Keith Duncan, even in victory, is low-key Hawkeye hero

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — If Keith Duncan is the Big Man on Campus these days, he’s certainly keeping a low profile.

For one thing, the kicker who authored Iowa’s latest upset for the ages isn’t very big. Duncan weighs only 165 pounds, making him the lightest Hawkeye football player.

He’s also barely a man. Duncan turned 18 just nine months ago.

Keith Duncan keeps his head down while following through on the kick that made him a household name in Iowa. The Hawkeye freshman has been keeping his head down ever since, say those close to him.

As for the campus? Most people in Iowa City wouldn’t be able to pick Duncan out of a lineup. Not that they’d need to. He’s a clean-living kid.

For example: Iowa punter Ron Coluzzi, Duncan’s holder and best friend on the football team, was walking out of Kinnick Stadium with the hero of the hour late Saturday. This moment was just after Duncan’s 33-yard field goal as time expired put the final nail in No. 3 Michigan’s coffin with a national TV audience looking on in disbelief.

“Go Blue!” Duncan blurted out, pretending to be a Wolverines fan amid a throng of Hawkeye revelers.

“All the Iowa fans are like, ‘Who is this kid?’” Coluzzi said Tuesday. “They had no idea who Keith Duncan was or what he looks like.”

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Duncan’s father, Stuart, back home in North Carolina, sent his son a text, warning him not to get carried away celebrating the 14-13 Iowa victory. A day later, he found out that Keith was so eager to cash in on his celebrity that he went back to his dorm room and watched movies with some buddies.

“It’s just another day for him. He’s happy, he’s grateful, he’s very humble,” Coluzzi said of Duncan.

“He carries himself differently. He’s a mature young man.”

Freshman football players at Iowa, even mature ones, are prohibited from talking to the media. But if you want an idea of how much Duncan’s life changed with that single kick, listen to Rob Houghtlin.

It’s been 31 years since Houghtlin drilled a game-winning field goal to send Iowa past Michigan 12-10 at Kinnick Stadium. He’s living in Michigan now, working as vice president of consumer package goods for Valassis Communications Inc. And, yes, he was watching and screaming as Duncan joined him as a Kinnick legend.

“What he did Saturday night, he’ll never forget it. It’ll be one of those milestones in his life where he can look back and say, 'I had what it took to deliver a win for the team, a win for the state, a win for college football,' in my opinion,” Houghtlin said.

“I think about (my game-winning kick) more often than I don’t. I think about it in the fall more than I do the rest of the year. People up here recognize my last name all the time. When I encounter difficult situations in life, or in work, it gives you confidence because you know you can manage high-pressure situations and you can perform under those.

“I was able to do what I was supposed to do under arguably the most pressure situation you can ever imagine.”

Duncan is in that club now, and he still has three years of college football ahead of him. No one would blame him for getting a big head, for finding ways to remind everyone around him that yes, he is the guy from the “SportsCenter” highlights.

Stuart Duncan said that outcome is unlikely. He was watching the game at his home in Weddington, N.C. When it became clear that his son was going to be called on to decide it, Duncan nervously stepped outside. The screaming that ensued inside told him his son’s aim was true.

“I can’t imagine what he must have been feeling from a nerve standpoint. That’s when all the repetition takes over,” Stuart Duncan said.

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Father and son weren’t able to talk on the phone until Sunday evening. Keith sounded fatigued after all the attention, Stuart said.

Here’s what Stuart Duncan advised his son: “It’s not so much the mantra of ‘I won the game.’ Because you didn’t. You were just the last man to touch the ball.”

Stuart Duncan also had a message for Coluzzi, who has become an extended member of the family.

“Remind the knucklehead never to take his helmet off in that situation,” Duncan told him, a reference to the postgame pandemonium as Hawkeyes dogpiled him and thousands of fans came out of the stands to join them.

Stuart Duncan and Houghtlin both stressed that the actions of the other 10 players on the field are just as important as the kicker’s. And it’s true that Duncan’s success was the culmination of an accurate snap from Tyler Kluver into the steady hands of Coluzzi, a fifth-year senior.

Coluzzi said he grabbed a hand-warmer on the sideline just before heading on to the field with 3 seconds left on a night when the temperature dipped below 40 degrees.

Coluzzi and Duncan went through their normal routine. Duncan took a drive swing just as Coluzzi taught him this summer. Then he walked over to Coluzzi, who said: “Have fun, buddy. Keep your eyes back and swing to the right upright.” They shook hands. Duncan retreated three steps back and two to his left.

And Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh called timeout, a classic attempt to rattle a young kicker facing the biggest moment of his life.

“If you’re not mature, if you’re anxious, if you’re nervous, that is when you would not want to be called timeout. So you can just get it over with,” Coluzzi explained, before adding the counterpoint.

“We’re hoping that they call a timeout because it gives us time to relax, feel the environment, calm our nerves and make that kick.”

Coluzzi kept everyone away from Duncan while they repeated their routine. Drive swing. Words of encouragement. Handshake. Action.

“Kluver gave me a dime. It was great laces. I didn’t have to mold it all. It was perfect. Put it down. The rest is history,” Coluzzi said, recalling the moment in vivid detail.

“He’s too mature, he’s too poised to miss that kick.”

And now comes the fame and glory, right?

Not so fast, Houghtlin cautions. There's always another game ahead, starting Saturday, when Iowa (6-4, 4-3 Big Ten Conference) visits Illinois (3-7, 2-5) at 11 a.m.

“You have to be very careful about thinking that you’ve got it all figured out. He has to maintain humility, and I would expect that he will,” Houghtlin said.

“Being Big Man on Campus doesn’t mean anything on Saturday in Champaign, and he needs to hit a 40-yarder in the second quarter to keep the Hawks up.”