NASHVILLE — It finally overcame Jared Duke as his Ole Miss teammates began to celebrate Monday evening's Music City Bowl win over Georgia Tech. Rebels co-offensive coordinator Matt Luke whispered something in the mammoth offensive guard's left ear and the tears formed, briefly running over his goatee, though not quite drowning out his smile.
"I lost my grandfather this morning," Duke, the former Walker Valley High star, said after playing his final game as a Rebel.
"He always joked about sometime getting his name in the paper whenever I got in the paper. He was from Rossville. Raymond Kenneth Duke. If you could mention him, that would be great."
You couldn't mention this 25-17 Rebels victory without mentioning Duke and the player next to him on the interior of the Ole Miss offensive line: center Evan Swindall, who played his senior year of high school ball at LaFayette, Ga., for his father, Perry, who had just become the Ramblers' head coach.
The two seniors helped the Rebels run for 221 yards and throw for 256, numbers to make Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace the bowl's MVP, numbers to make the Rebs 8-5 in head coach Hugh Freeze's second season on the job.
"We wouldn't be here without those two," Freeze said when asked about the 6-foot-7, 377-pound Duke and 6-4, 301-pound Swindall. "Number one, because of their character. That's the most important thing Jared and Evan helped bring to this team from the beginning. But they also improved so much as players. You saw it today, the way the offensive line came off the ball. They were a huge part of our success."
But it was Duke who was most on Freeze's mind after the coach's second bowl win in two years.
"Thirty minutes before we get on the bus, he gets a phone call, and he's lost his grandfather," Freeze said. "You've got a young man whose heart is broken and still wants to go fight. I'm so proud of him."
Duke and Swindall have made the whole Ole Miss family proud for their entire careers. Swindall actually signed as a grayshirt in 2009, so his first season was 2010, which also was Duke's freshman year. Though they didn't know one another despite their reasonably close proximity as high school players, they became roommates.
"I'd heard about him through the news, that was it," Duke said of Swindall.
"I'd actually signed the year before," Swindall said. "And I was only at LaFayette a year. But he was a great roommate."
Yet they parted company as sophomores, mostly because, according to Swindall, "coaches like to shake things up."
But this year brought them back together as seniors, a couple of Chattanooga-area high school graduates exiting as they entered.
Asked what kind of roommate Swindall is, Duke took the high road, noting, "There's nothing really bad I can say about him, at least not in a newspaper. He's a great guy, a great teammate."
Posed the same question about Duke, Swindall smiled and said, "Pretty much the same. He might could snore a little less, but other than that, he's great."
Added Duke: "It really has been kind of crazy. From the beginning, our parents clicked. It's just been a great time."
It has not always been great on the field. The Rebels were 4-8 during their freshman season, then 2-10 during Houston Nutt's final year as head coach in 2011. Enter Freeze, who supposedly finished second to Russ Huesman for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga job in 2009.
Ole Miss went 7-6 a year ago, routing Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham. Now Duke and Swindall close out their careers one win better as seniors.
"This is huge for the program," Duke said. "We're definitely headed in the right direction. With the freshman class Coach Freeze brought in last year, I think we've got a chance to do something special."
Many believe Swindall capable of doing something special at the next level on Sundays. Named to the Remington Trophy Preseason Watch List, he is expected to begin working out for NFL scouts within a week or two.
"I'll probably start getting ready for that tomorrow," he said Monday evening.
Duke is less certain. He'd like a shot at the NFL and it's hard to believe a 377-pound pulling guard wouldn't get that opportunity. But he's also been asked by the Ole Miss coaches to help out with spring practice, and he has dreams of becoming a high school coach.
Yet whatever happens in their futures, Duke is certain that his past four years with Swindall at Ole Miss have left a legacy.
"I think we're definitely leaving it better than we found it," he said.
Which is all any grandfather could want.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...
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