DURHAM — Brendan Fowler came to Duke without a scholarship and wanting to play football.
In the process, he became the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in lacrosse.
Fowler, a junior, wasnt even on head coach John Danowskis radar at this time three years ago. Now, hes Dukes faceoff man, with the third-highest winning percentage in the country. His success at the X is one of the reasons No. 4 Duke (12-5) is in a position to face defending national champion and No. 9 Loyola (11-4) Sunday at 5:15 p.m. in Durham in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Fowler is a solid 6-foot, 210 pounds with shoulder-length brown hair and just looks like he was designed for contact, whether thats making a tackle on the football field or scrumming for the ball in the lacrosse faceoff X. Growing up on Long Island, his first love was football, and his dad, John, coached his middle school teams.
John Fowler played football at Villanova and roomed with lacrosse players. That influence, combined with living in one of the countrys lacrosse hotbeds, led him to have his son try the sport.
And when young Brendan was playing in middle school, his coaches asked who wanted to try taking faceoffs. He volunteered. He was pretty good.
This year, his first as Dukes main draw man, Fowler has won 65 percent of his faceoffs, the third-best mark in the nation. He gets better as the game goes on, winning 74 percent of faceoffs in the second half.
I get more comfortable as the game goes on, he said. For me, I feel like the more I take, the more I get into a flow.
Fowler continued playing football and lacrosse through high school, and he was a wrestler drawing college interest as well. He applied and was accepted to Duke, where he hoped to walk on to the football team.
I didnt really have a lot of interest in playing lacrosse at first, he said.
Danowski, who has known the high school coaches at Chaminade for years, heard in May of Fowlers senior year that he was coming to Duke. So, he gave his old friends a call.
I said, Hey Jack, I hear your faceoff guy is coming., Danowski said. And he said, Oh, he hasnt called you yet? He showed up on his own.
Duke head football coach David Cutcliffe was aware of Fowlers wish to play football, and it didnt take long for him to distinguish himself on the field.
That first summer he was in camp, you put him over there and hed be opposing our kickoff coverage team serving as the scout team, boy, he started showing up every play, Cutcliffe said. He was destroying a lot of what you were trying to do with the starting unit in the kicking game.
By the time school started his freshman year, Fowler missed lacrosse. He met with Danowski and told him hed love to play. He spent his first two years behind all-American C.J. Constable.
Fowler foreshawdowed his breakout junior year in last years NCAA tournament opener against Syracuse. An injury to Constable forced Fowler to take most faceoffs, and he went 12-for-17 (70.6 percent) in a win over the Orange.
Not bad for a guy who broke his collarbone during the game and continued playing.
He is a vicious competitor, Cutcliffe said. And hes a really good athlete.
Fowler, who lettered in football as a sophomore, wasnt healed until near the end of last football season and appeared in two games. With Duke earning a bowl berth, he had less time to prepare for lacrosse than usual about eight days. Despite that, and not playing lacrosse at all since his injury, hes had a breakout year at the X and on defense, where he ranks second in the country in ground balls per game.
In terms of playing sports, football is still his favorite, he said, but his priorities have had to shift due to his improvement in lacrosse. He cracks football jokes year-round with lacrosse teammate Greg DeLuca, who also spent two years on the football team. But ask him what he likes best about either sport, and his answer is the same: his teammates.
We talk about recruiting and evaluations and trying to figure out who are going to be the next blue chippers, Danowski said, And Brendan, we had heard in May of his senior year, that he was already admitted and coming to Duke.
And hes done pretty well for a nonscholarship guy wanting to focus on football.
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley