For Riverside Military Academy’s do-it-all athlete Khalid Duke, the goal has always been to play football on Sundays.
When the Atlanta Falcons return to Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Nov. 18, Duke will get his first taste of being under the NFL spotlight.
Duke will be awarded as the Atlanta Falcons Athlete of the Week, before kickoff and during halftime of the Falcons’ NFC matchup with the Dallas Cowboys. He and his family will have sideline passes to the game, and his athletic accomplishments — including 10 Division I offers to play at the next level — will be recognized in front of the Atlanta crowd.
When Duke first received the news of his accomplishment from Eagles head coach Nick Garrett last Thursday, the senior’s initial reaction was shock, but it quickly changed to excitement.
“I was speechless,” he said. “I didn’t know what to say. I just was taking it in. … Since I was a sophomore, I worked very hard to get to my level now, each year lifting, running, getting yelled at. I was just happy for myself.”
The award builds on a relationship between the Eagles and the Falcons that coach Garrett has worked to foster since arriving to the school nearly two years ago.
Duke, along with two other members of Riverside Military’s football team, has experience as a member of the Falcons’ ball boy program, and earlier in the year, Garrett took his players out to the Falcons’ facility on military day.
“We’ve already kind of been down there and built that relationship,” Garrett said. “It just made it that much sweeter to have one of our guys, and a Hall County guy, be selected for it.”
It’s a fairy tale type of ending to a turnaround season for both Duke and the playoff-bound Eagles — who will visit George Walton Academy for a first-round matchup on the road this Friday in Monroe. Riverside Military was suffering prior to Garrett’s hiring, failing to qualify for playoffs in each of the past 10 seasons, and the Eagles were 2-8 in Garrett’s first year with the program a season ago.
But both wins came in the final three contests of that last campaign, and the team has built on that base in 2018. Riverside Military finished the regular season at 5-5, including a 4-3 mark in the Region 8-A Private, highlighted by a win over Commerce — snapping a four-game losing streak in the series dating back to 2010.
“The kids just needed to get a taste of it,” Garrett said. “So once they got some of these small victories and a couple wins, they wanted that feeling to continue.”
Next up for the Eagles is a tough test against the 8-2 Bulldogs, whose only two losses came against a pair of top-five teams — No. 3 Athens Academy and No. 4 Prince Avenue Christian. Both defeats were one-score affairs.
“They’re very disciplined, very structured, very aggressive, very fast,” Garrett said of his team’s upcoming opponent. “They play really, really well-rounded football. They play together, and that’s the reason they are 8-2.”
Both Garrett and Duke pointed to winning the line of scrimmage as a key to ultimately winning the game.
The Eagles will look to dominate time of possession with their ground attack as much as possible to keep George Walton’s explosive offense — averaging more than 30 points a game — off the field. Garrett said a successful run game should open up mismatches with receivers on the outside, which the Eagles will have to exploit if they want to capture their first postseason win since 2006.
Defensively, Riverside Military will focus on stopping the run, the Bulldogs’ biggest strength according to Garrett. Stoutness from the front seven will be the only way for Garrett’s squad to avoid an early exit in the Class A-Private tournament.
“If we can stop the run or subdue the run and obviously capitalize on special teams, then we can win,” he said. “If not, it’s going to be a long night.”