Austin Duke rejoins the Panthers: 'It's just the beginning'
Austin Duke hasn’t turned his phone on in about 24 hours.
It’s so full of well-wishing messages from fans, former teammates and coaches and the like that Duke wanted to wait to read them all until he had a moment to breathe and recalibrate himself after the roller-coaster ride he’s experienced lately.
But it’s a good thing Duke had his phone on and heard it ring Wednesday night. It was his agent, calling him to tell him the Carolina Panthers wanted to re-sign him to their practice squad, less than a month after the undrafted rookie wide receiver had been a victim of the team’s cut from 90 to 53 players.
Duke, who was born, raised and went to college in Charlotte, was on his way to work out at the Charlotte 49ers facilities, just as he had done every day since being released.
He wanted to stay ready in case the phone call came.
When it did, Duke took a moment to soak in the opportunity alone in his car. But only a moment.
Then, he went to work out anyway, took some magnesium to settle his nervous stomach, and tried to sleep before a 6 a.m. report time at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday morning.
The toughest thing
Duke showed promise throughout the preseason and quickly became popular with teammates, but in a crowded position group he was a long shot, and he knew it.
Carolina kept six receivers on the initial 53-man roster before trading away Kaelin Clay, and four spots were already sealed when training camp began. Speedy wideout and return specialist Damiere Byrd was thought in camp to have earned the final spot (he did), so a handful of wideouts was competing for one opening at the time.
“It was relatively tough (to make the call),” said head coach Ron Rivera. “I mean, we had a couple of other guys that were in front of him, obviously, and for those reasons, we let him go.”
When Duke got cut, it was a gut punch. Getting out from underneath the weight of that moment was a difficult journey.
“It was tough. It was probably one of the toughest things I’ve had to do in my life,” he said. “It’s just faith, man. You just have to trust in the plan, and trust in the process and just keep going.
“They called me, so that means they believed in me and think I can do something good here. I just don’t want to let them down.”
The impact Duke made on his teammates showed after he got cut. Duke said first-round draft pick Christian McCaffrey, star linebacker Luke Kuechly, veteran safety Kurt Coleman and receiver Russell Shepard all reached out to him and told him to keep his head up.
But nobody was happier for Duke to be back than Duke himself. He took some time to introduce himself to new faces in the locker room and to hug a few position coaches after warmups on Thursday morning.
“I was just taking it all in,” he said. “Because you know, it can get real really quick. I could be sitting on that couch tomorrow. So I was just taking it all in and being grateful for it. It’s humbling.”
A fan favorite
It’s not often that a community rallies around a practice squad player like they have around Duke – especially on a team with so many big names.
But tweets and messages poured in after the Observer announced the news on Thursday morning, all exclaiming their jubilant support for the local kid.
“I think part of it is that he’s a local boy who went locally to college and had success,” Rivera said. “I think people like to see it. It’s a feel-good story and he’s a young man who was very close to making it to begin with.”
Duke said he thinks his character has made the difference.
“I’m just a genuine person,” he said. “I try my best to show love to everybody. That’s just how I was raised. I always appreciate the support and try to thank people for the support, because they don’t have to, you know? They don’t have to like me, they don’t have to support me. But the fact that they do just really means a lot to me.
“And whether I go through ups or downs, it’s a good feeling to know that you have people that genuinely care about you. Because that’s the love you give back to your family, your friends and the community.”