Finally healthy, ex-Hawkeye Jake Duzey gives NFL 'one more shot'

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — No question, the best Pro Day story that emerged from the Iowa Football Performance Center came from the former Hawkeye tight end whose last college catch came 28 months ago.

Two serious knee injuries later, Jake Duzey hasn't let his NFL dream die just yet.

And, finally, for the first time in a long time, he feels really good.

“My knee doesn’t bother me at all,” Duzey said Monday. “It’s just nice to be able to come out here and run again.”

It’s been almost two years since Duzey’s football world was turned upside down.

The timeline, for those who need a refresher:

Duzey was Iowa’s starting tight end until, on the next-to-last-practice in the spring of 2015, he made a touchdown catch in the corner of the end zone – but tore the patellar tendon in his left knee in the process.

A frustratingly slow recovery kept him in extremely limited action in the 2015 season. He admits he tried to come back too soon. But he was a senior; who could blame him for trying?

Then, on Christmas Day as Iowa prepared for the Rose Bowl against Stanford, he ruptured the knee again. Same injury. Eight-month recovery.

Now, after another offseason of training and odd jobs – delivering food in Iowa City, driving for Lyft (an Uber offshoot) while training in Arizona, and most recently at an outdoor sports store in Michigan – he’s hopeful that somebody operating an NFL team will notice.

Duzey, 24, said some of the scouts at Iowa’s Pro Day remembered him from a year ago when he was unable to perform. But Monday, he showed them a 4.62-second time in the 40-yard dash, a 34-inch vertical jump and pumped out 23 reps at 225 pounds on the bench press.

“It’s kind of inspiring, because he’s a guy I really looked up to,” said George Kittle, a fellow former Hawkeye tight end whose stock has soared since he ran a 4.52-second 40 in the NFL Combine last month.  “And his future was kind of taken from him. Him fighting back and being able to succeed … he’s going to do really well for someone next year.”

For Duzey to get a real NFL shot, someone’s going to have to take a chance on him as a free agent. He’s not draft-eligible, having gone through the process last year. Pro Day was a start. He measured 6-foot-3½, 245 pounds – almost the same as his Hawkeye career, when he pulled in 58 receptions for 678 yards.

Part of him thought his playing career was over after the pre-Rose Bowl misfortune.

After another major surgery, doctors couldn’t promise a return to football.

“Either way, I was going to be all right with it,” Duzey said. “After a while, my knee started feeling really good. And I was like, I’ve got to give it one more shot.”

A finance major, he’s turned down job opportunities to focus on his comeback. Recently, Duzey was catching passes from former teammate Jake Rudock, now with the Detroit Lions, while back home in Troy, Mich.

A lot of Hawkeye fans recall Rudock-to-Duzey for 85 yards at the Horseshoe, tying up a 2013 game vs. Ohio State, 24-24, that Iowa eventually lost.

Monday, it was C.J. Beathard throwing to Duzey in front of NFL scouts.

“I was surprised at how good he was looking,” Beathard said. “He looked like the old Duze that was here a few years ago; full speed.”

Duzey has no idea what will happen for him in the next few months. Who could know?

His story is unusual. And inspiring. And it's not done yet.

“It’s definitely been a crazy couple of years,” he said. “It’ll be good to figure this out and see whether football is going to be what’s forward or if I’m going to end up finding a career and going after that.”