DURHAM — When the Victory Bell rolled into the Duke locker room, Thaddeus Lewis was celebrating with his former teammates. In four years as Duke’s starting quarterback, Lewis never beat North Carolina, never went to a bowl game, but the bell was right in front of him, begging to be rung.
“I didn’t ring the bell,” Lewis said. “They won the bell. I watched them do it. That was good enough.”
Lewis was part of a generation of Duke players who did as much to get the program this far as the ones on the field Saturday. He was there when David Cutcliffe arrived on campus in December 2007. He bought into the new coach’s system and helped groom the players who finally crossed the Rubicon.
Vincent Rey was another, jumping up and down at the Cincinnati Bengals’ team hotel. He’d just gotten to his room in time to watch the final three minutes of the 33-30 win, Duke’s sixth of the season to clinch a bowl bid for the first time since 1994.
“I always believed that it would happen,” Rey said. “I was hoping it would happen while we were there, but I feel like I was part of this. I won also.”
While Rey celebrated, back in Durham, Cutcliffe was talking about his first meeting with the linebacker five years ago and how it helped convince him to take the Duke job. He believed in players like Rey, and they believed in Duke.
“It’s incredibly important for people to understand the price that was paid, the foundation these guys laid and the way they bought into what we asked them to do,” Cutcliffe said Sunday.
They were close at times. As a junior, in Cutcliffe’s first season, Lewis and the Blue Devils were 4-3 before losing their final five games, including a season-ending 28-20 home loss to North Carolina. In Lewis’ senior year, the Blue Devils went 5-7, but lost four straight to end the season. A year later, Rey’s Duke career ended with a five-point home loss to the Tar Heels to conclude a 3-9 season.
So many losses, so few rewards. Until now.
“Right now, I have zero jealousy at all,” Rey said. “I’m just happy that we’ve got it done. What I did when I was at Duke, even though we didn’t win as much, we put in a lot of work and built great relationships.”
Lewis never saw an atmosphere like Saturday night during his Duke career, but as he soaked in the crowd from the sideline, he could take pride in the role players like him played in helping start the process five years ago.
“You can’t dwell on the past,” Lewis. “I wish that we could have brought the Bell home, but to see the young guys do it, we helped bring those guys in. If we didn’t win a couple of those games my last two years, maybe we couldn’t have gotten those recruits. We built that foundation.”
Lewis was standing near the south end zone when Jamison Crowder hung onto the pass that sealed the victory for Duke. It was thrown by Sean Renfree, Lewis’ successor at quarterback, one of so many players who picked up the baton from players like Lewis and Rey and carried it this far.
“It’s a surreal feeling,” Lewis said. “When you come here, they pitch to you that you’re helping change a program. To be around to actually see it occur, to see it happen a couple years after you finish playing ball, and the key factors are the freshmen from your senior year? It’s the best feeling in the world.”
DeCock: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947