Fearless and confident: Jordan Duncan’s fight through football

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It was the middle of the night. Jordan Duncan jumped, waking up in a cold, anxious sweat. He scrambled in the dark to find his phone and check the time — 2 a.m. He sighed, laid back down and tried to calm his breath.

“It was just a whole different schedule for me,” Duncan said of the new routine of early morning workouts, which are par for the course of Division I college football. He would often wake up in the dead of night thinking he had overslept and was late for a workout.

“That was the first time I truly felt anxiety,” he said.

A defensive back turned wide receiver from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Duncan had just left his eight siblings and mother — the most important people in his life — 2,000 miles behind him and was struggling to adapt to the rigorous experience of a freshman student-athlete in a brand new state entirely on his own.

“I thought I would drive myself crazy, and I questioned myself. Is this for me?” Duncan said. “I used to wake up, thinking to myself, ‘What if I got up the next morning and got on a plane to go back home?’”

Although he had finally reached his childhood dream of playing college ball, the road ahead as a Bear was not to be a smooth one. Riddled with injuries, hard losses, demanding seasons and constant underlying homesickness, Duncan has seen it all since making the move from the Deep South to the West Coast.

But Duncan was never one to shy away from a challenge, and was always one to push himself to overcome.

Spoiler alert: he never got on that homeward-bound plane.

Although most people would argue that they’ve changed since their middle school days, Duncan and his mother Mary Williams would say that, fundamentally, Jordan hasn’t wavered in terms of character or what is central to his life. This is not to say he hasn’t matured — he’s simply been mature for as long as he’s been able to make his own judgments.

Duncan has always been wise beyond his years. Eternally a man of his word, he has always believed that saying something was the equivalent of meaning it — and that if you put your word on it, you better follow through.

Duncan’s mother said this quality of his made sarcasm difficult for Jordan to grasp. She recalled one of her son’s first football practices when a coach approached her to tell her that Jordan was upset with him for a joke he’d made.

“He said, ‘Duncan, if you don’t hurry up, I’m gonna put a firecracker under you!’ He said that Jordan turned and looked at him and told him, ‘If you do, I’ll tell my brother!’” Williams remembered. “I had to explain it to him — he looked at me and said, ‘Well, Mama, he’s grown, why would he say that?’ He didn’t really get it,” she laughed.

Raised in a family of competitive, elite athletes, Duncan’s second skin has always been a team uniform. With four older brothers that played baseball, football, basketball and ran track, sports were indelible to the Duncan family — and Jordan was no different from his siblings.

Despite being an athlete all his life, Duncan didn’t start playing football until the fifth grade because of hesitation from his mother.

“You know how moms get,” Duncan smiled. “I’m the baby.”

As soon as he took to the field, he started garnering success. As a ninth grader, Duncan became the second football player in Oak Grove High School football coach Nevil Barr’s 40-year tenure to ever be promoted to varsity from the freshman team.

Legendary NFL quarterback Brett Favre, in the midst of a high school coaching stint at Oak Grove as offensive coordinator, would see Duncan playing catch with his older brothers on the field after practices and petitioned for him to play among the upperclassmen as a receiver.

It wouldn’t take long for Duncan to prove Favre right. On the third play of his first-ever varsity game, Duncan took a catch-and-run to the house.

“He looked so professional,” Williams said. “You would never think he had never played (high school football).”

From that point on, it was evident that Duncan would achieve great things on the gridiron. He won the state championship with his high school in 2013, and recorded a total of 225 receptions for 3,455 yards during his four years as a varsity starter.

“You just knew there was something special about him, and you knew he was going to make it pretty far based off his work ethic, his attitude and character,” said Tony Myers, former Oak Grove defensive backs coach and longtime Duncan family friend. “He’s just a high character kid.”

Without a father figure, Duncan had to rely on his brothers and his own maturity for guidance through sports, school and life. His siblings’ love for one another remains fierce, and although they didn’t have much materialistically, having each other was more than enough.

“Everybody knows how close we are,” Williams said. “Everybody in Mississippi knows. They would tell you, ‘Mary loves her children.’ If you know anybody that knows me, they’ll tell you, ‘She don’t play when it comes to her children.’”

But despite his love for his family and home — as well as offers to play for renowned football programs like Alabama, Ole Miss and South Carolina — Duncan had his sights set higher when it came time to commit.

“When I made my decision to come to Cal, I took football out of it,” Duncan explained. “That’s why it was a no-brainer.”

But Duncan’s leap of faith pushed him to limits he never thought he would face.

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Leaving his family behind took a massive toll on Duncan upon his arrival to the Bay Area in the spring of 2016.

Duncan has run the gamut of emotional experiences here at Cal. Despite his talent and success at Oak Grove, he played backup receiver the entirety of his first year here, and had to climb the ranks his sophomore season in order to earn every minute of game time he saw.

Having to cope with the stress of school in addition to the challenges of working every day for relatively few game minutes fed into Duncan’s nostalgia for home. While he came to love Cal and was determined to stay committed to the team and program regardless, the first few months were difficult for Duncan, and there were many evenings when he considered returning to a more familiar environment.

“Nobody knew. I cried every night, literally,” Duncan said with a wistful smile.

The difficulty of separation was felt by his family across the country.

“I was so glad to see Jordan go, and he went because I told him to. He went because he knew that’s what he needed to do,” Williams said. “I want what’s best for him, and if I have to cry or miss him, then that’s just what it’ll be.”

But Duncan didn’t give up. He spent every second of the day either at practice, in class or studying in order to distract himself from homesickness. He worked hard at football, and by the time he reached his junior year, Duncan was able to don his No. 2 jersey as a starting receiver.

“I can count probably on two fingers my closest friends, probably less than that,” Duncan said. “(My family members) were all I knew, and I came out here and I left all that. That was my biggest sacrifice. But I knew why I had to do it. You had to put your feelings up and you had to stick it out.”

But then adversity struck again — after his fifth game as a starter, Duncan missed nearly half of his junior season because of an injury.

Most would have buckled under the weight of the misfortune. After everything he had done to earn a spot on the field — coming to terms with homesickness, succeeding academically and pushing himself as a first-generation college student — Duncan had to face yet another unexpected challenge.

He didn’t give up before, though, so why would he give up now? As a little boy growing up in Hattiesburg, Duncan had never shied away from adversity, and like many qualities from his youth, this part of Duncan has not diminished.

“Dunc is a leader in every sense of the word,” remarked Burl Toler III, Cal’s wide receiver coach. “I know nobody wants injuries in their career, but when they happen, you learn from them and you become a stronger player, and he’s done just that.”

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It was the middle of the night in Seattle — actually, just past 1 a.m. Jordan Duncan jumped, flying through the air and catching a 19-yard pass from quarterback Chase Garbers on what would become one of the defining drives of Cal’s season.

With just a minute and a half left in the game, the Bears were down two points against then-No. 14 Washington and needed a near-miracle to win. Duncan’s catch brought the Bears up to the Huskies’ 45-yard line, but a defensive pass interference called on a throw intended for Duncan skipped the Bears another 15 yards forward. Those two passes to Duncan set up the game-winning field goal, notched by Cal kicker Greg Thomas, and got the Bears rolling on their tremendous four-win start to the season.

That wasn’t the first time Duncan had come in clutch for Cal, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. In an emotional return to his home state for the Bears’ game against Ole Miss, a team he grew up watching and supporting, Duncan matched his career-high five receptions — one of them for a touchdown — and recorded 63 receiving yards. He also served as game captain and lived up to the title in its fullest while 51 of his closest friends and family members looked on.

“I saw number two jerseys all over the crowd,” Toler remarked. “He has a big, great supportive family, and to play in front of them, I know, was a huge moment for him.”

After competing in the last three games of his junior season, despite missing five in the middle, his senior campaign has been a complete 180 from a fall 2018 characterized by injury and struggle. Duncan currently leads Cal with 53 career receptions, 653 receiving yards and eight touchdown catches — and has also started 16 games since his arrival to the team.

Duncan’s experience with adversity has cultivated a mindset rooted in positivity and a determination to persevere.

“When I walk in this field, I tell myself, ‘Fearless and confident,’” Duncan said. “I always have the mindset that I have eyes on me. I’m not saying I’m going to be perfect and everything, but I can’t lack anything. As far as I can control my effort, I can control my emotions, I can control how I approached things with attitude.”

Duncan’s fearlessness and confidence has resulted in an important role on the field. He is now the Bears’ go-to receiver in high-pressure situations, but Duncan doesn’t let the intensity of potentially game-changing plays get to his head.

“I don’t hear the crowd,” Duncan said of these moments on the field. “I don’t feel the pressure because I’ve already put myself under it. So now I’m in this moment, I know what it feels like.”

Duncan has been challenged off the field, and he has responded by becoming stronger as an athlete and a person. In many ways, it’s his growth outside of football which has left a lasting impression on those closest to him.

“Of all his greatness on the field, to me, he was just such a good leader, the way you want the character of your players,” Barr said of his former player.

Duncan will play his last home game against USC this weekend. Next month, he will be graduating, having gone further, physically and academically, than those before him. Many Cal fans will remember Duncan’s clutch passes and the plays he made as a Bear, but those who had the pleasure of playing alongside him will always recall his infectious positivity.

“I don’t even want you to remember me for football. If it made them smile, that’d be the biggest thing for somebody to tell me. Not even telling me, ‘Hey J-Dunc, I remember you caught that pass,’ because I don’t even remember every pass I caught,” he laughed.

The curtains are closing on Duncan’s emotional time at Cal, but he is leaving a wiser person for it. “I’m going to leave in peace because I know I gave it everything I had,” Duncan said.

His mindset when he takes that final walk across the graduation stage as he steps into a new chapter? The same as when he strides onto the gridiron — fearless and confident.

Emily Ohman covers football. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @emilyohman34.