Tight end Braxton Deaver gives Duke another shot after second ACL tear
DURHAM, N.C. -- Once the pain and shock of another season-ending injury subsided, once the surgery was done, Braxton Deaver thought about, well, Braxton Deaver.
It was 10 months ago when the talented tight end, forced to miss the 2014 football season due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament, faced a decision about his football future.
He could likely get a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA to play at Duke in 2015. Or he could rehab and make himself available for the 2015 NFL draft.
"My first vision was more selfish," Deaver said. "I wanted to go play in the NFL."
Teammate Kelby Brown was going through a similar decision-making process as he was sitting out last season with a torn ACL, as well. An all-ACC linebacker, Brown was questioning whether or not to continue playing at all since he was considering going to medical school.
Together, both discussed their futures with their families, their coaches and each other.
Both decided to give it a try to play one more season at Duke, where they have been integral in lifting the Blue Devils from ACC also-ran to perennial bowl team.
"Really why I've loved football has been because of my teammates and because of my coaches and because of Duke University," Deaver said. "I owe it to them to come back and play for my teammates and my coaches."
So Duke has Deaver, an all-ACC candidate and definite pro prospect, back to play a big part in an evolving offense this season.
That's a big thing for Duke coach David Cutcliffe, perhaps as big a positive for this season as it was a negative last August when Deaver suffered his season-ending knee injury during an August practice.
"Braxton Deaver brings talent," Cutcliffe said. "As a tight end, he is what you are looking for. He's the guy that can stretch the field. He's a 255-pound, physically strong guy. He understands the game."
NFL scouts have had their eyes on Deaver. In 2013, when he played a full season for Duke, he caught 46 passes for 600 yards and four touchdowns as the Blue Devils on the ACC Coastal Division championship.
Last August, NFL scouts showed up for Duke's first scrimmage of fall camp to evaluate Deaver and the rest of Duke's seniors.
But Deaver wasn't on the field that day.
He served a suspension for the first week of Duke's official practices, including that scrimmage, for undisclosed disciplinary issues last summer.
When he returned to practice a week later, he suffered his torn ACL.
The whole experience taught him a great deal.
"Taking things for granted is irresponsible," Deaver said. "Coach Cutcliffe preaches living a certain way. You can't cut corners. You can't do things that aren't the Duke-gang way. You learn that this is not about you, it's about everyone around you and all the people who are around you to uphold the standard that we have here. How truly important that is.
"We have these pillars of Duke football. Faith, Family, Future, Football. You have to really allow that to be ingrained with how you feel. When you go through adversity like that, it changes your whole perspective. It allowed me to grow and mature from that to my injury to me being a sixth-year player. I would like to think that I've made leaps and bounds in my maturity and I've become an adult on this football team and to really be a leader on this team."
Part of that maturity was realizing he wanted to stay at Duke and try to play one more season of college football rather than turn pro last spring.
"I think at first I said if I'm going to play football again, it's going to be a shot at the NFL," Deaver said. "I'm going to train and come back for Pro Day, and if I'm going to play again it's going to be for my dream.
"After talking to friends and family and talking to Coach Cut and my coaches, it just made so much sense. There was no other path than to come back, finish my legacy here, to not forget about those who have helped me become the person I have over the past five or six years. Do it for them."
Cutcliffe counseled Deaver through the process, which wasn't an easy one.
"Braxton was just all over the place," Cutcliffe said. "You could see. I said, Deav, relax. It's not going to be earth-shattering unless you make it earth shattering. Let's just get to a point where you know what you want to do. The road is hard. I know you still have aspirations to play in the National Football League. You just have to weigh all of those things. Don't fear failure. Go into this believing you will have a great outcome."
Working side-by-side with Brown was a big part of Deaver's recovery. Both emerged healthy and, this summer, began leading the team through self-practices without coaches. Such workouts are allowed under NCAA rules.
On June 30, though, Brown injured his ACL again and will need a fourth surgery.
His career is over.
Deaver remains healthy and is making a difference on a team where some of the incoming freshmen were in middle school when he first arrived at Duke in 2010.
"He brings enthusiasm," Cutcliffe said. "He brings energy. He brings a fun temperament to our practices. There is a competitive spirit he brings. I think the young players around him have a better time when Braxton is on the field.
"Braxton is going to get in a meeting and you are going to feel his emotion and his fire. He's going to challenge players right there on the spot. He's going to back it up with his work ethic, his energy and take it from the meeting room to the field."
Deaver's extra time in Durham has allowed him to take courses in Duke's Master's in Arts and Liberal Science program. He'll finish his degree requirements in December.
"It has been so unbelievable," Deaver said. "I've never appreciated my education as much as I do now. It has been a tremendous learning experience. I am so glad that I've been able to come back and do that."
By December, Deaver expects to still be playing Duke football, practicing for the program's fourth consecutive bowl trip. He'll get his master's degree then, once Duke's bowl game is done, start preparing for the NFL Draft.
To get ready for all that now, he's healthy and getting his work done in conditioning and the team's twice weekly self-practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
He's cleared physical and mental hurdles and is all in with Duke football.
"It's one of those things where after you get hurt," Deaver said, "I don't want to say you have a sense of doubt, but you forget a little bit about your ability to actually perform. So you actually have to get out there. I caught a couple of really good balls in self-practice and while it hasn't given me that confidence that I have, it has reinforced it. 'OK. You've still got it. You can still do this thing.'"
This article was written by Steve Wiseman from The Herald-Sun, Durham, N.C. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.