Sure, Scottie Montgomery had his own football team to worry about last year.
But that didn’t stop the East Carolina coach from heading to Durham, where he’d previously played and coached at Duke, to come to the aid of an ailing former player.
Quarterback Thomas Sirk’s playing career was in peril after tearing yet another Achilles tendon. And Montgomery had to see him.
“I didn’t know that he would play again,” said Montgomery, who was a Duke assistant for six years (2006-09, 2014-15).
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When Montgomery saw him, he hugged Sirk’s neck, looked him in the eye and wished him the best of luck with the long recovery process Sirk knew all too well.
Because of that injury, his third Achilles tear in his college career, the NCAA granted Sirk a sixth season of eligibility. Sirk’s recovery has gone well, but rather than return to Duke, where Daniel Jones took over as the Blue Devils’ quarterback while Sirk was out last season, he transferred to East Carolina to play his last season for Montgomery.
Sirk has never played a college game without Montgomery coaching him. Now they’re together again as the Pirates are set to begin preseason practice on Aug. 3.
“Now he’s in our camp,” Montgomery said. “You don’t know what will happen, but we are glad to have him.”
The last time the two were together on the football field was a historic day for Duke.
It was Dec. 26, 2015, at the Pinstripe Bowl at New York’s Yankee Stadium. With Montgomery calling plays and Sirk playing quarterback, Duke beat Indiana, 44-41, in overtime to win the school’s first bowl since the 1961 Cotton Bowl.
Montgomery, Duke’s offensive coordinator, had accepted ECU’s head coaching position earlier that month.
Sirk had led Duke to an 8-5 record that season as a redshirt junior, leading the team in rushing (803 yards, eight touchdowns) and passing (2,625 yards, 16 touchdowns).
But less than two months later, Sirk ruptured his Achilles tendon while running during offseason conditioning drills.
He rushed his recovery, intent on being able to play in Duke’s opening game against N.C. Central on Sept. 3. But, in August, he re-injured the same tendon – again while running. He needed surgery that wiped out his 2016 season.
“I wasn’t really responding to my body probably like I should have just because I had a date in mind rather than my health in mind,” Sirk said. “This one I still have an end goal to be ready for the first (ECU) game and be ready for camp. But I’ve had more time. I’ve taken it a little bit slower.”
Now 11 months out from his latest surgery, Sirk is healthy and ready to go full speed when the Pirates open practice next week. He’s not guaranteed a starting spot, though.
Having led ECU to a 3-9 record in his first season last fall, Montgomery said last week that Gardner Minshew, a junior, is the starter entering practice. But a battle awaits.
“We’re going to go into camp and let those guys battle it out,” Montgomery said. “We’ll know quick. We don’t see ourselves as having a two-quarterback system.”
When the NCAA granted Sirk another season of eligibility for 2017, he intended to return to Duke.
But Jones, a redshirt freshman with no college playing experience when he stepped in to replace Sirk, had started all 12 games in 2016 and threw 173 consecutive passes without an interception.
Once Sirk realized it was no longer his team, he decided to finish his career elsewhere.
“It was difficult for both of us,” Cutcliffe said. “But he felt it was in his best interest. He felt like Daniel had come on and made it his team. I supported him 1,000 percent. I would have loved to have had him. But I wasn’t going to be selfish in that regard. He looked at a number of different places and felt like East Carolina was where he’d be the happiest.”
Sirk also considered South Carolina and Southern Mississippi. But Cutcliffe had contacted Montgomery early in the process to let his former assistant know he had his blessing to pursue Sirk.
“It wasn’t one of those things where I snuck in the back door and took Thomas or anything like that,” Montgomery said. “I want to make that clear. Because he would choke me to death.”
That made the difficult decision to leave Duke more comfortable for Sirk.
“It’s been good,” Sirk said. “I love coach Montgomery, the way he handles the program here.”