Deep inside Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium, Duke’s Josh Snead searched inside himself for salvation.
It was nearly 11 p.m. last Dec. 27. Snead sat inside a hushed Duke locker room following Cincinnati’s 48-34 Belk Bowl win.
That final score belied the game’s competitiveness and the weight of why hung on Snead’s shoulders.
With 1:20 to play, the game was tied at 34 and Duke was driving inside the Cincinnati 10 on the verge of victory. But Snead, proven to be sure-handed in his Blue Devils career, dropped the ball after a handoff and Cincinnati defensive lineman John Williams recovered at the Bearcats 5.
Cincinnati scored two touchdowns in the next one minute and six seconds – one on an 83-yard pass, another on a 55-yard interception return – to post the 14-point win.
Snead had enjoyed a solid day with a team-leading 107 yards rushing. But that fumble...
“It’s just unfortunate that that had to happen,” Duke running back Jela Duncan said.
Duncan said he immediately grabbed Snead and told him to forget about the fumble and press forward. Other teammates offered him similar support.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe found Snead in the locker room and saw the peace comforting his soul.
He knew that Snead would be ok.
“He had to find it within himself,” Cutcliffe said. “I’m not saying that he just ignored it. But I saw him in the locker room and visited with him. I saw him find it. I saw him walk out of that locker room with it behind him.”
Snead did just that, coming out to face reporters with questions about his game-altering fumble.
“It’s heartbreaking because we wanted to win this game for our seniors,” Snead said that night. “But as a team, we’re going to learn from this and build off the momentum from this. I’ve got great teammates. They encouraged me to keep my head up. If you have a little adversity, you’ve got to face it.”
Face it Snead has.
Duke started practice for a new season last Monday. In three weeks, they’ll face N.C. Central in the season-opening Bull City Gridiron Classic at Wallace Wade Stadium on Aug. 31.
A redshirt junior, Snead is part of a Duke’s deep stable of running backs expected to help the offense overcome the losses of current NFL players Sean Renfree and Conner Vernon.
He’s mentally and physically ready for the challenge.
“The next day I got up and it was a new day,” Snead said last week. “I have my teammates look up to me. I can’t be bringing down the team’s morale. It happened. You learn from it. It’s something you may have to go through. It really was something I let go. One thing about me is I try not to dwell on the past.”
His ability to move on is something he’s acquired since coming to Duke from Smithfield-Selma High School in 2010.
Cutcliffe said Snead took everything to heart as a freshman.
“I love Josh’s energy and his enthusiasm,” Cutcliffe said. “The best part of my job is watching young people mature. Josh as a freshman didn’t handle adversity very well. His highs were really high and his lows would be really low.”
So the younger Snead wouldn’t have been as mentally equipped to handle his Belk Bowl fumble.
Instead, Snead used it to improve himself. Even though he has only two fumbles in 176 career touches in a Duke uniform, Snead focused even more on carrying the ball high and tight for the best protection.
“I let it go and I came out in the spring and had a great spring,” Snead said. “I worked on my craft. I’ve never really been a guy that fumbles the ball and my coaches know that.”
Inside Duke’s locker room, his teammates haven’t lost a bit of faith in him.
“We have full faith in Josh’s ability,” Duke redshirt senior offensive guard Dave Harding said. “He’s a competitor and a great guy. Things happen. Mistakes happen. We could have scored a few more touchdowns so that wasn’t the case. As easy as it is to blame one thing in that situation, you can’t do that. Josh has been extremely mature in how he’s handled it.”
If things go as Duke and Snead plan, perhaps the Belk Bowl will be looked upon as the beginning of his streak of greatness. His 107 yards in that game were his career best.
As Duke drove the ball in the fourth quarter with the game tied at 34, Snead gained
26 yards on five carries prior to fumbling on his sixth carry.
His second-biggest rushing day of last season came on Oct. 20 against North Carolina. Snead gained 99 yards on 15 carries as the Blue Devils won 33-30.
Snead longed for this season to arrive and he looks forward to Aug. 31 when, as Duncan told him, he can move on to the next carry. On that day, the fumble will truly be last year’s news.
“It was a mistake that cost us,” Snead said. “I looked at it as motivation. Anyway I can be able to help this team to be able to win 8-12 games and be able to compete for the ACC championship.”
That’s what Cutcliffe saw in Snead last December in Bank of America Stadium’s visitor’s locker room.
“After that game I never for one minute worried that Josh wouldn’t handle that,” Cutcliffe said. “I’d seen who Josh Snead had become. Forget about football, he is really one fine mature young man.”