The Duke of Spartanburg
By James Dator
"RUN THE HILL. NOW, DO IT AGAIN!" Duke could never remember the name of the offensive line coach, but he sort of resembled Bill Clinton, kind of. He would have called him Bill, except Duke couldn't remember Clinton's name either. He called him 'grey'. It was a nickname that didn't win him a lot of brownie points.
It had been one year since Duke Robinson was selected by the Carolina Panthers. Most players like to be in New York for the draft, or hear their name called early so they can make the most money. Duke was taken right where he wanted to be, the middle of the fifth. It gave him the opportunity to enter the league with no expectations, and get two solid days of draft-party snacking in before having to work. Doritos were his favorite. Cool Ranch were his vice.
None of training camp made sense. What was the point being out in the heat anyway? Duke knew how the NFL worked. Four of the team's 16 games were in domes, and the bench never got too hot. Robinson felt the incline was cruel and unusual punishment, so he waited to hear from the government on his OSHA claim -- upset his prior appeal to the NFLPA went unheard.
*RING RING.... RING RING*
The phone rang, and Duke was convinced it was the President calling about his plight. He didn't remember the president's name.
"Hello, this is Duke"
"Heya Duke, it's me, your great-uncle Smokey, you know... Smokey Robinson. The singer from Motown!"
"Hi Smokey Robinson, I'm Duke Robinson"
Duke and Smokey talked once every three days, whether they needed to or not. This time they didn't need to.
Family was important to them, almost as important as family dinners -- which Duke had missed three of while he was in training camp. The whole thing felt bogus. It wasn't like Oklahoma. There he could roll out of bed, walk past the weight room, and push people over. "This NFL thing was tough!" He thought to himself, while he tried to work out where his playbook was. Duke had used it to prop up a chair in his dorm room... he never found it.
Veterans said that camp gets easier the more you do it, and thankfully they were right. Duke worked out that if he stopped drinking water, and ate 10 seasoning packets from Ramen Noodles before practice, his sodium level would be so high that he'd get to sit out for 'dehydration'... "suckers" he thought.
Position coaches told him to stretch, and gave him another copy of the playbook to study. Naturally he hid a Mad Magazine inside it -- "double suckers".
Life was pretty easy those first two years. The Panthers worked on getting better, while Duke kept getting held out for dehydration -- knowing that Coach Fox liked him too much to do anything about it. It was a symbiotic relationship, but all that came crashing down.
Ron Rivera was tall. That was the first thing Duke noticed. He was perceptive like that. The new coach would talk about "best players playing" and "work hard or you'll be cut". These ideas were foreign to him, and this confused him. Listening was pointless. He figured this guy would be gone just like the last one, and quietly hid behind a shed to eat his seasoning.
Just as Duke finished the third pack he felt a hand clasp on his shoulder.
"Good one Garry, ha ha... you got me."
"No," the voice said "It's Ronald".
Duke slowly turned around, with his eyes focused on the ground. His eyes moved over boat shoes, to revealed knees, then to khaki shorts. It was Rivera, his head coach.
"Why are you eating Ramen seasoning Duke?"
He didn't know how to begin, but he tried. "I'm.... well" Duke hesitated, "this NFL thing is hard coach. I just don't think it's for me."
Fox didn't yell much, but he thought Rivera would. Instead, the coach spoke softly. "Take a seat son," Rivera said calmly. "I knew guys just like you. They didn't want to work, they didn't have the desire. Want to know something? I've felt that way at times."
Duke perked up, continuing to listen intently.
"You know Duke, you can get so much out of this sport. You can get back everything you put in, and more."
Duke made eye contact. It appeared the talk made a difference.
"So Duke, do you think you can hydrate yourself and run that hill a few more times... for me?"
Robinson paused. There was a lot to think about and a short time to make the decision. A smile crept across his face, and he began to stand up.
He laughed timidly and took off running. It was the fastest Duke had ever run. He ran across South Carolina, and he ran through Mississippi. From Louisiana to Oklahoma... Duke didn't stop there. He jumped in the pacific ocean and started swimming.
He swam to New Zealand, where he lived for a while among the kiwis. He went to Indonesia and India, over to Russia. Then news went dark.
It's 2013 and Duke Robinson is lost in Eastern Europe.
To be continued?