Shaquille Powell expected his family in the stands for homecoming. The tickets were bought, the plans made. And what his mother and younger brother would have seen.
They would have watched the Duke running back make a major contribution in the second half Saturday, helping lock down a 20-13 win against Virginia and secure bowl eligibility for a school-record third straight season.
Instead, Powell called home to Las Vegas on Friday night. And Saturday morning. Each time, his mother handed the phone to his 7-year-old brother Malachi Briggs in his hospital bed, having been readmitted Thursday when the malignant tumor doctors discovered in his abdomen in September failed to respond to treatment.
“It’s a great inspiration,” Powell said. “Just the perspective of looking at life and my situation differently. Maybe if I’m not getting the time I want or the carries I want or not doing what I should be doing, just taking the perspective that things could always be worse. That’s definitely changed my attitude for the better.”
Without them there, Powell not only carried his personal burdens but helped carry the Blue Devils to a crucial victory with 68 yards on 11 carries, all coming on Duke’s two second-half scoring drives.
“He is as equipped as a young person at handling adversity as any of them, in now almost 40 years of coaching, that I’ve ever had,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “And that’s a fact. I let his mother know that this week. It’s a difficult time for them. But he’s a special person. He’s an outstanding football player, but it goes beyond that.”
Powell didn’t play in the first half as Josh Snead, Shawn Wilson and Joe Ajeigbe all carried the ball, none particularly effectively. He got his chance on the first drive of the second half, with 28 yards on five carries as the Blue Devils added a field goal.
He didn’t see the ball again until late in the fourth quarter, until Cutcliffe went to offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery and told him, “You’ve got one hot.” With the game in the balance, Duke went back to Powell and he delivered. He ran so well, the Virginia defense swarmed to him on an option play and let quarterback Anthony Boone run for 23 yards to set up the game-winning touchdown.
After the game, when Powell entered the Duke locker room, his teammates and coaches rose and gave him a standing ovation.
Over the past two months, this has become the new normal for Powell, his life torn apart since Briggs was diagnosed with the cancer just as Powell was beginning his junior season at Duke.
“The therapy is hard,” Powell said. “It kind of makes him not himself, tired at times. Every chance I get I call my mom, just to put him on the phone just to get a quick conversation with him.”
The cancer was discovered during a two-month gap in his family’s health insurance. An online campaign at gofundme.com has raised over $20,000 to help cover Briggs’ medical bills, with a healthy portion coming from Duke fans after Powell’s teammates helped raise awareness on their Twitter and Facebook accounts.
Powell wears two “Team Malachi” bracelets on his left wrist, one pink, one blue. He’s not the only one in the Duke locker room.
“We continue to support him as a teammate, as a friend, and we let him know, anything he needs, that’s the environment we’ve built here,” Duke lineman Takoby Cofield said. “That’s us, family. It’s not business at all, it’s all family.”
Duke is off next weekend. Since his brother couldn’t come to him, Powell plans to fly home to Las Vegas. If this is the kind of lift he can give the Devils, imagine what seeing Powell’s face will do for his little brother.