Duke running back Jela Duncan was speaking to no one in particular, the questions from the handful of reporters standing around him having reached a temporary pause.
“I’m just so glad to be back,” he said.
Duncan’s comeback hit an important milestone Saturday in Duke’s 44-3 win at Army. For the first time in nearly two years – two days short of two full years – he scored a touchdown. And it came in highlight-reel fashion, as Duncan broke off a 43-yard run, carrying two Army defenders into the end zone with him.
When Duncan scored a touchdown against Navy on Oct. 12, 2013, no one would have predicted that it would take him so long to score again. Certainly not Duncan.
“That was a humbling experience,” he said of the past two years.
Duncan was Duke’s leading rusher as a freshman in 2012, and he repeated that feat during the 2013 regular season. He was a fitting encapsulation of the new brand of Duke football: talented, powerful and ready for the postseason. But as the Blue Devils were preparing for Texas A&M in the Peach Bowl, Duncan’s season came to an abrupt end.
Duke announced that Duncan had committed a violation of the university’s academic policy, and he would be suspended for the game and the 2014 season. Just like that, two constants from Duncan’s life – school and football – were gone.
Duncan was also hurting physically, and the forced redshirt year gave him time to get healthy. He had surgery on both shoulders in Jan. 2014. He says now that the six- to eight-month recovery from those surgeries might have caused him to redshirt anyway, but that’s a debate that will always be theoretical.
The Blue Devils, and head coach David Cutcliffe in particular, made sure the 5-foot-10, 210-pound Duncan still felt like part of the team while he was away. Cutcliffe said the two spoke nearly every day for all of last year, the coach checking in on both Duncan’s physical and mental well being. Duncan lived with former Duke running back Josh Snead. And he logged countless hours in the training room with Kelby Brown, rehabbing his torn ACL as Duncan worked on his shoulders.
“I love Kelby with all of my heart,” Duncan said. “The fellowship we had throughout last year and this year, there has just been so much growth between the both of us.”
Brown encouraged Duncan to keep the faith that brighter days were ahead. And Duncan clearly took that message to heart, referencing the role his belief in God played in his recovery several times in a short conversation after Saturday’s victory.
“My teammates kept me going. My teammates and my faith,” Duncan said. “They had faith in me, and I had faith in God. He wouldn’t put me though any situation that I couldn’t make it through.”
When he wasn’t rehabbing or studying his Bible, Duncan worked at a local nutrition store, learning plenty about supplements and taking care of his body. He couldn’t bring himself to actually go to Wallace Wade Stadium to watch Duke’s home games in person, but he did watch on TV, either in his apartment in Durham or back in Charlotte with his mom.
Last January, Duncan was reinstated at Duke, returning to school after the end of his two-semester suspension. He went through spring practice, working to get back into playing shape. But his journey back wasn’t quite over – Duncan partially tore his right pectoral muscle in preseason camp, and he missed the first three games of this year. He handled that setback as he had the others and Duncan returned to the field on Sept. 26 against Georgia Tech. Two weeks later, the redshirt junior was back making a major impact against Army, rushing for 77 yards on seven carries and two touchdowns, the first multiscore game of his career.
“How great is that?” Cutcliffe said. “He looked more like himself. He looked quicker. Every day he practices, every week, he’s getting himself in better shape.
“You’ve got to remember, Jela had been out with two shoulder surgeries, a long extended time. There’s a lot of emotion involved in that, but that’s a long path to get yourself back to where you were physically. I’m hoping we haven’t seen near the best as we go forward.”