Football

Ex-Johnson C. Smith star can’t lose in Smith’s showdown with Charlotte 49ers

Bruce Duke knows what he will wear to Saturday’s college football game between Johnson C. Smith and the Charlotte 49ers at Richardson Stadium.

On Duke’s head will be a blue-and-gold J.C. Smith hat, emblematic of his allegiance to the Golden Bulls, for whom he was an all-CIAA running back in the 1970s and is in the school’s athletics hall of fame.

He will also don a green No. 10 49ers football jersey with the name “Duke” stitched across the back, in support of his son and 49ers sophomore receiver Austin Duke.

For Bruce Duke, it will be an afternoon devoted to watching his two favorite teams.

“It’s win-win for me, right?” Bruce Duke said with a laugh.

For Bruce Duke, maybe. But for his son, who grew up in the family’s east Charlotte household devoted to J.C. Smith athletics, Saturday’s game will amount to something else.

“I love JCSU,” said Austin, who led the 49ers in receiving in their inaugural season of 2013. “But Saturday, it’s not personal. It’s all business. We’ll see who the kings of Charlotte will be.”

Austin Duke’s childhood was spent tagging along with his parents – mother Jackie is also a J.C. Smith graduate – to football games at the Golden Bulls’ Irwin Belk Complex and basketball games at Brayboy Gym. He ran track in the stadium and attended summer sports camps at the university.

“Everything was Johnson C. Smith at our house,” Austin said.

Burned in his memory is a large statue of a bull inside J.C. Smith’s football stadium, with its panoramic view of Charlotte’s skyline.

“That’s the first time I ever ran a hill, at Smith’s stadium,” Austin said. “I was about 7 or 8, and I remember seeing that statue as I was running. Running that hill just about killed me, but that’s where I learned how much work it took to be a great player.”

As Austin grew up and became a star football player at Independence High, he heard himself being compared to his dad.

“You’d hear, ‘Do you have Bruce Duke speed?’ ” Austin said. “That was how somebody fast was described, as having ‘Bruce Duke speed.’ ”

Although only 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, Bruce Duke used his exceptional speed (4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash) to become one of the CIAA’s top running backs in the early ’70s.

“He is one of our great Golden Bulls,” J.C. Smith athletics director Steve Joyner said.

Although Bruce played quite a bit as a freshman in 1970, he was stuck on the bench at the start of his sophomore year. But in the second game of the season, he returned a kickoff for a touchdown.

“Where have you been?” Bruce recalled his coach asking.

“Over there on the bench, where you had me,” Bruce remembers answering.

Bruce’s college career was good enough, he said, that he earned a few tryouts with NFL and Canadian Football League teams.

“But I kept hearing the same thing: ‘It’s your size.’ And that starts to wear on you,” Bruce said.

Bruce returned to Charlotte where he and Jackie raised four children (Austin is the youngest). Recently retired from a career as an insurance adjuster, Bruce, 62, attends most 49ers practices and every game. Until last year – the 49ers’ inaugural season – Bruce went to most J.C. Smith games.

But Bruce will always be a Golden Bull and keeps his connections to the football program. He was inducted into the school’s athletics hall of fame in 1995. One of his closest friends is Nancy Stroud, the mother-in-law of J.C. Smith football coach Steven Aycock.

Still, Bruce is primarily a Charlotte fan now. He watched Austin catch seven passes for 51 yards last week in the 49ers’ 33-9 season-opening victory against Campbell. Austin led the 49ers with 62 catches for 727 yards as a freshman, scoring six touchdowns.

At 5-9, 160 pounds, Austin has his dad’s size, and he’s run the 40 in 4.35 seconds. The 49ers use Austin and his inherited speed not only as a receiver but as a dangerous end-around threat as well.

When Austin was 14, he challenged his dad to a race. Austin had never beaten Bruce, but this time, using his “Bruce Duke speed,” he finally did.

“Ask him about it,” Austin said. “He pulled about every muscle in his body trying to beat me.”

Said Bruce: “I thought I could still take him. I’d been working out, but nothing strenuous; I hadn’t been running. You’ve got to be careful. Your mind will get your body in trouble.”

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