to get you. So here we are.’”
The Panthers had used their last draft pick moments earlier on kicker Harrison Butker. However, after a few more calls and texts, Duke agreed to join the team as an undrafted free agent.
Duke signed his official papers Thursday and participated in rookie minicamp Friday and Saturday, capping a whirlwind week for the receiver now on the cusp of fulfilling his NFL dream with his hometown team.
... the humbling moment is when Luke Kuechly comes up and says, ‘Hi, I’m Luke.’ And I’m like, ‘Luke, I know who you are!’
Austin Duke, Panthers rookie
“When you walk in the locker room, you kind of walk in with your head down because you see Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly,” Duke said, “And the humbling moment is when Luke Kuechly comes up and says, ‘Hi, I’m Luke.’ And I’m like, ‘Luke, I know who you are!’
“He’s just a real humble guy. So just coming in and being welcomed like that, it just made me feel comfortable and made me feel at home.”
The Panthers’ locker room and practice field might be uncharted territory for Duke. Bank of America Stadium isn’t.
For every Carolina home game for 15 years, Bruce Duke, Austin’s father, worked in the press box, helping deliver stat sheets to media members, owners and, at the end of the game, both locker rooms. Austin Duke’s older sister, Autumn, did the same type of work. But when she couldn’t make it, Duke took her place.
Duke said he attended about two or three games growing up.
“Whenever I got a chance to come to a game, (my dad) would get us tickets to watch (former Panthers running back Tim) Biakabutuka play,” Duke said. “That tells you how old I am.”
As Duke grew up, he started making a name for himself on the football field, eventually becoming a star at Independence High. He caught 63 passes for 1,252 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior in 2011, when he participated in the Shrine Bowl.
Duke built his local fan base playing for the Patriots. At Charlotte, it ballooned.
As part of the 49ers’ inaugural recruiting class, he led the team in receiving in each of the program’s first four seasons. He finished his career as the school’s all-time leader in receptions (253), receiving yards (3,437) and receiving touchdowns (24).
Duke’s speed has always been a strength – he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.52 seconds at Charlotte’s pro day, when temperatures hovered in the low 30s. But with the 49ers, coach Brad Lambert said Duke refined his pass-catching skills.
“He rubbed off on a lot of guys with his work ethic,” Lambert said. “He was one of the last guys to leave every day. He saw an area that he needed to improve on and really did it.
“I’m really proud of Austin. He really matured as a man and has left us a better place because he’s been here.”
Putting the city on his back
Listed at 5-foot-8 and 155 pounds on the Panthers’ rookie minicamp roster, Duke faced questions from NFL scouts regarding his size leading up to the draft. Bruce Duke heard much of the same when he came out of Johnson C. Smith in 1975.
A member of J.C. Smith’s athletics hall of fame, Bruce Duke, 5-9 and 160 pounds, was one of the CIAA’s top running backs in the early 1970s. Yet, his NFL prospects never materialized.
They’re hitting me up and congratulating me and saying, ‘I always knew you could do it. You’re living out all our dreams.’
Austin Duke, Panthers rookie
“He was hearing a lot of the same stuff I was hearing when I was coming along,” the older Duke said. “‘You’re too small. Your size, your size.’ The thing about that is you can measure a man’s physical size, but you can’t measure a man’s heart.
“He has God-given talent, he’s got the ability, he has the drive, his heart is bigger than any guy’s that’s out there playing.”
After Friday’s first session, as the practice fields cleared and a couple of players stopped to speak with reporters, Austin Duke lingered behind and caught passes for a few additional minutes.
Although he has signed with Carolina as an undrafted free agent, he said he still has to prove himself if he hopes to make the 53-man roster. Whether that’s as a receiver, returner or gunner remains to be seen.
But no matter the outcome, Duke said he’ll continue to carry with him the fan base that he’s developed at Independence and Charlotte.
“They’re hitting me up and congratulating me and saying, ‘I always knew you could do it. You’re living out all our dreams,’” Duke said. “Just kind of being that forerunner for everybody in Charlotte, it’s just a good feeling to kind of put the city on your back a little bit.”