RIP, Randy Duncan

By Adam Jacobi on September 29, 2016 at 7:45 am
Randy Duncan reflects on life.
Des Moines Register (via

Sad news from Des Moines on Wednesday, as Randy Duncan's law firm announced that the former Hawkeye quarterback and longtime Iowa lawyer had passed away from brain cancer at 79.

Kirk Ferentz and Gary Barta honored Duncan well in Iowa's official statement. Duncan was, after all, a legend. But let's talk about him some more.

Even if you're a young, casual fan, you probably know Duncan as a number on a wall. There, on the Paul W. Brechler press box at Kinnick Stadium, wedged between "36 Larry Station" and "1 Gordon Locke," is "25 Randy Duncan." He's one of just nine Hawkeyes who were immortalized there on the Wall of Honor in 2013, through an Iowa football history dating back more than a century. He credited his teammates. He was being gracious.

Maybe you know Duncan too as '58, the year he graduated after leading Iowa to a 38-12 Rose Bowl victory, the year he was the Walter Camp Award winner, the Big Ten MVP, a first-team All-American, a Heisman Trophy runner-up to Army HB Pete Dawkins*. He said it was luck, that if Olen Treadway hadn't hurt his knee, maybe that opportunity never comes. Treadway said he was being gracious.

*Dawkins himself was a Rhodes Scholar and future overachiever; it was a different era, after all, one where guys had time for such pursuits.

Maybe you know Duncan was the University of Iowa's first and only No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft, going in 1959 to the Green Bay Packers. He turned them down. They weren't the winners that Iowa had been, after all. Also, he got more money in Vancouver, he said later, and Vince Lombardi hadn't arrived there yet. He was being gracious. 

Maybe you even know Duncan as a Des Moines Register Iowa Sports Hall of Fame member, as he was inducted in 1976, or a College Football Hall of Fame member, as he was inducted in 1997. Maybe you even know that Duncan asked for a kiss from Hollywood bombshell Jayne Mansfield before the 1957 Rose Bowl and, well, made it count. Maybe you even know that Duncan was 3-0 against Notre Dame as a Hawkeye, with a combined score of 100-42. Maybe.

And speaking of that Mansfield picture, the Des Moines Register has a slideshow of Duncan going through his dusty attic of relics from his football days. It's pretty great. We can wait while you look through them. 

What you might not know is that he's Hearst Randolph Duncan, Jr.—they called him Randy. He was Des Moines Roosevelt's most famous football alumni, and arguably one of its best basketball alumni as well; he won a state title for the undefeated Riders gridiron team in 1954 and took the basketball team to the championship game that same year. He was named to the TRHS Hall of Fame in 2013, and his picture's been in the halls of TRHS for decades, next to the likes of Governor Robert Ray. Ask a Roosevelt alumni about him sometime. They'll know who he is. He met his wife Paula in high school, too; she's class of 1955, and they were married for 56 years. Don't worry, the Mansfield thing was years prior. Years. 

What you also might not know is that Duncan never really committed to football, that when he left the CFL for the NFL two years after eschewing the Packers, it was so he could play for the Dallas Texans by day and go to law school at SMU by night. When that predictably didn't work and the Texans drafted some punk named Len Dawson instead, Duncan chose law school, finishing at Drake University. He chose his profession wisely.

What you also might not know is that Duncan not only started his own law firm, one that operates to this day—in a downtown office you'd have to go looking for to find. But it's there. Duncan took on cases too numerous to count, and spent his later years doing pro bono work, because he could, and because it was needed. He was named to the American College of Trial Lawyers, a distinction granted to just the top 1 percent of lawyers in each state, and his legal profile is filled with more honors than his college football profile.

And what you might not know is that Randy was a chairman for the March of Dimes, and for the YMCA, and for Youth Homes of Mid-America. Those things don't get fan sites and weekly recaps in the papers. The cameras only show up if you ask them to, and not for long.

And what you also might not know is that Duncan, as part of his practice, intersected with Hawkeye athletics in tragic ways, too. Duncan represented the Street family in a civil lawsuit after Chris died in that snowy car wreck in 1993. He couldn't convince the court that anyone had been at fault but Street. Randy had to live through that. His son Randolph Mathieson Duncan—they called him Matt—was a lineman for the Hawkeyes in the '80s, then a lawyer like so many Duncans before him. But Matt couldn't beat depression, a good and smart man gone far too soon at 46, and Randy had to live through that too. You might not know that, either. But that part, especially, you should know.

And if you knew Duncan first as a lawyer, or as a businessman, or as a philanthropist... you might not know he was ever a star athlete at the University of Iowa, that his name is immortalized in front of 70,000 fans today, because of sports. He didn't talk about that if you didn't ask

And what you might not know is that amid the unrelenting sensory assault that is the Iowa State Fair this August, the Blue Ribbon Foundation awarded Duncan the first annual "Iowan of the Year" honor. Duncan was already in hospice by then, his brain cancer having returned in June. Doctors had given Duncan a five percent chance to make it a year after his initial diagnosis in early 2012. He made it four and a half years instead. He was a good and kind man who fought death like hell. 

Duncan wasn't part of the live or televised Saturday football experience for Hawkeye fans, aside from his name and number immortalized on the press box, in quiet recognition of his work. You never heard him on the radio, he had no catchphrases, no weekly column asking about which coaches should be fired. The only thing that'll change this Saturday is that there'll certainly be a moment of silence in his honor. Take that moment for him. Reflect on his life with pride, if you're there at Kinnick, and even if you're not. And do so the week after that, the month after that, the year after that.  

Randy Duncan was the pride of Theodore Roosevelt High School and the University of Iowa, and really the city of Des Moines and the state of Iowa, on and off the field. With his passing, the days we live in just got a little darker. Let's remember such a bright man.

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