FOOTBALL: Bemidji State’s Bryce Duffy has learned ‘life is a lot bigger than just football’
Bryce Duffy’s tale is not a sob story. As he tackles physical therapy and works back to normalcy after a harrowing spinal cord injury, he’s inspired the Beavers to unprecedented success on the field as they support him at every step along the way.
BEMIDJI — Bryce Duffy regained consciousness in the back of an ambulance.
“I remember flashes,” he said. “In and out, people standing over me.”
Unbeknownst to him at the time, Duffy’s life had just changed. He and the Bemidji State football team were nearing the end zone at Minnesota State Moorhead on Oct. 15, and Duffy made a block at the line for running back Sage Booker. But Duffy collapsed after contact, unconscious before his body hit the turf.
He spent the next five days of his life in the ICU.
“Going through this, I have realized that life is a lot bigger than just football,” Duffy said. “I’ve reminded myself that I’m lucky to even be walking. I’m really thankful. The highs and lows, they come. But I’m trying to stay grounded. I can’t think a day ahead in the future anymore.”
Duffy suffered a spinal contusion on the play, which is essentially bruising of the spinal cord. The senior tight end/fullback was on the ground for about 16 minutes before being stretchered off the field and rushed to the emergency room.
Duffy underwent tests and scans at the hospital for the next three or four hours, which revealed no fractures or internal bleeding.
But doctors poked around his body to examine the feeling in his limbs, and “I wasn’t able to feel anything,” Duffy said. He didn’t walk again for several days, and he didn’t regain feeling in his arms and legs until about four days later.
Yet Duffy’s tale is not a sob story. As he tackles physical therapy and works back to normalcy, he’s inspired the Beavers to unprecedented success on the field as they support him at every step along the way.
“These guys, through everything, they’ve always been there for me,” Duffy said. “I never would have thought I’d have 108 guys having my back. It’s amazing.”
‘The way he’s always been’
When Duffy first woke up in the hospital, one thing was on his mind.
“Did we win?”
They did, defeating MSUM 46-7 for the team’s fifth victory in a row. BSU has stacked another five straight wins on top of that to establish the program’s longest winning streak all time at 10 in a row, which is still active.
“The very first thing Bryce said to me when I got in the hospital room, he was asking about his teammates,” Bemidji State head coach Brent Bolte said. “He was asking who scored, who played well, show me the film. It was amazing. Here’s a kid who’s not sure if he’s going to be able to get up and run around again in his life. That’s the way he’s always been.”
The following week, the Beavers dominated longtime rival Minnesota Duluth in an emotional performance. Teammates decked out with Duffy’s name and number written on their athletic tape, Duffy’s jersey was on display on the sideline, and BSU’s truly inspired victory legitimized its candidacy as a national contender.
“Without him on the field, it hurt us at first,” said teammate Jarrett Klein, Duffy’s best friend since elementary school in DeForest, Wis. “But at the same time, the coaches preached that we have this opportunity. … We took it upon ourselves to do this for Duffy.”
Two weeks later, at Bemidji State’s next home game, Duffy made his return to Chet Anderson Stadium. He walked out to midfield for the pregame coin flip as an honorary captain, receiving hearty applause from the home fans. He spent the next three hours rooting on Bemidji State as his teammates overpowered Northern State and clinched the division crown.
“That first time going out there was super emotional,” Duffy said. “You don’t realize what you have until it’s gone, like the old saying goes. When I was in the hospital, the only thing I wanted to do was get back to Bemidji and be here, be at football.”
A shared life experience
When Duffy went down against MSUM, it rattled everyone on the BSU sideline. But it also forced first-year cornerbacks coach Charles Ross to relive a harrowing moment from his own past.
“It didn’t necessarily shut me down -- we were obviously in the middle of a game -- but it took me back,” Ross said. “It was definitely heart-wrenching for me. I went to praying for him, understanding that it’s almost the same situation: a kid going down and not seeing him move.”
In 2016, Ross fractured the top two vertebrae in his spine during a summer football scrimmage at his high school in Three Rivers, Mich.
Ross’ doctor gave him a 5% chance to walk again. Six months later, he was “back up and back to normal,” he said.
Now six years removed from his own injury, Ross sees a path toward normalcy for Duffy, as well.
“Luckily, he’s up and running,” Ross said. “It definitely took me back a little bit, but more so to a thankful experience. I wanted to make sure I was giving him those same prayers I’m sure I had from people in the community where I was from.”
Shortly after Duffy’s injury, the whole team recorded him a get-well video for encouragement. Ross, having a shared life experience, was in a unique position to show Duffy the light.
“I told him throughout the video, ‘Whatever you feel you can still give back, whatever you feel you can still do, try to find happiness in that way,’” Ross said. “Understand that, even though you may not be able to do what you love and is your passion right now, you’re still that bright young man with a beautiful smile.”
Rehab and reflection
Duffy has been forced to reevaluate many aspects of life in the past month and a half. But much of that reflection focuses on the positives.
“A lot of people who have an injury like me or go down the way I did aren’t able to function the same again,” he said. “I try to remind myself of that: how lucky I really am to even be walking the way I am. It comes and goes obviously. But really remembering how fortunate I am.”
While the rehabilitation is laborious, Duffy’s attitude throughout it has inspired his teammates, coaches and community.
“I’m sure there are challenges behind the scenes, just like all of us. But the kid has taken it remarkably well,” Bolte said. “It’s going to be a process, but a process where there is a light at the end of the tunnel -- which we didn’t necessarily know if that was the case when we were in Fargo that day.”
The injury has made Duffy slow way down, evidenced by a noticeable limp and a walking cane for now. But it has also afforded him opportunities. He talks with his teammates more often -- the real kinds of conversations that allow Duffy to get to know them on a deeper level.
He’s almost done with school, but the exercise science major isn’t zeroing in on a career path once he finishes. In light of everything that’s happened, he said he’s “letting life take me wherever right now.” But he’s interested in strength and conditioning, or even perhaps something in the medical field after his exposure to its impact while he was a patient.
Before anything else, though, he’s enjoying one last run with the Beavers. Bemidji State has already won a share of the NSIC championship and hosted the first playoff game in program history. And on Saturday, Nov. 26, BSU faces Angelo State for a shot to clinch the program’s first-ever trip to the national quarterfinals.
Duffy expected accomplishments like that to be the biggest takeaways of his final season. Not so anymore, but he’s thankful for that.
“A bunch of stuff has happened that I never would have thought,” Duffy said. “How will I remember it? Just grateful for all the experiences, no matter good or bad. Everything that came, I’m really just grateful.”