As a wide receiver/kick returner for Colorado State-Pueblo, the play that initially put Kieren Duncan on the radar of NFL scouts was a 98-yard kick return for a score against West Texas A&M last season. Duncan’s effort brought his team to within 2 points with 30 seconds on the clock. A failed conversion attempt ultimately thwarted the Thunderwolves’ comeback but Duncan’s achievement was impressive nonetheless.
Yet even more impressive, and more eye-opening for NFL teams, was his reported 4.25 40-yard dash at his pro day. In a league where speed is at a premium, Duncan's blazing pace stands out.
In 2015 the 5-10, 170 pounder averaged 30.1 yards on 17 kickoff returns, while catching 36 passes for 622 yards and six touchdowns. He was invited to Chicago Bears rookie minicamp on a tryout basis and was easily the most impressive player on the field, which earned him his first NFL contract.
Duncan, whose ambition after football is to be a sportswriter, spoke with Bear Report during OTAs this week.
"It's just crazy being here. It's a dream come true, a blessing and an opportunity just to be standing here.
"Coming from a D2 school and being kind of undersized, you always feel the odds are kind of stacked against you. But somehow I’ve made it this far. I’m so grateful and excited right now. It's a long shot under the best of circumstances to make it to this level. Now my job is to show the coaches that bringing me in was the right call.
"College ball went well and it was great preparation for this higher level. Once the season was done, I spent a lot of time preparing for my pro day since I did not receive an invitation to the NFL Combine. I went to a facility in Arizona not too far from my hometown and worked out there from early January until the end of March.
"The time away from school and in the training facility gave me the chance to step back a little and approach my personal game from an achievement standpoint. I knew where I had to improve and worked extensively on things like technique and speed. I felt that if my fundamentals were strong going in, I'd at least have a chance.
"Athletic achievement has always been extremely important to my family. My mother was a track star from Jamaica. My dad played football in Britain. I grew up playing catch with him. They met at Iona where they both were training.
"My parents did everything possible to support me along this journey. When I knew that I’d finally received an invitation to Bears minicamp, I called them. We all were so excited that we were in tears almost as soon as they picked up the phone. I felt like such a big baby breaking down like that but I guess that showed just how much it all meant to me.
"Draft weekend wasn’t a great time as you can imagine. It was really stressful frankly. Everybody’s dream is to be sitting there and get that phone call. It's not that I really expected a call but the hope is always there. The reality is that it doesn’t always happen like that. But I definitely felt better when the Bears called.
"They’d reached out to me after the regional Combine so I wasn’t a complete unknown. I had a 4.32 down there and that’s when I started getting some interest.
"All I wanted was a shot. To get the chance to come to minicamp and prove myself was what I’d been training for. And to have an opportunity join the Bears, a team with such a wonderful history, was a huge plus.
"That rookie workout was a crazy weekend with so many guys here at Halas Hall. Competition was beyond belief. I figured that what I needed to show, in addition to my receiving and running skills, was the ability to learn quickly. Much of personal success in rookie camp is based on your ability to understand the playbook. You’ve got a lot of on-field things going on but you have to make time for that study. If you can’t demonstrate that you can pick up the system rapidly, they aren’t inclined to keep you around.
"It's way too early to know for sure where I will fit in going forward but I did a lot of returning and receiving in college so I expect to continue on that path. I want to demonstrate versatility and show I can be used in a variety of situations. I love returning kicks. I love running down the field. I have a good sense of plays unfolding in front of me and I feel that I can contribute in a positive way to the team.
"Seeing the vets for the first time was incredible. I watched a lot of these guys on TV. Eddie Royal was my idol growing up. I think just being around them automatically raises your game. You watch how they work on fundamentals and the amount of effort they put in to every play. It sets the bar pretty high for the new guys.
"What has impressed me most about this team is the family atmosphere. Nobody is trying to bring you down even though you are brand new. Any vet I’ve asked for help has obliged immediately.
"When my football career is over, my ultimate goal is to be a sports journalist. I wrote poetry and short stories in high school and college but the sports stories are the ones I’ve enjoyed the most. One article I wrote was about a quarterback who was injured and came back as a coach for the team. It won a journalism award, so that was gratifying.
"But hopefully that will be far in the future. I am here now and working my hardest to learn all I can about this team and about the professional game. I couldn’t be happier or more grateful for this opportunity."