Of Heroes and Coaches, Fathers and Sons

WHEN I WAS A STARRY-EYED high school sophomore dreaming that I could be the next Johnny Unitas, I met a real life All American quarterback whose story seemed straight out of an inspiring Hollywood film, long before “Friday Night Lights.”

His name was Robert Duty, and he could have been the older brother of anyone on our team. He was in his early 20s, and he was a legend at our high school in Central Texas, having quarterbacked the school’s only team to ever win a district championship in a state where football is king.

Robert Duty in a sports media photo at North Texas State University, 1960.
Robert Duty in a sports media photo at North Texas State University, 1960.

He had gone on to play college football at North Texas State University, where he was good enough to be signed as a free agent by the San Diego Chargers of the upstart American Football League, which would eventually merge with the National Football League – and that’s where he had been that summer, toiling through the Chargers’ pre-season camp trying to make the team as a rookie.

So imagine our surprise when our high school’s two-a-day football workouts began and we discovered the much heralded high school hero back home where he had become his alma mater’s quarterback coach.

The story of how Coach Duty had wound up back home quickly got out, though not from his mouth. While in the Chargers’ rookie training camp, where he had been impressing the San Diego coaching staff, he got a long-distance call from home with bad news: His father had become seriously ill and might even die.

That day Duty left the Chargers’ training camp with the door open for him to return. He never did.

“Robert wanted to be home to help take care of his father,” our former head coach, Ira Conner, later told me. “Robert loved his father like no son I ever knew. His dad was the center of his universe. He credited him for becoming the athlete he became, and he was going to be at his father’s bedside now that he needed his son.”

The story brought a lump to my throat, as I’m sure it did to other athletes who heard it.

I must confess that I was hardly Coach Duty’s prize pupil.

“For a quarterback,” he once said to me, “you sure ask all the wrong questions.”

That was true. In fact, I never played quarterback for his teams, nor even graduated from that high school.

But it didn’t stop me from asking questions, questions that I’m sure Coach Duty didn’t want to consider.

Was he ever going back to the Chargers? How could he walk away from pursuing his childhood dream? Hadn’t he wanted to become an NFL quarterback?

“Son,” he said to me one day, after I had pestered him once more. “There are bigger dreams than becoming the next Johnny Unitas.”

That shut me up, but only for a while.

Quarterback Robert Duty calling signals in North Texas State University’s 1960 homecoming game against Hardin-Simmons.

A few years later, while I was a young sportswriter at my hometown daily, I was telling the story about Coach Duty giving up his shot at becoming an NFL quarterback to be with his ill father to my role model among sportswriters, Jim Montgomery, a columnist at the paper.

“You know, there’s something there,” said Jim. “Robert Duty had incredible talent. Who knows what he might have been had the stars lined up differently.”

Montgomery then told me that he had once interviewed Abner Haynes, an outstanding running back with the Chargers and other NFL teams in the 1960s who had been teammates with Duty at North Texas State.

“Abner Haynes said that Robert Duty was the best quarterback he had ever played with, bar none,” Jim said.

By this time Duty was head coach of his alma mater, University High School in Waco, Texas. One day I cornered him again, there to continue asking all the wrong questions, I’m sure he thought. His father had died two years after he left the Chargers’ rookie camp, and life had moved on.

Did he have any second thoughts? Being that talented and that close to achieving his childhood dream – some people might have looked on that as a tragedy.

We talked that afternoon, about childhood dreams, about fathers and sons, about heroes and rebels. We each had tears in our eyes. When he gave me a parting hug, it was as if I had hugged Johnny Unitas.

“Son, the only tragedy of my decision,” he finally said, “would have been if I hadn’t come home.”

A few years ago, when my own father died, I got a condolence letter I didn’t expect. It was from Coach Duty and said simply: “Nothing’s greater than a father.”

I had heard the same thing from my own childhood hero, Mickey Mantle, as I have from many other men whose lives would not have been the same without their fathers.

It’s so true.

Sadly, last week I got the news that Coach Duty, at the age of 76, had died there in Central Texas, not all that far from the high school and the football field where he became a legend.

And, in his own way, every bit as big as Johnny Unitas.