Last man standing: Dukes lone healthy captain A.J. Wolf

Three Blue Devil captains have suffered career-ending injuries

Brett Davis—X02835
Oct 29

A.J. Wolf is ready for the coin toss. “I’m a heads guy,” the Duke defensive end said. And how does that strategy work for him? “I’ve won some, and I’ve lost some.”Wolf’s coin toss skills were called into question, because the Blue Devils’ redshirt senior will be calling all the tosses for the rest of the season.In late August, Duke players voted four redshirt seniors as permanent team captains for the season. Quarterback Thomas Sirk was one, and he was lost for the season before the opening game kickoff, with a preseason Achilles rupture.Safety and kick returner DeVon Edwards was next to go, suffering a knee injury in Duke’s win at Notre Dame.After that, with 50 percent of the team captains unable to walk to midfield for the pregame toss, coach David Cutcliffe announced that the team would name a special teams captain on a game-by-game basis.Last weekend, during Duke’s loss at Georgia Tech, running back Jela Duncan ruptured his Achilles. That meant that of the four captains, just one was left standing—literally. The other three suffered premature endings to their senior seasons and college careers.”I think he’s looking around him a little cautiously right now,” Cutcliffe said of Wolf’s new role as lone captain.Wolf didn’t seem too concerned about his own health, however. “I think I’ll be ok,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any curse or anything—just bad luck for those guys.”As the players and coaches can joke about curses and discuss the coin toss, the humor helps mask the pain of losing three Blue Devils who joined the team prior to Duke’s current four-year bowl streak.”You hate to see those guys go down,” Wolf said. “It was tough with Sirk back in August, and then DeVon and now Jela. It’s definitely not a good feeling, but I’m going to do my best to hold the torch and keep it going strong for the rest of the season.”As the only captain still on the field, Wolf seems to be carrying a much heavier burden of leadership.”He’s been an incredible leader,” defensive lineman Mike Ramsay said. “I definitely feel like he’s been more vocal and helping us all. You see him speaking up more. At practice today, actually, he was bringing us together. He’s definitely helped me a lot, personally. We definitely look up to A.J.”Cutcliffe wants to make sure his captain doesn’t feel alone, when it comes to the leadership burden. “I met with all four (captains) on Sunday. We talked a little bit about that. I just think A.J. … Just watch him play. He’s pretty vocal. My comments to A.J. were, ‘Be true to who you are. We got other people who are seniors, juniors sophomores and freshmen that are stepping up. That’s what’s good about our program. We don’t want everything on A.J’s shoulders.”Part of Wolf’s message to the team was that he needed people to take on more. “Guys don’t have to be honorary captains to step up,” he said. “You can step up in practice, even if you’re a young guy. Motivate guys. Just make plays out there, I think some guys are doing that.”Wolf also pointed out to the younger players that the injuries didn’t just leave a void in leadership. “It’s a bummer when you lose not just good leaders but good players,” he said. “They are talented guys. That being said, it gives other guys the opportunity to step in. My sophomore year, I wasn’t playing much. The last game of the season, Jamal Bruce got hurt, and it was time for me to step in and rise to the occasion. I think that will probably happen to some guys as well.”Plus, while Sirk, Edwards and Duncan may be unable to walk out to midfield, they haven’t disappeared from the locker room. All three are still helping out on the sideline and in the locker room.”They’re around daily, not just on game day,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re in meetings. They’re using their experience and expertise. Right before I came here, Jela was in the training room, talking to some other players. Their care and concern—they’re all in. These are guys that could just check out, but they didn’t. DeVon played a significant role in our meeting on Sunday. He doesn’t like to be real verbal all the time, but he obviously knows that’s what his path is right now. Thomas Sirk has been great, and Jela is in a completely new role. I couldn’t be more proud of those three young men, as well as A.J.”A.J. Wolf may be the last captain standing, but he’s far from alone. The Duke team has come together to help support him, which seems like just the type of behavior that great leaders can inspire.