Special thanks to Zach Goins (Weddington '15) and Media Hub along with the UNC School of Media & Journalism for allowing us to post Zach's terrific article on his former teammate and friend, Keith Duncan, one of the greatest kickers in the history of North Carolina high school football.
Zach in his own right is one of the best wideouts in Weddington's football program amassing 141 receptions for 1,861 yards and 25 TDs. He was selected as a three-time All-Southern Carolina conference and two-time All-Union County.
As the clock ticked down at Kinnick Stadium on a November night, Keith Duncan knew his time was coming.
Duncan’s Iowa Hawkeyes trailed the third-ranked Michigan Wolverines 13-11, and it seemed all but certain the game’s result would come down to the right leg of the true-freshman walk-on.
After suffering a humbling 41-14 defeat at the hands of Penn State the week before, the Hawkeyes’ record sat at 5-4, and the team was in dire need of a win to become bowl eligible.
The pressure in the stadium was mounting, but inside Duncan’s head, it was as calm as ever. He cracked jokes up and down the sideline until his number was called.
“This is what you live for,” Duncan’s holder, Ron Coluzzi, said in his ear as he lined up to take the kick. “This is what kicking is all about. It all comes down to you, so have fun with it.”
But before Duncan could even attempt the game-winner, Michigan called a timeout to ice him. They wanted in his head. But for Duncan, this only made the kick that much sweeter.
“I liked it when they iced me,” he said. “As a kicker, you’re not used to being on the field for 30 minutes like an offensive or defensive player would. We go out on the field for maybe a total of 45 seconds the entire game, so having that extra time to be in the moment and soak in the atmosphere helped me out a lot.”
With three seconds left, Duncan lined up again, ready to etch his name into the history of Iowa football.
The snap. The hold. The kick.
Photo: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
When Duncan arrived in Iowa City in the summer of 2016, he wasn’t sure what to expect. He’d spent the last four years setting records at Weddington High School in North Carolina, but it was time to find a new home.
Being recruited as a kicker is different than most positions. While the country’s top quarterbacks rake in scholarship offers left and right, even the best kickers tend to only pick up a few. Instead, they’re offered as preferred walk-ons, non-scholarship players with the potential to eventually earn a full ride.
For an All-American like Duncan, his only scholarship offers came from smaller schools in lesser divisions. But Duncan knew he had the leg to compete in big-time college football – it was just a matter of finding the right school to let him show it off.
“Iowa gave me that opportunity, especially when they said the job was open,” Duncan said. “I knew I didn’t need anything more than an opportunity, so I was hooked.”
Duncan packed his bags and headed to the Midwest, swapping mountains and beaches for endless plains.
Immediately, he was thrown into a spirited battle against four other kickers, all competing for the same job. But that didn’t faze Duncan – he was there to win.
Sure enough, Duncan began to climb his way up the depth chart. A few kicks here and there with the first team suddenly turned into two practices in a row, then three, then four.
“I was like, ‘Oh wow, it’s time, maybe I’m actually playing,’” Duncan said. “They don’t tell us who’s starting until the week of the game.”
But this contest was so tight, even the coaches couldn’t decide by then. Finally, with the first game only a day away, Duncan heard the news he had been waiting for: he was the starter.
Photo: Matthew Holst, Getty Images
By the time Duncan clawed his way out of the dogpile, thousands of fans had flooded the field.
Resting atop his teammates’ shoulders, Duncan was carried off the field like a hero, but the celebrations didn’t end in the locker room.
Across campus, Duncan went from unknown to instant celebrity. A murmur in the lecture hall when his name was called for attendance. Requests for pictures and autographs on the way to class. More than 2,000 new Instagram followers in a single night.
“The first two days after, I couldn’t call my parents because of how much my phone was blowing up,” Duncan said. “I never really thought that a kicker would be known on campus like that.”
With a successful freshman campaign under his belt, Duncan had high hopes of earning a scholarship and improving for his sophomore season. But he knew neither would come easy.
“I never thought that it was guaranteed to be my job all four years, I knew that there was always going to be competition,” Duncan said. “I was hoping for a scholarship, but I wasn’t expecting one, because I didn’t really think I was deserving of it yet, even though I had that one big kick. I still had a lot to prove and a lot to work on.”
Duncan’s parents, on the other hand, believed their son had earned the right to be put on scholarship. After all, over $40,000 in out-of-state tuition can quickly add up.
“Keith handles it all a lot better than we do,” his father, Stuart Duncan, said. “It was all amazingly frustrating, watching your son do everything a coach could ask for and still not getting the recognition he deserves. Keith is the definition of what schools say they want in a scholarship athlete.”
But the scholarship never came, and it wasn’t the only thing Duncan missed out on during his sophomore season. Miguel Recinos, who had lost the kicking spot to Duncan the previous year, cemented himself as the team’s new starter.
Duncan was brought back down to earth as quickly as he’d left it. For the first time in his athletic career, he found himself clapping from the sideline instead of kicking game-winners.
Graphic: Sabrina Cheung
“It was definitely a rock bottom for me, because it was the first time I felt failure in football,” Duncan said “I was upset, frustrated, angry, everything.”
Duncan could now feel a pressure weighing on him that was far greater than anything he’d felt before his game-winning kick.
“I remember lying in bed thinking I had let my family down,” Duncan said. “They had paid so much for me to go to school and pursue my dream, and now there was a good chance I was going to have to leave because I might not be able to afford it anymore.”
Suddenly Duncan began to question everything about his gamble choosing Iowa in the first place. Should he have played it safe and accepted a scholarship from a lesser school? Did he even have what it takes to compete at this level, or was his freshman season just a fluke?
“I doubted myself a lot after I lost the job,” Duncan said. “It took me a really, really long time to stop feeling sorry for myself and get back to normal.”
From a thousand miles away in North Carolina, Jennifer Duncan could feel her son struggling.
“I could absolutely tell he was upset and taking it pretty hard,” she said. “Keith is a competitor, and he didn’t like it one bit. But he’s not the kind of kid who will mope around and hurt the team. He’s going to figure out how to get better.”
So instead of dwelling on his circumstances, Duncan went back to work.
“I learned that the quicker you get over your emotions in a situation like that, the more opportunities you have to become a better player and person,” Duncan said. “You learn the most in uncomfortable situations, and I used that to fuel myself.”
For Duncan it was easier to cheer for his replacement when it was someone like Recinos, a player who’d quickly become one of his best friends on the team.
Recinos said their friendship is due in part to the similar situations they’ve each been through. After all, it was Duncan who took the starting job from him, only for Recinos to win it back a year later.
“We’ve each experienced really high highs, and really low lows, so that’s helped us bond,” Recinos said. “We both pushed each other, and by that I mean with genuine support. It’s like if you’re performing against your brother – you want to beat him, but you want him to have as good of a showing as possible.”
For two years, the starting job belonged to Recinos, leaving Duncan sidelined after his stellar debut. But now, Recinos has graduated, and the door has reopened for Duncan. With two years of eligibility remaining, Duncan is ready to prove that his story doesn’t end after his freshman season.
“I knew that I was good enough to get on the field before, but losing the job just showed me how much more I could do to improve,” Duncan said. “Even not having played for two years, I still feel much better about myself and about my kicking abilities than when I actually did play.”
But even if Duncan never steps on the field again and his legacy begins and ends with that kick in November, it will be a story he’s happy to tell.
“I wouldn’t be disappointed, because I know that all the work I’ve put in has been to the best of my ability, so I know there’s nothing more I could have done,” he said. “Sure, I wish I could have played all four years and set school records, but I wouldn’t change my situation for anything, because I’ve learned so much.”
ZACH IS A SENIOR FROM WEDDINGTON, NORTH CAROLINA, MAJORING IN REPORTING. OVER THE PAST THREE YEARS, HE HAS WORKED AS A SENIOR WRITER FOR THE DAILY TAR HEEL. ZACH HAS ALSO PREVIOUSLY WORKED AS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER AT CLTURE.ORG, THE CO-CREATOR/HOST OF INSIDE THE FILM ROOM PODCAST AND A SOCIAL MEDIA INTERN AT UNC-CHAPEL HILL OFFICE OF UNDERGRAD ADMISSIONS. IN THE FUTURE, ZACH HOPES TO ENTER THE ENTERTAINMENT REPORTING INDUSTRY.