COPPERAS COVE — Vontez Duff literally helped build Copperas Cove’s football program.
Aside from being one of the most decorated players in school history, the Class of 2000 graduate’s roots with the Bulldawgs run much deeper than record books indicate.
“I remember the times when me and (former teammate) T.J. Hollowell would work in the summertime for the school,” Duff said, “and we actually built the practice fields. We laid the sod, we dug the ditches for the sprinklers and everything.
“So when I come back and see those fields and see the team, I really do soak it in because a lot of people will say, ‘Hey, we built this thing,’ but we really did.”
In addition to physically creating portions of Copperas Cove’s facilities, Duff was instrumental in turning the program’s fortunes around.
Prior to the arrival of longtime head coach Jack Welch in 1994, the Bulldawgs were struggling on the field, failing to produce a winning season in 17 years, culminating with five consecutive campaigns of three or fewer victories.
Thanks in part to Duff’s speed and elusiveness, however, Copperas Cove began becoming a power.
In 1998, the running back, who went on to play at Notre Dame before being drafted into the NFL and playing oversees, set school records for longest punt return (81 yards), most rushing yards in a season (2,256), most carries in a game (40), most carries in a season (315), most rushing touchdowns in a game (5), most rushing touchdowns in a season (26) and most touchdowns in a season (29).
His efforts translated into success on the field as the Bulldawgs went 10-3, snapping a 38-year postseason drought. And in the years since, Copperas Cove has only missed the postseason once.
Friday night, Duff returned to Bulldawg Stadium as an honorary captain along with former teammate Jonathan Boykin, taking part in the pregame coin toss at midfield prior to kickoff against district rival Ellison.
For Copperas Cove running back LeDerian Johnson, who rushed for 153 yards and two touchdowns in the Bulldawgs’ 39-14 victory, it was a humbling experience.
“It was a great inspiration,” the senior said. “I like seeing the players from here who have made it big and did a lot of stuff to contribute to our program. It was great, and it lifted my spirits.”
Welch echoed the sentiments.
“Vontez coming back to do this and be a part of this, that is what it’s all about,” he said.
After graduating from Copperas Cove, Duff transitioned to cornerback for the Fighting Irish and routinely returned kicks, becoming the first player in school history to return a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns in the same game.
Duff’s biggest collegiate accomplishment occurred several years later, though, according to Welch, when he returned to Notre Dame, earning a degree in 2012.
“That took a lot of guts,” Welch said.
But Duff credits Welch for his academic successes, citing him as a father figure who provided the inspiration.
“I always wanted to go back,” Duff said. “It was always in my head. I needed to go back and do it, and he gave me a little push to make it happen.”
Despite all his accomplishments, returning to Bulldawg Stadium was an especially proud moment for Duff, who can remember back to a time before Copperas Cove was an elite program.
“It’s just a really good feeling to be a part of something like this,” he said, “and for Jack to be here for over 20 years; you don’t get that too often. For him to still be here, you know he’s doing something right and things are going well.”