You have to have faith in your life, in your career, and in your goals and aspirations. As an undrafted free agent in the NFL, Carolina Panthers rookie, Austin Duke understands just how far faith can take him. In a league where nothing is guaranteed being an undrafted free agent can be a daunting task. In the NFL it is not how you start but how you finish.Duke joins the close to 500 undrafted players currently in the league.
The 23-year old rookie has spent his whole life in Charlotte, North Carolina. Attending Independence High School in Charlotte followed by Charlotte University, Duke would go on to become the school’s all-time leading receiver. Well known for his role as a slot receiver since he started the sport. Finishing his senior season with 59-receptions for 803-yards.
Undoubtedly the Charlotte community holds a special place in Duke’s heart. “The community has given me great support. Being from Charlotte, being a local guy from the Carolina Panthers, there is not a time I don’t go out now that people don’t recognize me,”explained Duke. “I can give back on a bigger scale here and just tell everyone thank you and I appreciate it, keep rooting for me, I appreciate their love and support.”
As a person of character first and foremost, Duke acknowledges the responsibility he has to give back to the community that gave him everything. “Life is bigger than myself. This game of football is more than what you do on the field; it is what you represent off of it. A big passion that I have being from Charlotte is empowering the whole community,” he expressed.
Aiming to give back and empower the community, Duke has begun his own non-profit, Faith By Works. The aim is to help those in need of a second chance whether that is through food, water, and or financial means. Most recently his foundation received a stewardship from Coca-Cola in support. Though still in the early stages the foundation allows Duke to give back to his community, something he is extremely proud of as it allows him to be a part of something bigger than himself. As a man of faith and community, Duke, stressed community comes before anything and everything.
As a god-fearing man, it goes as no surprise that being a role model is just another box checked off on the long list of things that he has accomplished. “Just be who you are and the rest will take care of itself, I am a genuine person,” said by Duke. “It is all about what you put your time too and what you put your focus on. I am blessed with the opportunity I have now and just want to make the most of it.”
The success Duke has endured he credits to his father and older brother. As he looks to inspire others the same way he looked and continues to look to them as role models. Aside from the men in his life he credits who he is simply to faith, declaring that even a stranger or someone you may simply know of can inspire by how they go about their day-to-do business. It is the faith every individual carries that simply is inspiring, an ideal present in his character.
It is this faith that has and will continue to carry the 5’9 receiver through his career. Focusing on the task at hand is the mindset for the Charlotte receiver who inked a three-year deal with the Panthers as an undrafted free agent. With nothing guaranteed in the NFL or as an undrafted signee, his sights remain on what can be controlled. “There is a lot of opportunities, I look forward to it. I control what I can and focus on what I can control, the rest will take care of itself.” Inspiration is not hard to find in the NFL however, looking at some of the league’s brightest stars such as Wes Welker, Chris Harris, and Antonio Gates as examples of undrafted free agents who have gone on to stellar careers. Taking away the positive trails left from these players sets an example that it’s been done before, it is not impossible. For Duke, however, getting signed, let alone drafted did not seem like a reality only a few months ago. As he explained, “I did not become a prospect until I got a few all-star game invites…my expectation was that I would start watching the draft to hear anything in the 7th round, and sure enough, I did.”
Signing with the hometown Panthers is only the first step in a long journey and potentially a long career, something Duke acknowledges. With him, he brings character, his community, and faith in all that he does. With Charlotte behind him and his faith, Duke will go in life as far he wants as nothing can hold him back.
***Austin Duke became the fourth active Charlotte University player in the league, most notably joining his long time friend Larry Ogunjobi who became the school’s first player ever drafted in 2017. To see more of Austin and his journey check out his three-part video series following his path to the draft.