With mistakes in schoolwork and attitude, Austin Parker paved his own path away from Duke’s football team.
For four months, it looked like a one-way road with no return.
Parker had a plan to continue his career as a punter and kicker at another school but never implemented it. Instead, he worked to get his life back on track and with help from former teammates who never gave up on him, a chance meeting at a charity event, and a willingness by Duke coach David Cutcliffe to change his mind about him, he was welcomed back to the team.
When Duke begins practice on Aug. 2, Parker will be in uniform hoping to help the Blue Devils to their sixth bowl appearance in seven seasons.
“He could bring a lot to this football team,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s very fortunate to be where he is right now. He knows that. His maturity, his growth could impact the 2018 team.”
In December, after charges of plagiarism led Duke to suspend Parker from school for the spring semester, it looked unlikely that Parker would play again for Duke.
Cutcliffe made it clear that didn’t want him back even if he returned to Duke for classes this summer.
The product of an athletic family, whose parents were college athletes at South Carolina and whose younger brother begins his football career at Wofford this fall, Parker felt the emotional weight of his errors.
“It was like a part of me was missing,” Parker said.
No one knew it at the time, but Parker’s journey back to the team and into Cutcliffe’s good graces had already begun.
It started with a strong finish to the fall semester in the classroom, particularly in the class where he’d been caught plagiarizing earlier in the semester.
It continued after he’d moved back home to live with his parents in Concord. He worked in landscaping at Cabarrus Country Club, mowing and aerating the golf course. He helped coach the track team at his old high school.
It solidified when his closest friends and former teammates, key players and respected team leaders like quarterback Daniel Jones and linebackers Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys, impressed upon Cutcliffe that Parker was worthy of a second chance.
It finalized last April 23 at the Durham Performing Arts Center, where the same Duke professor who had caught Parker’s plagiarism — whom Cutcliffe hadn’t previously met — described a side of Parker that changed the veteran coach’s mind.
It led to a text from the coach to his deposed player asking for a phone conversation that Parker approached with trepidation.
“I was hoping this was going to be a good phone call and not something negative,” Parker said. “Everything went well.”
Cutcliffe came away thinking that Parker was a really good kid who’d been humbled. So he offered him his scholarship back and, on May 16, Duke announced that Parker had been reinstated.
“Austin handled it like a pro,” Giles-Harris said. “Nothing fazes Austin Parker. I think he set an example for a lot of people. He did make a mistake. He owned up to it. Now he is ready to repay it. He’s one of the hardest workers I know. You are going to get all you can out of Austin Parker before he gives up. I’m glad to have him back.”
The big mistake
Parker’s dismissal last December essentially cost Duke two players since he punted and handled extra-point and field goal kicks for the Blue Devils.
He knew the suspension was coming but only learned of his removal from the team and the loss of his scholarship a few days before the public announcement.
“The initial night when I knew I wasn’t going to be on the team was pretty tough,” Parker said. “I called my parents right away. I had to break the news to them. It was a long night. Talked to closest friends on the team, Daniel Jones and Joe, about it, Got their input. They were very supportive, told me some good things to keep my head up.”
Jones and Parker have been roommates since their freshman year. Even after Parker was off the team, he still had finals to finish up for the fall semester.
Seeing his former teammates preparing for their bowl game hit Parker hard.
“The guys were leaving to go to practice and it was really hard to sit and not do anything,” Parker said. “(Daniel) would leave for practice and I would go to class like normal.”
Parker devoted his new-found time to studying for finals.
“Try to finish the semester as best I could,” Parker said. “To be the best I could be in that aspect.”
That was the same approach he took even after he’d been caught cheating. Rather than blow off the class or wallow in his mistake, he worked hard to atone.
That’s what his professor told Cutcliffe when they met while attending the Reality Ministries Talent Show, featuring adults with developmental disabilities, at the DPAC in April.
“I’m never one to count myself out, I guess,” Parker said. “I’m never going to give up on something and just leave it like that. I’m going to complete the job and do it the best I can. Yeah I had this setback but I can be this much better from it. I can finish this strong and do everything else perfect and hope for the best.”
Still, he had no idea at the time how it would work out.
No longer a Blue Devil
On Dec. 26, Parker watched on television with his family as Duke beat Northern Illinois, 36-14, in the Quick Lane Bowl at Detroit. Walk-on senior William Holmquist handled the kicking and punting in Parker’s place.
Parker’s parents asked him how he could watch the game under the circumstances. But Parker said there was no way he would miss it.
“These are all my friends,” Parker said. “I’ve been with them for three years. How could I not support them and watch the game? I expected them to win and they did.”
Only eight credits shy of earning his degree and with eligibility remaining, Parker made plans to pay his own way to Duke this summer and fall before playing elsewhere as a graduate transfer.
“I could study hard for six months and wherever the Lord guided me to go is where I was going to go,” Parker said.
But he never got to the point where he’d contacted other schools. He never wanted to leave Duke.
In January, he got a reminder of why.
Parker turned 21 years old on Jan. 27, and a group of his Duke teammates, including Jones, Giles-Harris and Humphreys, made the two-hour drive from Durham to surprise him a few days later.
“I had no idea it was coming,” Parker said. “I walk upstairs and they are all standing there in the living room. I was pretty cool. It just meant so much for all of them to come down there to see me.”
Giles-Harris said he reached out to Parker so much while he was out of school that “he probably got annoyed talking to me so much. Austin is one of my dear friends.”
Jones said Parker is “someone I really believe in who is a special guy. He’s been great.”
Parker’s father, Daren, punted at South Carolina and for a year in the NFL with the Denver Broncos. Austin stayed in playing shape by punting with his dad.
When he wasn’t working out or working at the country club, Parker helped coach track at his alma mater, Mount Pleasant High School. He convinced his younger brother, Landon, to try high jump. With Austin coaching him, Landon jumped 6-8 to tie the school record and win the state championship.
With his academic suspension ending, Parker planned to return to Duke for summer classes. By then, Cutcliffe had been convinced that Parker was worthy of rejoining the team and getting his scholarship back.
Though they went through a rough stretch, Parker said he never felt bitter toward his coach for kicking him off the team.
“There were a few ups and downs, obviously, but overall I think we had a great relationship,” Parker said “We’re really close. Whenever I got let go, I didn’t think anything bad about him. He’s doing his job. That’s what happened. I was suspended. He has to make a judgment call. That’s what he did. I don’t think our relationship changed any. I think if anything it’s grown at this point. Having more conversations with him, I feel even closer to him. I feel like I can come to him with anything.”
As a sign of how much he’s changed, Parker has ditched the No. 42 he wore the last two seasons. He’s wearing No. 45 now.
In another change, the plan is for Parker to focus solely on punting for at least the first two weeks of practice. Walk-on Collin Wareham is the team’s No. 1 kicker. That will be re-evaluated later in August.
Doing both or only one job would have been fine with Parker. And he’s grateful to be wearing any uniform number, as long as it’s a Duke uniform.