It’s the final day of Carolina Panthers minicamp, and nearly every player has left the practice field. But rookie receiver Austin Duke isn’t ready to leave.
He’s standing at the 30-yard line, catching ball after ball from the Jugs machine. That has been his routine since his college days at Charlotte, where he set nearly every receiving record in program history.
First, the one-handed catches. He’s made enough of those in practice already. Two hands now. Back up for the low balls, closer for the bullets.
He’ll have to do it all if he wants to make the team.
At 5-foot-9 – he swears he’s 5-foot-10 – Duke is shorter than all but one of his 89 teammates, but he’s still part of the Panthers’ 90-man roster. Come Sept. 2, that could change.
In previous years, NFL teams whittled their 90-man roster with two preseason cuts – first to 75 players, then to 53. This year, it’s one sweeping cut. There’s no margin for error.
By Duke’s recollection, that final practice was the first time through 10 days of organized team activities and three days of minicamp that he didn’t catch a pass during scrimmage. It’s not really his fault – he was never targeted – but excuses don’t equal catches.
“When it gets tough, nobody’s gonna be there,” Duke said. “The cameras aren’t gonna be there. I was just trying to make sure I got my catches in.”
No, the cameras are 50 yards away, swarming first-round pick Christian McCaffrey. He’s on the field for the first time since rookie minicamp, thanks to an antiquated NFL rule. The former Stanford running back eventually escapes the crowd and walks past fences lined with fans.
It’s only Duke now.
He has picked up the pace, and it shows. One drop, then another. The frustration is mounting – he spends too much time in practice to perform like this. He can’t be perfect, but to make an NFL roster as an undrafted free agent, he almost has to be.
Ten minutes later, Duke heads straight to the fences and scribbles his No. 16 on footballs and posters. One fan hands him a box of donuts. They’re for McCaffrey, he says. Of course they are.
Seven players were chosen before McCaffrey in April’s NFL draft. Seven rounds later, the Panthers offered Duke a free-agent deal.
“They have their guys that they like and the guys that they drafted and the guys that they’re counting on – and I wasn’t one of those guys,” Duke said. “But I was a guy that they thought deserved an opportunity.”
Duke knows the Panthers’ expectations of him aren’t high, but he has never succumb to expectation. He was built for challenges like this.
“What would that look like for the guy that actually does defy the odds and makes it?” said Skyler Vigus, a friend and volunteer at Elevation Church.
“It looks like Austin. Exactly like Austin.”
Built in Charlotte
Let’s pause, for a moment, and consider the Parable of the Talents.
It goes something like this: A master gives three servants varying levels of talents, an ancient measurement of gold. Two invest their talents and double their lot, but the third buries his talent and is punished. A hidden talent, the Bible says, is a wasted one.
Duke heard the story at Elevation early this offseason. It hasn’t left his mind since.
“Whatever God gives you, whatever ability God gives you, whatever task he gives you,” Duke said, “you make the most of it.”
He did that in four seasons at Charlotte, leading the 49ers in receiving yards each year and finishing with 253 catches for 3,437 yards and 24 touchdowns – all program records. He owns the school’s top nine single-game receiving records, and he holds the single-game touchdown mark, too.
For 67 years, Charlotte didn’t field a football team. So when coach Brad Lambert pitched Duke on joining the 49ers’ inaugural 2012 recruiting class, the receiver thought he was joking. He wasn’t. Duke would become a cornerstone of an eventual Division-I program born just as he finished high school.
“That was my first time realizing that I had a God-led experience,” he said.
Duke inherited his speed from his father, Bruce Duke, who four decades ago was a star running back at Johnson C. Smith, a Division-II school about 10 miles from Charlotte’s campus. The younger Duke clocked 4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash before his senior season at Independence High. But he also inherited his father’s size. Like his parents and two of his three siblings, Duke was born prematurely – two months early. At birth, he weighed three pounds, six ounces.
“It’s always been an uphill battle for him because of his size,” Bruce Duke said.
Still, Duke invested the talents he was given. He’d arrive at Independence hours early to catch passes. He’d sprint up the hills at J.C. Smith to build endurance, then do pushups at the top to build strength.
“A lion in the jungle doesn’t know how big or small he is,” Duke said. “He just gets up and attacks.”
After an explosive senior season, he secured all-conference honors and a spot in the Shrine Bowl. But his small stature limited him to three offers: Elon, N.C. Central and Charlotte.
Growing up, Duke was an avid player of an NCAA football video game. The virtual Duke was a star receiver with offers from everywhere in the country. But rather than choosing Alabama, Clemson or Florida State, he would always play for the team on the cusp, the team with something to prove. He wanted to build a program from its foundation.
On Feb. 1, 2012, Duke signed with Charlotte.
“Every day I woke up, I knew something was pushing me for a bigger cause,” Duke said. “For a bigger reason.”
Would I belong?
Aaron Curry laughs when he remembers the first time he met Duke.
The young receiver had finished a brutal conditioning exercise at Charlotte, where Curry spent three seasons as an assistant coach. Duke approached the former NFL linebacker and peppered him with questions: What can I do to make it in the NFL? Are there guys like me? Would I belong?
More than anything, Curry says, Duke wanted to know if he was capable.
“He had a great fire within himself to do something,” Curry said. “And over the years, I was just able to watch himself figure out what that was.”
Curry was taken by Duke’s maturity and initiative, his energy and body language – and he thought Duke’s speed translated to the NFL.
So did Duke’s approach. He often demanded the most challenging assignment in the offense, whether it be throwing a crack block on the defensive end or taking on the top cornerback.
He’d do extra drills before and after practice, and he’d pull himself aside for pushups if he dropped a pass during a scrimmage. And when practice wasn’t enough, he’d sprint up that same hill at J.C. Smith and do pushups at the top.
“He had to work twice as hard as the man next to him,” said long-time friend Ravene Hoff.
As a freshman, Duke turned 62 catches into 727 yards and six touchdowns. In his sophomore season, he exploded for 79 catches, 1,373 yards and 10 total touchdowns. Two 5-6 seasons took a toll on Duke, but the 49ers made the jump to Conference USA and the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“I thought I was gonna get through college smooth sailing,” Duke said. “And that’s the way it was looking up until that season.”
Before his junior year, Duke suffered back pain after getting competitive in the weight room. He shook it off. But when a Presbyterian defender speared his back in the second game, he could hardly sleep through the muscle spasms. A week later, he lasted two plays at Middle Tennessee State before heading to the sidelines. He had a bulging disk in his back, and he couldn’t feel his left leg.
With his mobility hampered, he sought other ways to improve. He bought a digital scale and weighed himself regularly after dinner, determined to fill out his frame. He studied film – often longer than his coaches would – and started asking Curry about coverage schemes. His routes were cleaner, and his mind was sharper. He was more than a speed receiver.
After amassing 261 yards in two Charlotte wins to start the season, he managed just 273 yards through the final 10 games – all losses.
Fans saw the season as a bust, but Duke didn’t. With his talents diminished by his injury, he learned to make the most of his lot.
“When you say that you’re gonna follow God’s footsteps,” Duke said, “you’ve got to be prepared to do it his way.”
Before Duke’s senior season, Hoff moved to Virginia for law school. So Duke left her with a parting gift – his scale. He didn’t need it anymore, he told her. Measurables wouldn’t define his future success.
He just had to convince others to believe the same.
Look in the mirror
Listed on Duke’s bathroom mirror is a set of goals, written plainly and revisited daily.
He started the routine his second year at Charlotte and carried it throughout his career. Keep God first, the mirror reminds, and keep going on the field. The glass is strewn with his every thought and motivation.
“If you tell Austin he can’t,” Hoff said, “he’ll show you he can.”
When he arrived at Charlotte, Duke’s explosiveness as a slot receiver was his lone asset. He thrived in Independence’s offense, but the 49ers were starting from scratch. It was, as Curry says, football in its barest form.
“It was either a screen or a post,” Duke said. “That was it. That’s all I did.”
After the humbling junior season, he came into Curry’s office and laid out his plan for his final year at Charlotte. He had refocused his mind, and this was his last chance to turn his goals into reality.
In 2016, he caught 59 passes for 803 yards and four touchdowns – including a 24-yard score at No. 17 Louisville – in the 49ers’ 4-8 season. He was an honorable mention for All-Conference USA, and he finished his career ranked in the top 10 among active players in receptions and yards.
But NFL teams told him he was a seventh-round pick, at best, and agents told him he was a “poor investment.” He was losing faith in his process.
In December, 49ers star defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi sent Duke’s game film to agent Christopher Coy, who sent Duke to Applied Science & Performance Institute (ASPI) in Tampa for 10 weeks to train for Charlotte’s pro day.
The receiver returned 12 pounds heavier and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.52 seconds in sub-freezing weather. Later, at the Panthers’ local pro day, he trimmed his 40-time and showcased his sure hands, impressing wide receivers coach Lance Taylor and assistant wide receivers coach Jerricho Cotchery.
Still, scouts weren’t convinced. He was too short, too slight and too unproven against top competition. It’s not about what he had done; it’s about what he couldn’t do.
On draft night, the Cleveland Browns selected Ogunjobi – the first Charlotte 49ers player to be drafted – in the third round. In the seventh round, the Minnesota Vikings selected N.C. State cornerback Jack Tocho, Duke’s former teammate at Independence.
No one called Duke’s name.
“I never had the luxury of being the first person that anybody picked or counted on to do anything,” Duke said. “I don’t know what it feels like to be wanted. I don’t know what it feels like for somebody to say that I’m their guy.”
Before the draft, Duke said he expected to sign somewhere as an undrafted free agent. The Falcons were the first team to reach out, but they weren’t ready to invest. So when the Panthers called with a minimum three-year deal and $1,000 signing bonus, Duke couldn’t turn down a chance to play for his hometown team.
After Duke got off the phone with Carolina, he called Curry and again asked what he could do to make it in the NFL. This time, Curry’s answer was simple:
“You’d better learn how to cover kicks.”
‘I have enough confidence’
The sun is setting at Clearwater Beach, but Duke isn’t done with his workout.
It’s Independence Day, and he is wearing nothing but shorts, wristbands and a necklace. He takes off running, sand flying behind him. Pivot, then run again. Harder. This is the cost of greatness.
Twenty miles away, The ASPI awaits. Wake with the sunrise to eggs with vegetables, to sausage and fruit. Hit the field for mobility training and conditioning before a round on the Jugs machine. Run it back on film, then relax with a massage. Weights in the afternoon, then back to the beach, or Topgolf, or freezing cryotherapy.
The doldrums of June and July are usually reserved for rest and relaxation, but not for Duke. He’s got a roster spot to chase.
“They want the best player,” Duke says. “So if I push myself to be the best player I can be, I have enough confidence that my best is good enough.”
So far, it’s paid off. Duke was a standout during the Panthers’ offseason workouts, making highlight catches primarily on the outside against second-team cornerbacks. And when he drops a pass, he’s back on the sidelines doing pushups. Some things never change.
Curry and Cotchery emphasized the importance of special teams for Duke’s chances of making the roster. It’s a tall order for Duke, who was too valuable to Charlotte’s offense to be unleashed as a returner or gunner. But the receiver doesn’t run from a challenge.
For now, Duke’s biggest weakness is adjusting to NFL concepts. Because he ran few routes in college, the rookie knows he’s behind the curve in learning Carolina’s wide-open offense. He picked up some of the Panthers’ playbook at rookie minicamp and has dedicated his offseason to memorizing the rest – unlike at Charlotte, where he said he made his own playbook because there was no standard printout.
Cotchery said he can tell Duke has been studying, and the rookie is always asking questions. As a veteran of 12 NFL seasons, Cotchery saw potential in Duke’s combination of speed, pass-catching ability and his mobility after the catch during summer workouts.
“I think he has the talent, he has the ability,” Cotchery said. “He just has to keep cultivating what he has.”
Duke says fellow rookies have gravitated to his positive energy, and he thinks the veterans see the same dedication and drive that he sees in them.
Early in the offseason, quarterback Cam Newton called Duke “groundhog” because he always saw him diving for catches. Duke has a Kelvin Benjamin jersey in his closet, but the veteran receiver is a mutual fan. Tight end Greg Olsen has mentored Duke on the field, while former undrafted receiver Russell Shepard has been like a big brother off of it.
At one point, Duke asked Thomas Davis, an All-Pro linebacker and 12-year NFL veteran, what more he needs to do to secure his place on the roster.
“Man,” Davis told him, “just keep doing what you’re doing.”
Maybe he belongs, after all.
A bigger purpose
The first words of “The Purpose Driven Life” hit hard: “It’s not about you.”
Through 40 chapters in as many days, the book is a spiritual journey guided by evangelical Christian pastor Rick Warren. Now Duke has two playbooks to learn.
He started the book on the final day of OTAs, and he’ll finish a week before training camp. As always, he has questions. What can I leave behind for God’s glory? How can I tell my story?
Earth is a temporary residence, the book says, but eternity lives in your heart. Life is here today and gone tomorrow, like a breath or a wisp of smoke. It’s the same with Duke’s tenure in the NFL.
“I’m just renting it out, like I’m paying rent every day,” he says. “Nothing’s guaranteed. Nothing’s promised.”
Vigus, 29, still remembers the first time he met Duke, when he was struck by Duke’s maturity and initiative, his confidence and charisma – his tangible authenticity. When he started his own 40-day journey, he could see Duke between the pages. He was the quintessential example of somebody fully investing in his talents.
“He’s so poised to make something special happen,” Vigus said.
For now, that’s making the 53-man roster. The Panthers have 13 wide receivers on their 90-man roster – including veterans Benjamin and Devin Funchess, free-agent signings Shepard and Charles Johnson and second-round pick Curtis Samuel.
Come Sept. 2, that number will likely be cut in half. It’s a tough list to crack, yet Duke’s speed could earn him a role similar to that of Ted Ginn Jr. last season.
That’s only the most immediate goal listed on the bathroom mirror, though. He hopes to grow his nonprofit, Faith By Works, and grow within his faith. He wants to inspire others with his story, starting with a three-part documentary, “Path to the Draft,” that he co-produced with childhood friend Omari Collins. His career is a platform, temporary as it may be, and Duke is determined to use it.
He knows it’s an uphill battle – it always has been. But it’s not about sprinting up the mountain and doing pushups at the top. It’s about looking back down and seeing who he can pull up with him.
“It’s just all about what you do with your lot,” Duke said. “My lot is so much bigger than football. My lot is inspiration. My lot is my story. My lot is everything that I’ve been through.”
So far, he’s made the most of it.
C Jackson Cowart on Twitter: @CJacksonCowart