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Iowa sports icon Randy Duncan faces biggest foe in highlight-reel life

[ 0 ] August 24, 2013 |

A dusty shelving unit crammed to each edge stands in a lightly lit corner of an attic on Foster Drive, a stately South of Grand neighborhood off 42nd Street in Des Moines.

A copy of “I Can Lick 30 Tigers Today” by Dr. Seuss sits atop a leaflet about the Spanish-American War, with kids’ toys dotting the scene as if scattered by an imaginary wind. Something else shares space there, too — the Walter Camp Foundation trophy, signifying the group’s pick for college football’s best player in 1958. A few feet away, buried amid 1960s and ’70s era clothes — a nostalgic sea of plaid and wide collars — is a No. 25 game jersey from the season Iowa out-muscled the University of California in the 1959 Rose Bowl.

Since 1972, the year Randy and Paula Duncan moved into the house, the trophy, the jersey and all the other snapshots of a sports life like almost no other have rested unceremoniously at the top of 13 rarely traveled stairs.

As college football blooms anew this week from Seattle to the tip of south Florida, one of the best to play a game that has become a multi-billion-dollar business remains stubbornly one of its most humble.

Iowa football star Randy Duncan in his Des Moines attic with his Iowa football jersey and helmet. (Rodney White / Register photo)

Iowa football star Randy Duncan in his Des Moines attic with his Iowa football jersey and helmet. (Rodney White / Register photo)

Duncan disturbs dust each time he’s asked to pick up an attic piece and explain the moments and memories locked inside.

The Touchdown Club of Columbus, Ohio.

The Chicago Tribune’s Silver Football.

A College Football Hall of Fame ring.

Pivot in any direction and a piece of sports history sits untouched, just as most of it has for four decades. The only item that seems to own any distinction, albeit accidental, is a Patsy Cline Greatest Hits cassette tape that carved out rare room to breathe on top of a nearby dresser.

“I’ve never been up here to look at all this,” Duncan said.

Why, he’s asked?

“When I got through playing football, I knew one thing,” Duncan said. “I didn’t want to be one of those jocks that couldn’t get the roar of the crowd out of their ears.”

Hearst Randolph Duncan Jr., at 76, still prefers to look forward rather than back.

MODEST DUNCAN RINGED BY STAR-FILLED GALAXY

The rearview mirror of Duncan’s life, though, reveals stories that could fill all the attics along his tree-splashed central Iowa neighborhood. A yellowing photo shows Duncan accepting an award next to football royalty Jim Brown and Johnny Unitas. Another black-and-white image shows a memorable kiss with Hollywood starlet Jayne Mansfield at the urging of Bob Hope mere feet away. Duncan was named runner-up for the Heisman Trophy and picked No. 1 in the NFL’s 1959 draft — dreams bordering on unimaginable for a boy born in Osage.

Duncan started his athletic climb as captain of Des Moines Roosevelt’s state football championship and runner-up basketball teams, grew into a college football icon who beat Notre Dame all three times he faced them as a Hawkeye and, later, became one of the most respected trial lawyers in Iowa. He plays the piano, can fuel conversation about the life of King Charlemagne, reads Russian authors and was one of the best damn handball players the state of Iowa had ever seen.

Now, as Duncan faces an opponent more unrelenting and unnerving than any before it, he still needs prodded to pause and survey it all.

In February 2012, the quiet man with the life-altering arm was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. The disease claimed Sen. Ted Kennedy, baseball star “Tug” McGraw and entertainer Ethel Merman, each in less than 16 months. Medical experts told Duncan he would be fortunate to survive a year. Today, he’s sprinting through month No. 18, with 19 just around the corner.

Iowa coaching legend Forest Evashevski discusses football with Randy Duncan in this undated photo. (Register file photo)

Iowa coaching legend Forest Evashevski discusses football with Randy Duncan in this undated photo. (Register file photo)

The thing, now and through all of the thens: Duncan is a winner; always has been — no matter the guy in the other jersey or the lawyer on the other side of the courtroom.

“They told me I had a 5 percent chance of living a year — and that’s not good odds,” said Duncan, who self-diagnosed his cancer on the Internet after suddenly struggling to spell certain words. “I’ve won that one, and I’m going on.

“It’s made me even more of a fighter. I’m determined that I’m going to beat this thing.”

MONEY, MARGARINE CHART ONE MAN’S UNIQUE PATCH

Duncan’s uncommon will to overcome, no matter the obstacles, blossomed in the hallways of Roosevelt and was sharpened to a razor’s edge at Iowa. The dogged determination was polished to perfection, though, in the courtrooms of Iowa.

The Green Bay Packers made Duncan the NFL’s top draft pick in 1959. But a salary worth $2,000 more and a $2,500 bonus nudged him north to join the Canadian Football League’s British Columbia Lions instead.

Two seasons later, Duncan landed with the American Football League’s Dallas Texans — the modern-day Kansas City Chiefs. Even then, the lure of being a lawyer like his dad demanded his attention. Duncan practiced with the Texans during the day while attending Southern Methodist University law school at night.

When the Texans hired coach Hank Stram, who scooped up future Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson, the time for a new path arrived.

“Stram told me that I would be second string,” Duncan said. “So I gave up football, moved to Des Moines to finish my law degree at Drake, and the rest is history.”

From British Columbia’s opening snap of 1959 to the Texans’ final play of 1961, the professional football career of Randy Duncan lasted 857 days.

“I loved sports,” Duncan said. “But I tried to keep my mind on what’s most important, and that’s making a living, being a lawyer and taking care of my family.

“That was more important to me than all the sports in the world.”

Life as a lawyer locked itself more deeply into the Duncan family DNA than anything that unfolded under the glaring spotlight of Big Ten football stadiums.

1957 Rose Bowl program sitting under peeling wallpaper chips in Randy Duncan's attic. (Rodney White / Register photo)

1957 Rose Bowl program sitting under peeling wallpaper chips in Randy Duncan’s attic. (Rodney White / Register photo)

Hearst Randolph Duncan Sr. helped add a splash of color to the lives of everyday Iowans, when he fought to add yellow coloring to margarine — despite a spirited fight against the move by the Iowa Dairy Association.

“Back in the day, when you bought margarine it was white stuff,” said Scott Duncan, Randy’s son who worked as a lawyer for a decade and now lives in suburban St. Louis. “There was a capsule to mix in to make it look like butter. Dairy farmers had a strong lobby, and didn’t want consumers to be confused about what the product was (compared to real butter).

“My grandfather argued so they were able to sell yellow margarine in the state of Iowa.”

When courtrooms opened their doors to Iowa’s former quarterback, cases became his new football games. Duncan prepared and operated like each decision and outcome determined a bowl bid.

Duncan represented his law firm in the case involving the December 1994 explosion of the Port Neal fertilizer plant near Sioux City that killed four, injured 18 and caused more than $200 million in damage. He fought for the family of Iowa basketball player Chris Street, who died in a January 1993 collision with a Johnson County snowplow.

The family lost the civil case, and Duncan shouldered the responsibility.

Chris Green, the law partner who joined Duncan to form the firm Duncan, Green, Brown & Langeness in Des Moines, said his friend worked furiously on the case: “It broke his heart, frankly, when he lost.”

Peers selected Duncan to the American College of Trial Lawyers, a distinction held by his father and limited to no more than 1 percent of attorneys in each state. Again and always, Duncan found ways to hurdle the longest of odds — on fields, as well as in courtrooms and doctor’s offices.

As the shared years practicing law melted from the calendar, something about Duncan stood out to Green — even more than the remarkable intelligence and diligence.

“You’d never know he played football,” Green said. “He didn’t like to get anything, or get adulation based on his football career. He never took advantage of being an all-America football player or icon in Iowa.

“That’s really something, especially in our state, where athletes are our primary celebrities a lot of the time.”

Duncan, asked about whether he was a better football player or lawyer, made the order of his priorities clear.

“Oh, boy,” he said. “I’ll tell you what, I’d rather be thought of as a better lawyer.”

MEMORIES OF MANSFIELD, BATHTUB FILLED WITH BEER

Nine times during Duncan’s playing days, he broke his nose — a statistical corner of his football life that he shrugs off as part of the game. In an age when quarterbacks wore a single bar on the front of helmets that masqueraded as a facemask, the game’s most important players dodged defenders while vulnerable from ear to ear.

Randy Duncan holding a famous photo of him kissing Jayne Mansfield before the 1957 Rose Bowl game against Oregon State. Duncan said he had wanted her for his Christmas gift. (Rodney White / Register photo)

Randy Duncan holding a famous photo of him kissing Jayne Mansfield before the 1957 Rose Bowl game against Oregon State. Duncan said he had wanted her for his Christmas gift. (Rodney White / Register photo)

In a photo from a practice at Iowa, Duncan’s nose is shattered so badly that it appears to be a flesh-and-bones map of San Francisco’s Lombard Street, zig-zagging its route north to south. Blood-soaked rolls of cotton poke awkwardly from both nostrils as Duncan stands next to Kenny Ploen, the Hawkeye quarterback he eventually succeeded.

He has a smile on his face.

Duncan, though, led with a gentle, determined grip on the steering wheel.

“Probably one of the most unassuming people you’d ever meet,” said Hugh Drake, a guard, linebacker and Duncan teammate for both of his Rose Bowls. “He was quiet, he never said a harsh word to anybody on the field. If you missed an assignment or made a mistake, all he had to do was look at you — that’s all it took.

“When you walked into the huddle, he took control, though. Very confident. Just that type of guy.”

Bill Lapham, the starting center on the team that trampled Cal 38-12 in the Rose Bowl, constructs mental images of a calm offensive caretaker with an accurate cannon of an arm. Duncan remained so simple and grounded that he mailed clothes home to his grandmother to be laundered.

“Randy was a real good leader. Kind of a quiet-spoken guy, but everybody looked up to him. Whatever he said, is kind of where we went,” said Lapham, who was drafted by Philadelphia and played an NFL season each for the Eagles and Minnesota Vikings.

“He could throw the ball as good as anybody I’ve ever been around. He threw a hard ball, but it was easy to catch. I’ve been with guys who could knock an elephant down at 100 yards, but it was hard to catch.

“He could really zip it, but you could catch it. He threw a fast, soft ball, which sounds kind of funny to say it like that.”

Out of context, Duncan’s career appears a bit unremarkable. His 2,615 career passing yards rank 15th in Iowa football history, 10 yards behind Scott Mullen.

A different era, though, required precision when it counted — at a time when passing factored far less into game plans.

In the Rose Bowl romp over Cal, for example, Duncan threw just seven passes, completing five (one for a touchdown) as MVP Bob Jeter rumbled for 194 yards on just nine carries.

Randy Duncan in 1958.

Randy Duncan in 1958.

Instead of playing in the NFL, though, Duncan opted for Canada. That underscored the differing eras, too.

“That wouldn’t happen today,” said Buck Turnbull, 84, a Des Moines Register sports reporter who retired in 1993. “Now, there’s millions and millions of dollars for a guy if he’s drafted No. 1.”

Before leaving Iowa, though, Duncan added another footnote to his Hawkeye career.

Duncan already had cemented himself as a locker room legend two seasons earlier when he jokingly mentioned that his Christmas wish heading into the Rose Bowl against Oregon State involved a date with Mansfield, the Hollywood bombshell. Hope, one of the biggest stars of entertainment’s day, orchestrated the moment at a pregame dinner event as teammates hooted approval.

The dip-and-plant was as expertly executed as a 70-yard touchdown pass through thick, defensive traffic.

Duncan chuckles at the memory.

“I decided,” he said, “that I’m going to take full advantage of this.”

Paula Duncan laughed just as easily about the incident involving the boyfriend that first started to catch her eye walking to typing class at Roosevelt.

“Oh, I thought it was a kick,” she said. “He really has led a remarkable life.”

The night of Iowa’s Rose Bowl victory over Cal, a party began in Duncan’s room at the Huntington Beach Sheraton. Players ordered food and filled the bathtub with ice and beer until it spilled onto the bathroom floor.

Duncan, showing a mischievous side his post-football friends recall often, signed every dime to the room of assistant coach Bob Flora.

“Oh yeah, and it was a lot,” Duncan said. “About $2,000 worth. People just kept showing up, so we kept signing his name.”

The party expanded to the adjoining room of running back Ray Jauch.

“There were people and beer everywhere,” said Drake, Duncan’s former teammate. “They had guys from the Naval base coming through, Marines, all kinds of people. Yeah, it was quite a party.“The next day, they showed the bill to (notoriously grumpy Iowa coach Forest) Evashevski. He looked at it, and all he said was, ‘Pay it.’”

FORMER PLAYER NEVER FUMBLED AS A FRIEND

Des Moines businessman Jim Cownie recalls first learning of Duncan’s growing orneriness.

“When I first got acquainted with him, he told me some bull**** story about being a Korean War veteran and had me believing it,” said Cownie, tumbling into laughter. “He wasn’t a Korean War veteran. I tried to reconcile his age with the Korean War and it didn’t work.

 Randy Duncan's attic is full of sports trophies from his high school, college and present day pursuits. (Rodney White / Register photo)

Randy Duncan’s attic is full of sports trophies from his high school, college and present day pursuits. (Rodney White / Register photo)

“He just does these things to stir the pot.”

Another story involved late Iowa Sen. Bill Reichardt, a former Iowa player who grew into Duncan’s closest friend and sponsored the bill that re-ignited the Iowa-Iowa State football game annually. One day, after playing tennis against Duncan at Wakonda Club, Duncan seized an opportunity.

“They both had huge noses, and you can quote me on that,” Cownie ribbed. “Some woman mistakenly addressed Duncan as Sen. Reichardt. She said, ‘Senator Reichardt, I just want to thank you for your public service.’ Randy knew he had a chance to play a trick on his best friend. He informed the woman something along the lines of, ‘Maam, let me make it very clear. I don’t really care what your opinion is.’

“He found Reichardt in the locker room and told him what he did. Reichardt spent the better part of the afternoon trying to find that woman.

“They had fun with each other. They were very, very close — Bill and Randy.”

Later, Reichardt ran for a city council seat against local radio personality Russ LaVine and named Duncan his campaign manager. LaVine defeated Reichardt. Soundly.

“A newspaper reporter interviewed him the night of the election and asked, ‘So Mr. Reichardt, what do you think caused your defeat?’ ” Cownie said. “And Reichardt said, ‘Randy Duncan was my campaign manager. He doesn’t know anything about politics. He handled things ineptly since the beginning. That’s why I lost the election.’ ”

Cownie rattled off story after story as Kevin Grimm, his son in law and a longtime friend of Duncan, joined in.

Only one questioned stalled the pair: Name one of those great, old-time stories about an Iowa game against Michigan or Ohio State that Randy told over dinner, drinks or duck-hunting trips?

The two stopped. They stared at each other. Finally, Grimm broke the silence.

“I’ve never heard him tell a football story, never directly recounting a game — ever,” Grimm said.

Cownie nodded in agreement.

“Never, never does he talk about football. He talks about more important things,” he said. “When you think about Randy Duncan, the last thing you think about is his athletics. I think about friendship, his relationship with his boys, his relationship with his wife. The fact that he has so many friends. Randy is the kind of guy who 15 or 20 people might say that they are his best friend.

“Everybody wants to be around him. Everyone trusts him. You can’t spend enough time with Randy Duncan — he’s the best.”

SON OF STAR: ‘COULDN’T ASK FOR ANYONE BETTER’

Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz, who has asked Duncan to speak to his teams multiple times, can relate to stories of Duncan’s humility.

 Randy Duncan in his attic holding a photo from an Iowa football game against Air Force (Rodney White / Register photo)

Randy Duncan in his attic holding a photo from an Iowa football game against Air Force (Rodney White / Register photo)

“Doesn’t surprise me at all. Conversations and letters he sends me are never about him. It’s never been about him,” Ferentz said. “I’ve never heard him say a word about his accomplishments or experiences. He might talk about football interactions or relationships, yeah, but not scores, not statistics.”

Even as Duncan fights cancer, his thoughts drift to others.

“He seems to write that positive note right when you need it,” Ferentz said. “Whenever it gets the bumpiest, he has a knack for saying something positive.”

Jed Duncan, another of Randy’s sons, jokes about his father being incapable of fixing things, a horrible dancer and someone who’s scared of the dark.

Then, his feelings about his dad flow out uncontrollably.

“I’ve just had nothing but admiration for him, because he’s a natural leader of men,” said Jed Duncan, who lives in New Canaan, Conn. “He quietly commands respect. And he doesn’t want to watch DVDs of his highlights. He’ll say, ’My entire career, I was in the right place at the right time. Great high school teams, great college teams.’ But he doesn’t look at it like he was the common denominator. That’s just the way he is — very modest.

“He never pressured us to play sports, and he never wanted to look at his trophies. He always wanted to live in the present, not the past.”

Duncan, the father, proved to be the ultimate steady hand — in the huddle, and the living room.

The only time those around him saw him rocked to the core was 2009, when his son, Matt, committed suicide after debilitating bouts with depression.

“To this day, I don’t like to think about it,” Duncan said. “You never think that would happen. Never. He was a helluva guy. He just had that terrible depression.”

Scott Duncan watched his father try to maintain his trademark calm, but the family knew it ate at him relentlessly.

“In that moment, if there was a quarterback, it was probably mom,” Scott Duncan said.

The wrenching situation tested Randy Duncan more severely than any time in his life. The family marveled, again, at the resilience to carry on.

Jed Duncan, asked if his dad succeeded at home as much as the huddle, responded: “You kidding me? Couldn’t ask for anyone better.”

Duncan committed to family as deeply as any team in his life.

“You know, he’s just a very nice, honorable man,” Paula Duncan said. “And he’s been a fabulous father. He’d take care of the babies, diaper the babies. He pushed baby carriages at a time when a lot of men didn’t, and let their wives do it.

“He’s just, you know, a great husband.”

EYES OF ICON STUBBORNLY AIMED STRAIGHT AHEAD

Football chased Duncan decades after his playing days ended, sparked when he covered games on WHO radio with longtime announcer Jim Zabel and appeared on the popular central Iowa television show “Beat the Bear.”

Strangers would approach Duncan in the cereal aisle of grocery stores, asking whether the person “should bet on the Hawks” that weekend. Duncan politely explained he didn’t involve himself in those sorts of things.

He just wanted to watch his family grow, bounce around courtrooms and tap away at “Unforgettable” on the piano in between. Through it all, though, even as he’s faced brain cancer, the competitive fire of an athlete unlike any the state had seen has burned white-hot.

“He was supposed to be gone by now. They gave him 14 months to live,” Jed Duncan said. “Right when he was diagnosed, he was protesting to people, ‘Why do you think I’m going to die? I’m not going to die.’

“That’s his attitude, you know?”

Bryce Miller can be reached at 515-284-8288 or brmiller@dmreg.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller

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 STRESSFUL SURGERY REVEALS CHARACTER OF LEGEND

In February 2012, former Iowa basketball player Luke Recker walked into University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics to check on a specialized medical product sold by his employer.

Stryker Corporation, a company in Kalamazoo, Mich., sells Sonopet, a device used in the removal of brain tumors. Recker, who drops in on procedures to ensure the product operates properly, was stunned to find out the identity of the patient as he entered the surgical unit. The surgery required keeping Randy Duncan awake so motor functions could be gauged and monitored along the way.

“First of all, what a brave individual,” said Recker, who lives with his family in Coralville. “To be that special as an athlete, part of winning two Rose Bowls, Big Ten MVP, first pick in the NFL draft — then to to go into a surgery while you’re awake and they’re removing your skull and taking out a brain tumor, wow.

“The calmness he exuded, it was amazing.”

For a couple of hours, a flap of Duncan’s skull laid bare, the two talked about Hawkeye athletics.

Duncan, known widely for his humility, dodged questions about his career — steering the conversation to Recker’s days on the basketball court.

“That’s just the type of person he is,” Recker said.

The basketball player marveled at the aging football player’s composure.

“If he had any nerves at all, he hid them pretty well,” he said.” That’s probably why he has two Rose Bowl rings and has been so successful in his law career. He’s in an operating room while they’re removing a brain tumor and it felt like we could have been in Starbucks having a cup of coffee.

“I don’t think they come any better than Randy Duncan.”

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CLOSER LOOK AT RANDY DUNCAN

GROWING UP: Born in Osage, moved to Des Moines at a young age and graduated from Des Moines Roosevelt, where he captained the football and basketball team to state championships games.

AT IOWA: Considered playing football at Colorado and Iowa State before choosing Iowa. … Briefly played with the Hawkeyes’ basketball team known as the “Fabulous Five” as a freshman (Bill Logan, Carl Cain, Sharm Scheuerman, Bill Seaberg, Bill Schoof) before concentrating on football. … Replaced injured quarterback Kenny Ploen during the second quarter of the 1957 Rose Bowl, throwing a touchdown before MVP Ploen returned in the 35-19 victory over Oregon State. … Runner-up for the Heisman

Trophy in 1958 and guided the team to a 38-12, Rose Bowl win against Cal — the university’s last win in the venerable bowl game.

IN THE PROS: No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, by the Green Bay Packers. … Opted to play for more money with the Canadian Football League’s British Columbia Lions. … After two CFL seasons, joined the American Football League’s Dallas Texans for one season in 1961 before retiring.

AFTER FOOTBALL: Became one of the most respected lawyers in Iowa — selected to the American College of Trial Lawyers, which is limited to no more than 1 percent of all lawyers in each state.

 

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