Leistikow: Keith Duncan's expensive, improbable path to becoming college football's best kicker

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Eighth-grader Keith Duncan awaited the snap, set to kick a football in a game for the first time in his life.

His father, who was working the chains in this Texas all-star contest, tells the story of Keith being by far the smallest player on the field at 5 feet, 7 inches.

How his son was even playing in an all-star game as a kicker and punter is its own story. Basically, it goes like this: The all-star game awarded two points for kicked PATs, which gave an incentive for the teams to recruit a kicking specialist. Enter Duncan, a gifted athlete and accomplished soccer player who was eager for this new challenge.

Back to the kick. Or non-kick, as it turned out. Duncan was in punt formation and, naturally, the snap sailed over his head. He chased down the football, picked it up and started running. One defender grabbed Duncan and held him up, waiting for teammates to arrive. Pelted by a swarm of defenders, Duncan picked himself up from the bottom of the pile and shuffled to the sideline.

Stuart Duncan saw his son's bloodied face and thought to himself: “OK, we’re going back to baseball and soccer.”

A good argument could be made that Keith Duncan (3) has been the MVP of Iowa's 9-3 football season.

But to Dad’s surprise, Keith told him, “This is the greatest time I’ve ever had!”

Duncan was soon hooked on kicking. Having trained in the Dallas area for a few weeks before the Houston all-star game with former Washington Redskins kicker Scott Blanton, Duncan discovered he had a knack for striking a football. He converted his lone PAT attempt in the game, and his all-star team won 8-6.

And with that, one of college football’s best untold stories this year was born.

In 7½ years, Duncan has gone from a wide-eyed, bloodied middle-schooler to one of the most prolific placekickers in America. On Dec. 12, he’ll be in Atlanta at ESPN’s College Football Awards show as one of three finalists for the Lou Groza Award, given to the nation’s best placekicker.

And, given what he’s meant to this 9-3 Iowa football season, Duncan deserves to win it. He shattered the Big Ten Conference record for field goals in a season — and he'd tie the national record with two more in the Hawkeyes' bowl game — while paying his own way to school.

Whether he wins the Groza or not, Duncan’s story is a powerful one.

It’s got moments of glory and struggle, of failing family health and extreme financial sacrifice. And four years of perseverance that paid off.

Four years, six-figure debt.

The tab for Duncan to play football at Iowa has topped $170,000. Gifts from grandparents have helped pay it down. Keith has taken on $13,000 in debt himself. But Stuart and Jennifer Duncan still have $115,000 outstanding in loans for their son to pursue his dream.

Hawkeye fans were introduced to Duncan in 2016 as a freshman walk-on, when he famously delivered a 33-yard field goal as time expired to help the three-touchdown-underdog Hawkeyes stun 9-0 Michigan 14-13 at Kinnick Stadium. 

The story of how he found Iowa from Weddington, North Carolina — a southeast Charlotte suburb where his family moved a few months after that Texas all-star game — was well-told by that point. Iowa gave Duncan his only FBS walk-on invitation. A recommendation from former Iowa punter Jason Baker led to Duncan and his father making the journey to Iowa City. The plan was to attend Furman University, an FCS program in Greenville, South Carolina (where Duncan had a partial scholarship offer).

But Duncan fell in love with Iowa.

Hawkeye coaches assured Duncan that even as a freshman walk-on, he would have every opportunity to win what would be a four-man kicking competition.

And that’s exactly what he did.

“They told us, 'If you beat them out as the starter',” his father recalled, “'(that) Coach (Kirk) Ferentz likes to scholarship the starters.'”

Even though the price tag per year for out-of-state tuition (including summer school) and living expenses for Keith would top $40,000, the Duncans saw it as an investment. They had seen their son come through as a record-setting kicker in North Carolina and were confident he would do the same in college.

The Duncans decided they would revisit the situation after Keith’s freshman year. If he hadn’t gotten a scholarship from Iowa, they would look at transfer options.

“And then,” Stuart said, “he had a great year.”

They excitedly traveled to watch their son play — making three home games, plus road trips to Rutgers, Purdue, Penn State and Illinois.

Jennifer said the routine would be to pick their daughter up from high school on Friday, then “drive through the night. A lot of those kicks were at 11 (a.m.). We would park at an IHOP, go change and get over to the stadium.”

Their son handled nearly all of Iowa’s placements in the 2016 season, converting nine of 11 field-goal tries (including that Michigan kick) and 38 of 39 PATs (the only miss was blocked).

But a call into Ferentz’s office to sign scholarship papers didn’t come.

Iowa kicker Keith Duncan is shown at a donut shop with his mother, Jennifer. His mom and dad travel 978 miles from Weddington, North Carolina, to home games at Kinnick Stadium.

At that point, Mom and Dad initially wanted Keith to transfer closer to home.

But their son loved it at Iowa.

Keith had formed many strong friendships, including with new roommates Joe Argo, T.J. Hockenson and Nick Niemann. He wanted to stay. 

So, even though he had been beaten out by Miguel Recinos in fall camp for the 2017 kicking job, Stuart and Jennifer took out more loans and supported their son as he took a redshirt season that cost them another $40,000-plus.

Then in 2018 … Duncan was on the bench again, with Recinos handling kickoffs and field goals. He was even left off the travel roster a few times, with Caleb Shudak taking the No. 2 kicking spot.

Another $40,000-plus.

Stuart is self-employed in medical sales, a stressful livelihood that lacks a consistent paycheck; Jennifer works in public relations. They both work from home and have two children in college (Keith’s younger sister is a freshman at East Carolina). The six-figure loans have been necessary to make ends meet.

But they found positives.

“Even if he never kicks another football in his life,” Stuart said, “because of what he did against Michigan his freshman year, he’ll have job offers when he graduates.”

And behind the scenes, Keith kept improving his leg strength, his distance, his accuracy. His weight had increased more than 30 pounds since his Iowa arrival at around 150. From January to July, he was one of the top performers in the annual "Hawkeye Championship," an internal offseason competition that rewards strength and conditioning gains plus things like leadership, teamwork, academics and community service. He wound up eighth in the final individual standings, becoming just the second specialist since Chris Doyle introduced the system in 2008 to finish in the top 10 (Marshall Koehn was the other, in 2015).

Finally, on Aug. 31 — 32 months removed from his most recent college kick — Duncan trotted onto the Kinnick Stadium field to attempt Iowa's first field goal of the 2019 season, late in the first quarter against Miami of Ohio.

Right down the middle. 

Iowa placekicker Keith Duncan (3) kicks a field goal in the first half with a hold from Colten Rastetter (7) during a NCAA Big Ten Conference football game between the Iowa Hawkeyes and Penn State, Saturday, Oct., 12, 2019, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

From there, the kicks kept coming ... and, finally, so did the scholarship.

This fall, Duncan has made an incredible 29 field goals — the previous Big Ten season record was 25 — on 34 attempts. That’s an 85.3% clip in often windy, wet and/or cold Midwest weather. He has converted 14 kicks of 40 yards or longer. He hasn't missed inside 39 and is perfect (25-for-25) on PATs. He has five more field goals than the next-closest FBS kicker, a list that includes fellow Groza finalist Rodrigo Blankenship of Georgia (who is 24-for-28 in a much more kicker-friendly climate).

“He really learned to drive the ball through the wind, living in Texas,” Stuart said, referring to both soccer and football. “That’s one thing that really drives us crazy, that everybody says he kicks a low ball. I guess in comparison, he does. But it’s more than high enough to clear the (defensive) line.”

After experiencing success as Weddington High School’s varsity kicker as a freshman, Duncan’s intense drive for competition left him wanting more. His family sought the services of Dan Orner, a kicking coach in the Carolinas since 2005 who has helped produce a slew of kickers and punters currently manning Power Five roles — including at Alabama, Oregon and most of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

And, of course, Duncan.

“He had natural skill from an early age,” Orner said. “He was just a very pure ball-striker.”

One of the reasons the area is a kicking hotbed is because the training is year-round, but there’s enough bad weather to get tested in more difficult conditions. Orner recalled one game when Duncan and J.D. Dellinger, a Charlotte-based kicker who now starts for Purdue, were "putting on a show" amid a driving rainstorm.

Orner compares Duncan’s ball to a Tiger Woods stinger 2-iron off the tee, circa 2001, that cuts through the wind and flies dead straight.

“It’s a piercing ball,” Orner said. “… It’s a great ball that works in any condition, and it works well in the Big Ten.”

Keith Duncan (8) is shown during his days at Weddington High School outside of Charlotte, where he connected on a state-record 51 field goals during his career.

What is frustrating from the perspective or Orner and the Duncans is that while Keith has always been a consistent producer — he owns North Carolina high-school marks for field goals in a season (22) and a career (51), along with consecutive PATs (104) — recruiters weren't buying, literally.

Even though FBS programs have 85 scholarships at their disposal, kickers are rarely offered one out of high school. That's been true with Ferentz at Iowa, too. Nate Kaeding out of Iowa City West (Iowa's only Lou Groza Award winner, in 2002) is one of the exceptions. Ferentz has only extended a scholarship to one placekicker out of high school in the last 12 recruiting cycles (Mick Ellis in the Class of 2014).

Orner continued with his golf analogy.

"Unfortunately, when you go to some of these big college camps, they want the guys that hit it 400 yards," Orner said. "The guys like Keith Duncan that hit that 3-wood down the fairway every single time, they’re just bulletproof in any condition. I wish more college coaches would go after guys like Keith Duncan.”

Never was Duncan's kicking style more bulletproof than last week at Nebraska. 

In a 24-all game, with 6 seconds to play, Duncan went through his routine as he lined up a 48-yard field goal at Memorial Stadium. He blistered a beauty, right down the middle ... but it didn't count, because Nebraska coach Scott Frost called timeout just before the snap.

Stuart Duncan, at home in North Carolina, again went outside to pace as he always does during Keith's kicks. He's too nervous to watch. Moments later, he heard the roars inside from family and friends.

This one counted. Iowa won, 27-24, and Duncan blew a celebratory kiss toward the Nebraska bench.

About an hour later, he shared with his father some good long-anticipated news with a two-word text message.

"Scholarship, baby."

The scholarship brought a wave of emotions, including with his ailing grandfather.

Duncan called the scholarship, which goes into effect for the spring semester and will allow him to complete his master's degree next year, “a culmination of all these four years of hard work.”

For Stuart and Jennifer, there was a combination of relief and pure joy. They saw their son carrying guilt for the large part of four years, knowing the financial strain his parents were under.

"We’re happy for him," Jennifer said. "But as parents, we felt like he deserved it Year 1."

It’s been an emotional four months, on many levels.

On July 25, Jennifer’s father was diagnosed with a rare disease called amyloidosis. It’s the same condition that broadcaster Matt Millen had and can only be cured with a heart transplant.

A transplant is not possible for Jones. The symptoms (which include difficulty of breathing) went undiagnosed and misdiagnosed for nearly four years. Doctors aren't sure how long he's got to live. Weeks, maybe months. If things go well, maybe a year.

“I’m hoping I’ve got more time than that,” Jones said from his home in Texas, where he watches every second of Iowa's football games. “I don’t know.”

Jones considers himself blessed to have seen his grandson kick 29 field goals this season. His favorites were the four Duncan kicked at Iowa State — one in each quarter, Jones pointed out — on a rainy night. Duncan’s fourth and final boot in Ames came with 4:51 to play. It was perfect from 39 yards out and gave Iowa an 18-17 win.

Jones has found joy, too, in hearing his grandson mention his Christian faith on national TV. He gave Duncan his first study Bible entering his freshman year at Iowa.

Jones is sad, of course, that he won’t have more time with wife Sharon. They’ve been among the contributors to Duncan’s college tuition.

“I can’t think of a better investment,” Jones said. “He’s a fine young man.”

Jennifer said her father “talks about Keith 24/7” and is thankful for the happiness that this storybook 2019 season of Duncan’s has given him.

Jones cannot travel in his condition. So he won’t be going to the awards show in Atlanta or Iowa’s bowl game. He’s not sure if he’ll be around to see his grandson’s senior season.

That’s why he has made sure to soak in every minute.

“It’s been so much fun following him. It’s given our household a great deal of joy,” Jones said. “… I’m grateful that I lived to be 76. I’m just very happy. Very blessed.”

Keith Duncan's 29th successful field goal of the season, with 1 second left, lifted Iowa to a 27-24 win at Nebraska.

Duncan's story is far from over.

This weekend, the Duncans will join their son in Florida for a few days of activities for the Groza Award finalists. They'll join him in Atlanta for the awards show. They'll travel to the bowl game. And then there's his fifth-year senior season, when Duncan will be an on-scholarship kicker for the first time.

Whether or not Duncan is called to the ESPN stage as the Groza winner, he's got plenty of people to thank. The people that got him into kicking in the first place; Orner, the kicking coach; Baker, who helped connect him to Iowa; LeVar Woods, the Hawkeyes' special-teams coach; long snapper Jackson Subbert and holder Colten Rastetter have been almost perfect; and, of course, his supportive family.

“It has taken a village to raise this idiot," his father summed up playfully as our conversation neared its conclusion.

But perhaps most of all, credit Duncan's perseverance.

He could have sulked after the scholarship didn't come. He could have transferred. Instead, he kept working hard behind the scenes. He kept improving and believed that his time would come.

It most certainly did.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.