On his way to the top
Chris Federico | Friday, October 10, 2003
Notre Dame cornerback Vontez Duff is like a human canvas.
In all, he has seven tattoos. But none are more important – or more visible – than the two he wears across his throat. On the left side is “Wynoka,” the name of Duff’s mother and the woman who raised four children virtually by herself. On the right side is “Warren,” the name of Duff’s father, who passed away when Vontez was only two years old.
“I got my dad in memory of him passing away,” Duff says of his most noticeable tattoos. “But I had to get my mom as well, because she’d have been mad if I got him and not her.”
He says it with a laugh, but the tattoos serve as both a tribute and a reminder. They pay respect to the father he barely had the chance to know and the mother who helped mold him into the person he is today.
But they also serve as a reminder of the important things in his life and the obstacles he’s had to overcome.
On Duff’s lower right arm is a tattoo of a rottweiler dog. He calls it his “young and stupid” tattoo – the first one he got and the characterization of an eager young man trying to break out onto the big scene.
But there was really very little “young and stupid” about Duff at the time. As the oldest of four children, Duff often served as surrogate dad to his two brothers and one sister while their mother worked. While others may have taken the circumstances as the freedom to find trouble, Duff was busy making sure his siblings stayed out of trouble and on the right path.
“Being the oldest child of two brothers and a sister and with my mom working, I was always the big brother in the house,” he said. “I spent most of the time just watching after them, making sure they were on top of everything and not getting in trouble.”
But Duff doesn’t like to harp on what could have been or how things could have been better. He is thankful for the opportunities and the abilities he did have.
“It’s like that sometimes, and everybody has their story,” Duff said. “You just try to make a positive out of every negative and be glad for the opportunities that you have ahead of you.”
Excelling on the field
Those opportunities were many for the Duff, a three-sport star at Copperas Cove High School in Copperas Cove, Texas. In fact, in his younger days, Duff first saw himself as a basketball standout.
“Growing up, I thought I was going to be a basketball player,” Duff said “I thought I was going to be like 6-foot-9 and the next Michael Jordan. But then it came to a point where I was playing football well, and I knew that’s what I had to be. So I was going to try to be the greatest football player that ever played.”
But off the field and court, Duff’s real love came on the track, where he was a top-class long jumper and sprinter. In high school, Duff recorded a 10.5-second 100-meter dash time and a long jump of 23 feet. The events really gave Duff a chance to show off his superb athletic ability.
“Track – I loved running track,” Duff remembers. “It was just fun being out there with all the fellas, running up and down the track and long-jumping. I had a pretty good jumping career and our 4 x 100 [meter] team was pretty good – we went to state. But that was all fun and games to me, although I knew in the back of my head that it helped me with my speed.”
In the long jump, Duff was a major rival of Texas star wide receiver Roy Williams. The two squared off head to head in the event in many important meets.
“We competed in the long jump a few times in state and regionals,” Duff said. “We both were jumping like 24 feet and everybody else was behind us. We were really the only guys that were competing for first place. He ended up beating me in state, but I beat him at regionals before.”
From a runner to a hitter
At Notre Dame, Duff met another minor challenge as then-head coach Bob Davie asked the young star running back – who in his final two years of high school racked up 3,400 yards rushing and 38 touchdowns – to change positions and sides of the ball and become a cornerback in the thin Irish secondary.
Duff accepted the challenge without a second thought.
“When [Duff] came in, there was a real need for a corner,” said defensive line coach Greg Mattison, who was defensive coordinator under Davie at the time Duff made the change. “To show you the kind of man he is, he was one of the most highly touted running backs in the state of Texas, and he gladly made the switch. He just said, ‘I’ll do anything to play and help the team.’ He’s always been an unselfish football player and the kind of guy that wants to do something to help.”
Duff not only accepted the switch, but he committed himself to becoming one of the best corners in the game. Duff worked diligently on learning the position and perfecting his technique.
In just his first year with the Irish, Duff saw significant playing time filling in for cornerback Shane Walton against Rutgers and corralled his first career interception in that game. He moved into the starting lineup in just the fourth game of his sophomore season. As a junior last season, Duff started every game at cornerback for the Irish opposite the All-American Walton.
“Duff’s progress has been outstanding,” Mattison said. “That’s his other strong point. He’s totally coachable. He comes in every day with a great attitude and an attitude to want to get better.”
But Duff has not forgotten his roots and how difficult it can be to come into college football and learn to play in such a new environment. Now, as the experienced senior, he takes time to coach the younger members of the Irish secondary who are breaking into the lineup.
“I sit with the young guys after practice and ask them how they played that day and what they could have done better,” Duff said. “Every time we do one-on-ones, I talk to the younger guys and coach them up on what they did wrong and what they did right.
“It just comes with being a senior, you feel as though you have to do it. The younger guys will usually come to you anyway, so you have to accept that role.”
Still a little kid
While Duff’s family situation may have forced him to mature a little before his time, the senior cornerback is still just a kid at heart.
“Yeah, it helped me grow up in some ways, but I still love to be a little kid,” he says. “I love playing the video games and just having that opportunity to just relax and have fun. I love being around my brothers and sister and just watching them grow up and things like that.”
Duff’s fun-loving personality even carries over to the football field, where he is often the one jumping around in the huddle like it was his first game on the field.
“When you’re a coach, you love to have players around you that have fun playing the game. And [Duff] really does – he has fun playing the game of football,” Mattison said. “Vontez is more of a guy that when you look in the huddle, he’s always bouncing around. He always has a lot of energy, and that’s how he leads.”
Last season, Duff was part of an Irish defensive backfield that made its presence known to its opponent every game. With Walton in the mix, he and Duff went hand-in-hand bouncing all over the field, joking with each other, talking to opposing players and, generally, just playing off each other’s success.
With the graduation of Walton, Duff has tried to carry over that excitement and love for the game to this year’s squad.
“Most definitely, it’s my job to bring that attitude to the field this year,” Duff said. “But it can be kind of different when guys don’t have as much experience, and they’re still learning the position a little bit. It’s harder for them to get out there and run all over the place and yell and be excited, because they’re still trying to learn what their role is and what their position is.”
Three more tattoos
Back home, in Copperas Cove, Texas, there are three pairs of eyes on big brother Vontez.
They probably watch him every football Saturday as he bats down a pass or returns a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. But they also watch him all the time, day-in and day-out, just as he watched them so many days when their mother was working to support them.
Even though they may not like to admit it, Duff knows they look up to their big brother.
“They try not to show it – especially my brothers, they don’t want to show it. But when you go home, they love seeing you,” he says. “They want to wear your Notre Dame gear and your shoes and everything else you own, and they want to be just like you. You know they try to hide it on the outside, but you know its there.”
Maybe those three have a tattoo to get too, someday.
How about the same one Duff has on his stomach – “Vontez.”