Graham Duncan never thought this opportunity would be possible when he joined the football team at Division II Lenoir-Rhyne, a small private university located in Hickory, N.C.
The former North Hall Trojans standout was stepping into a program coming off a dismal 3-8 season, and one that hadn’t won a playoff game since the 1960s when it competed in the NAIA.
Fast forward five years and many things have changed for Duncan and the Bears.
This Saturday, Lenoir-Rhyne (13-1) will face second-ranked Northwest Missouri State (14-0) in the NCAA Division II Championship Game in Florence, Ala.
For Duncan, it’s his final college football game and an opportunity to end five years as a cornerstone of Lenoir-Rhyne’s football resurgence on the highest possible note.
“To be completely honest, when I first got here, I didn’t think anything like this would truly happen. I knew we had potential to be really good,” said the 5-foot-10 Duncan, who plays running back for the Bears. “It is just awesome. I didn’t know it would come to this point, but I knew we had the talent. We have a really good shot.”
After redshirting his first year on campus, Duncan has been part of one of the most successful four-year stretches in Lenoir-Rhyne modern history.
The Bears have posted an impressive 36-11 record and have managed to win three straight South Atlantic Conference championships.
The Bears have also qualified for the playoffs each of the past three seasons, claiming a 21-6 win over Fort Valley State in last year’s opening round to break the school's decades-long playoff drought.
This season, Duncan has played a vital role in the Bears’ run to the national championship. He starts at A-back and is one of the team’s top kick returners, averaging 8.9 yards per rushing attempt and 17.6 yards per kick return.
In an offense that has racked up 5,290 yards rushing this season, Duncan has totaled 693 yards rushing with three touchdowns, despite spending the majority of his time blocking on the corners for other running backs in the triple-option attack.
It was the time Duncan spent at North Hall under the direction of coach Bob Christmas that prepared him to play in an offense like Lenoir-Rhyne’s.
“(Graham) did a great job,” Christmas said. “We asked him to block on the buck sweep, and we asked him to arch block and block second level. He worked very hard at it. He did a great job.”
Despite riding a 13-game winning streak into the championship game, Duncan said he and his teammates believe they’re overlooked and underrated.
After finishing the regular season with a 10-1 record, the Bears were only ranked 13th in the American Football Coaches’ Association Top 25 poll, while Northwest Missouri State was ranked second.
“I feel like we haven’t gotten a ton of respect, but I kind of like that,” Duncan said. “We like coming in as underdogs.”
The trip to the national championship game — which airs live on ESPN2 at 1 p.m. Saturday — is a historic moment for Lenoir-Rhyne, and from reading to local elementary school children in Florence to attending a celebration dinner tonight to practicing inside Braly Municipal Stadium, Duncan said he plans on enjoying every moment.
“Definitely, this is something that everyone looks forward to,” he said. “And for us to finally make it to that point, and for me, this being my last collegiate game, it is just crazy.”
In addition to a week filled with off-field obligations, the Bears will also face a daunting task on the field with Northwest Missouri State, a school that appeared in five consecutive national championship games between 2005-200. Northwest Missouri State won the championship in the last of that series of title game appearances.
“Honestly, that is going to be new to all of us,” Duncan said. “We know it is going to be a hectic week and our goal is just to make it as normal of a week as possible.”
Regardless of Saturday’s outcome, Duncan is living a dream that most football players don’t get to enjoy in reality.
And according to his former coach, when Duncan takes the field for his final collegiate game, he’ll have some of his best friends from North Hall rooting him on from the grandstands.
“My son, Matt, and Peyton Wilhoite, both of whom played for us and were teammates of Graham’s at North Hall, they’ve traveled to watch the last two games and they’re traveling over to Florence, Ala. to watch this national championship game,” Christmas said.