Every football player dreams of making it to the NFL. Charlotte’s Austin Duke isn’t just living out that dream, he’s living out the exact dream he grew up thinking about.
“It’s just been a real blessing,” Duke said when asked about his opportunity with the Panthers.
The former Charlotte 49ers wide receiver received the call from Carolina minutes after the 2017 NFL draft wrapped up. It’s a scenario that has allowed him a chance to turn football into a career
Like most people who grew up in Charlotte, Austin Duke is a Carolina and Cam Newton fan. It was minutes after the 2017 NFL Draft wrapped up that Duke received a call from a number with a Charlotte area code. The former Independence high school and Charlotte 49ers wide receiver was offered an opportunity to play for the Panthers, just down the road from his childhood home.
“This is the room where Austin is staying right now when he comes home,” Jackie Duke, Austin’s mom said showing off the piles of Charlotte, Panthers and Independence gear stacked up in what she calls his “storage room” bedroom.
The Duke family has lived in the house in Charlotte for 35 years; on Wednesday they sat among the fans on the hill at Wofford College and watched Austin practice with his new team.
“Austin has spoken of this for so long,” Jackie said.
His college path almost took him away from Charlotte to NC Central.
“I just sat there with him, tears rolled down my face, and I said, ‘It’s your dream. Go for it,” Jackie recalled.
He did- at Charlotte. Duke was part of the first football recruiting class there and is the the 49ers all-time leading receiver.
“It’s all about when you’re given an opportunity, don’t be afraid to be yourself in that opportunity,” Austin said.
He’s followed that motto in his first few months with the Panthers. The player who grew up idolizing Cam Newton now plays with him.
“Your idols become your rivals. We were up in Baltimore. I was talking straight trash to him,” Austin recalled.
It’s a relationship that has the public has seen grow on social media. Austin trained with Cam and other players a few weeks ago, and posted a video of him and the Panthers star quarterback.
On Wednesday, that budding relationship was on display again when Austin made an impressive diving catch at the end of practice. It’s play like that that his parents say have earned him the nickname “Groundhog” from Cam- they say it’s because he’s willing to go down and get any pass.
“Austin Duke, these guys [in the class] are coming in and not being confirmed to their draft picks so to speak,” Newton said at his press conference Thursday.
For Duke, it’s not just a dream- it’s the dream. He determined to not let any part of it pass him by.
“Now it’s all about owning the moment and living in the prayers you prayed for years ago,” Austin said.