Nakeie Montgomery Realizing Childhood Dream, Playing Football at Duke


“Here we go,” Nakeie Montgomery thought when the Duke football team posted a picture of him on Twitter in full uniform, mid stiff-arm pose two days ago.

The image quickly made the rounds on social media. It was the public’s first sign of what those close to Montgomery have known for the past couple months. He’s returning to his gridiron roots and realizing the dream he had since he was 5 years old.

“It wasn’t even on purpose,” Montgomery said about why his foray back into football only came to light now. “I’ve just been working. That’s kind of what it’s all about.”

He’s still wearing the No. 15, but instead of perfecting his split dodge or dishing out assists, Montgomery has spent the past seven weeks in Durham learning the route tree and pass blocking assignments as a running back. Today is the final workout of summer session two. Training camp starts next Wednesday.

“You only get to live once,” said Montgomery, who will return to the Duke men’s lacrosse team in 2022 and is planning to get a tattoo of the 90’s hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan’s logo. “I’m excited to get another season of football and play this fall.”

Before Montgomery scored 106 points on 58 goals and 48 assists over the past four years, the 2021 USILA first team All-American midfielder was a multi-sport star at the Episcopal School of Dallas. His 31 rushing touchdowns was a school record. He considers NFL all-time rushing leader and Dallas Cowboys legend Emmitt Smith a mentor.

“I don’t think I’ve seen anyone as quick as this kid,” Redwoods all-star midfielder and Duke alum Myles Jones told USA Lacrosse Magazine’s Matt Hamilton in a 2018 article. “When you watch Nakeie, he almost tiptoes up to his defender, and out of nowhere, he’s three steps ahead of him. That comes from his football background of playing in the slot and making moves off the line of scrimmage.”

Montgomery's transition represents the latest Division I lacrosse player crossing over into another sport at the collegiate level. Virginia midfielder Dox Aitken spent the fall of 2020 participating in Villanova football practices before returning to Charlottesville after the Wildcats’ spring season appeared in doubt. Aitken won a second national championship with the Cavaliers.

On the other side of the field Memorial Day in East Hartford, Jared Bernhardt also took a circuitous route. He planned to join D-II power Ferris State as a quarterback but came back to College Park for his fifth year, during which he won the Tewaaraton Award and broke many of the Terrapins’ offensive records.

Selected 19th overall in the PLL College Draft, Bernhardt will defer pro lacrosse to return to Ferris in the hopes of pursuing his dream to one day make an NFL roster. 

Growing up in Texas, football was Montgomery’s first love. “As early as I could play football, I was definitely playing football,” he said.

His father, Deandre, played at Texas Southern University alongside Michael Strahan. Nakeie committed to Duke to play lacrosse when he was 14, but that didn’t deter other suitors for football. He received several D-I offers, but he couldn’t turn down the Blue Devils.

“The criteria for me to flip from Duke was that it had to be one of the highest end schools academically as well as football,” he said.

Education has always been a top priority for Montgomery and his mother, Caravhoni Punch. “The mind is a terrible thing to waste,” she’d say. A Merit Scholarship recipient who’s now in The Fuqua School of Business' Masters of Management Studies program, Montgomery is also the Director of Marketing and Student-Athlete Relations for the storytelling platform UNCUT Duke. He shared his story titled, “It Takes a Village” last September.

“I like to think I get my hustle from my mom, though I know hers is unparalleled,” Montgomery wrote in the first-person essay.

He wanted to play both lacrosse and football when he arrived in Durham but decided it would be too much too soon. Last winter, he reached out to Duke head football coach David Cutcliffe about his interest in joining the team. After a couple conversations, Cutcliffe told him they could talk further once the lacrosse season concluded. A week after the Blue Devils fell in the Final Four to Maryland, Montgomery followed up. His desire hadn’t waned.

“I knew I wanted to do it the whole time,” he said. “I missed football.”

He had a likely advocate close by. “What can I do to help?” John Danowski first asked when Montgomery mentioned the idea.

Football also courses through Danowski’s bloodlines. His father, Ed, led the NFL in passing in 1935 and 1938 and helped guide the New York Giants to two league championships.

John Danowski ranks second all-time at Rutgers in assists (120) but also served as a backup quarterback in New Brunswick (NJ.). “And I am the all-time leading percentage passer in Rutgers football history,” he said in an interview with the 33rd Team—a website that touts itself as the ‘Premier Football Think Tank.’ “I’m 1-for-1.”

“He was a big part of obviously encouraging me to do it,” Montgomery said. “He has our best interests in mind and cares about us all way more than just as lacrosse players.”

While Montgomery suspects he might have looked a little weird stepping over bags in footwork drills the first couple weeks, the biggest adjustment has been relearning the lingo. “All right, we’re going to have to start talking football language now,” running backs coach Calvin Magee said in a meeting the other day. Overall, though, Montgomery said the transition has been pretty smooth.

It will be a couple more weeks until he has the opportunity to get a carry in a game — the Blue Devils open their season at UNC Charlotte on Sep. 3. — but he’s excited to “be a sponge” and immerse himself back in the sport.

He knows the mindset he’s cultivated over the past four years will help him go the distance.

“In anything I do, I don’t want to lose,” Montgomery said. “I’m very competitive and want to be the best. That’s something that grew on me since I’ve been at Duke. Reflecting on it — it’s weird man, I’m getting old — but being around the Duke lacrosse culture has really made me understand hard work and what it takes to get to where you want to go. When it comes to my work ethic and how I carry myself, that’s the biggest thing that I’ve been able to carry over.”

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