by Ken Kleppel
The turning point came in September of 2001. Former Michigan State All-America wide receiver Charles Rogers got by then-sophomore Vontez Duff for a touchdown score in the final quarter to break a 10-10 tie and lift the Spartans to an upset victory over the Irish.
“Basically it was my first mistake and I felt as though it would be the last mistake I made,” says Duff.
“Guarding him and basically shutting him down the whole time until that play. It showed me what it was like to be a cornerback. When the play happened, I didn’t want it to happen again. That’s been my focus and my determination as a cornerback – to be the best player I can be.”
The folks over 1,000 miles away in Copperas Cove, Texas, also knew Rogers and the cornerback position would not get the best of Duff. As much a product of his roots in this central Texas military town, Duff has always shown the penchant for making something out of nothing.
Instead he has always had the knack to create something big, even explosive.
December 1, 2001 v. Purdue: 96-Yard Third-Quarter Kickoff Return. First Career Touchdown.
In the dark and cold of the central Indiana December night, Duff hustled back to the Notre Dame bench on the east side of Ross-Ade Stadium.
For a moment it seemed almost like Friday night football in Texas. Playing under the lights against a heated rival with the crowd cheering. His mother in the stands was the only thing missing.
“She doesn’t have to be here playing with me,” says Duff. “That’s because she is there always there for me.”
Born in Kentucky, Duff’s father passed away when Duff was two years old, necessitating the move to central Texas where Duff’s mother, Wynoka, found work with the military base in Killeen, Texas. As the oldest child in the family, Vontez cared, both financially and emotionally, for his two younger brothers and sisters throughout his childhood and adolescent years. Wynoka kept the Duff family in tact and Vontez sacrificed much to help her.
“Vontez acts older than he is,” says Wynoka Duff.
“He has always been very responsible. While I was at work, he always took care of himself and his younger brothers and sister. He worked hard to support the family.”
He worked hard to make the right decisions too. Growing up with current Chicago Bears standout Charles Tillman and University of Nebraska linebacker TJ Hollowell, the trio faced limited challenges on the gridiron. But off the field, an ugly world was just one bad decision away. Collectively, they decided to turn away from the temptations.
“Growing up with those guys, we always had the attitude that we want to be somebody,” says Duff.
“We wanted to be the best and we wanted people around the nation to know where we came from. We knew there were many people looking up to us and wanting to be like us.
“I’ve had friends that have faced big challenges. The challenge for us was staying away from the things they were doing. Having those guys around and listening to those guys really helped me through life.”
The outlet from the dark side for Duff has always been sports. A three-sport standout, Duff could always be found on the high school athletic grounds playing football, basketball or running track.
And his workout partner before entering high school? His mother.
Wynoka, a former track and basketball high school standout, and her son would run throughout Copperas Cove.
“I know that’s where I get my speed from,” Duff says.
“I was always running and chasing her. I always wanted to be around her when I was growing up.
“Now she plays with the little kids around the apartment complex where we live. All the kids come knocking on our door asking when my mom can come out to play. That’s just mom, she’s that type of person – very loving, very caring.”
He continues to run hard, in part, for his mother oday. Yet through it all, Wynoka still views her son as the underdog, maybe a modern-day Rudy. Perhaps she is on to something?
August 31, 2002 v. Maryland: 76-yard Punt Return for Score. Game-breaker Play Yields Breakthrough Season
Rudy Ruetigger never broke tackles like this.
Just minutes into the season opener, Shane Walton intercepted his first of a Notre Dame record three passes and promptly returned to the Notre Dame bench to challenge Duff to find one of his own.
Duff did the next best thing to wake up the largely pro-Notre Dame crowd at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., as his second-half punt return helped break the game open as the Irish went on to a 22-0 victory. Ironically, it was in the same state just two years earlier that Duff began to discover his own niche.
At Rutgers in November 2000, Walton fractured his right forearm and Duff, then a true freshman, was called on to assume Walton’s cornerback position. He responded with his first career interception and over 15 minutes of playing time, becoming the only freshman in 2000 to play on the defensive side of the ball.
Duff has responded to Walton throughout his entire career.
“Shane was the one that Vontez looked up to in college,” says Wynoka Duff.
“Shane is the one who roped him in and showed him the way. He was the big brother figure – something that Vontez never had.”
A big brother is no exaggeration. On and off the field, Walton provided an example for Duff to follow.
Both came from families raised completely by a single mother. Both experienced humble beginnings as a child. Both avoided social ills by finding support in friends and sports. Both ultimately left home to play football at Notre Dame. Both switched positions upon arrival – Walton from forward on the soccer field to cornerback and Duff from the offensive side of the ball to the defense.
Most importantly, both challenged one another to become better players.
“He was my teacher when I was here, my player-coach basically,” says Duff.
“Getting that aspect where a guy plays in your position and is able to coach you as well, that helped me because I had never played the cornerback position before. Just showing me the little things about it, and giving me the ‘attitude,’ helped me out.”
As a senior leader, Duff does his best to play a similar role for the younger players on the team.
“I’m in that role now,” says Duff.
“Shane did a little bit more yapping, but I coach the younger guys. I try to be there to help set the foundation for the next Notre Dame team.”
By all indications, he already has.
September 7, 2002 v. Purdue, 33-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Fourth Quarter Tie-Breaker and Gamewinner.
“Just knowing he’s out there and able to make a play every time helps,” says senior cornerback Preston Jackson.
“He’s a good athlete and has the nose for the ball. A good athlete knows how to go get to the ball. When you’re a big-time player you make big-time plays.”
Roommates in Knott Hall for the past three years, both Jackson and Duff have surely seen the best and worst of each other.
On the surface, they seem the odd couple. Jackson wears dreadlocks. Duff prefers a buzz-cut. Jackson hails from Florida. Duff comes from Texas. Jackson will earn a degree from the Mendoza College of Business. Duff will earn a degree from the College of Arts & Letters.
But in this case, appearances deceive the eye. In reality, Duff and Jackson have much more in common than one could imagine.
“We work well together. He’s neat and I’m neat,” admits Duff.
“We keep the room clean, everything is organized. No toothpaste in the sink. We are both really similar in a lot of ways.”
“One thing I can learn from Preston is that he is a good talker,” laughs Duff. ‘
“He gests the upper edge when he’s clowning people, but I give him that basically.”
But trash-talking has never been Duff’s specialty. In fact, he enjoys comparing himself to former Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders as an example of one who, no matter the game and no matter the location, did his job without fanfare and flair.
“I think (secondary) Coach (Trent) Walters wants me to be a little more talkative,” says Duff.
“But when I’m shutting you down and your not doing anything, that talks for itself. I don’t have to say too much. They know what you are doing, how you’re doing it that you are making people look bad at times. That’s how I like it.”
Duff’s actions speak louder than words. Just ask opposing receivers.