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Tennessee pastor recalls USFL days, witnessing alongside the Minister of Defense

Alan Duncan kicks against the Oakland Invaders in a 1984 USFL matchup. Reddit/USFL

MORRISTOWN, Tenn. (BP) – Alan Duncan had plans for a professional career after his years kicking for the University of Tennessee ended in 1980. And while those plans may not have gone as originally intended, they led to service on the foreign mission field as well as having an impact athletes alongside the guy he knew as “Big Reg.”

Those memories began flooding back for Duncan, associate pastor for church growth at Manley Baptist Church, as he watched the Super Bowl in February when a commercial for the upcoming United States Football League (USFL) season came across the screen.

In his career with the University of Tennessee, Alan Duncan converted 87 of 90 extra point attempts and 68.9 percent on field goals. Photo courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

The USFL’s kickoff April 16 will test the success (or lack thereof) rate for spring football leagues. Its first year, 1983, brought the signing of several big-name players from the college and pro ranks. A league-wide decision led by then-New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump to confront the more-established NFL head on and move to the fall, however, ultimately led to the USFL’s undoing after the 1985 season.

Upon graduating from Tennessee, Duncan was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles but didn’t pass the final round of training camp cuts. The following year a 52-yard preseason kick against the Steelers prompted Denver coach Dan Reeves to tell Duncan he had a pro-level leg, but the Broncos nevertheless cut him, also at the end of training camp.

An experienced speaker through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) while in college, Duncan also served as a youth minister at First Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., from the fall of 1981 into the fall of 1983. The church’s pastor, future Guidestone Financial Resources president O.S. Hawkins, gave Duncan permission to focus on preparing for training camp during the summers.

In January 1984 Duncan was picked up by the Memphis Showboats, one of several teams added to the USFL the previous fall. Working alongside kickers at Carson-Newman University, thanks to spiritual mentor and CNU coach Ken Sparks, allowed Duncan to be ready for the opportunity.

“Memphis loved that team,” Duncan told Baptist Press. “We had a hilarious, eccentric coach named Pepper Rodgers who had been at UCLA and Georgia Tech.”

Several outspoken believers were on the Showboats as well. Reggie White had been a household name in the state for years, going back to his high school days as a wrecking ball on the defensive line at Howard High School in Chattanooga. When Duncan preached in the area, White attended and the two struck up a friendship that helped White’s decision to attend UT.

That relationship continued in the Showboats locker room alongside other believers like former SEC rival Walter Lewis, who played quarterback at Alabama, and Calvin Clark, a stalwart for Purdue before anchoring the Memphis defense with White.

“We had some great conversations – among ourselves and with others – about the Lord,” said Duncan, adding that over those two years, around 35 teammates prayed to receive Christ.

Their witness didn’t come without being tested. Things like foul language were called out, sometimes in ways you won’t find in a witnessing tract.

“Guys would try to wind Big Reg (White) up in the locker room by how they talked and stuff,” Duncan said. “He was so strong he’d put them in a headlock and hold them there, telling them Jesus loved them.” White went on to play 15 years in the NFL and earn the nickname “Minister of Defense.”

Duncan attended Bellevue Baptist Church at the time and credits the spiritual impact made by Pastor Adrian Rogers and Ken Whitten, now pastor of Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Fla., who was then singles pastor at Bellevue.

“Ken was our team chaplain,” Duncan said. “He, Reggie, Walter, Calvin or I would lead weekly Bible studies for our team.”

Duncan’s exposure to ministry was far from new to him. His parents, Marshall and Margie, served through the International Mission Board in Kenya, where Duncan lived up through high school. An avid soccer player, he became a fan of Tennessee football while his family was on furlough in Knoxville.

After his USFL days, Duncan joined Manley Baptist Church as a part-time student minister while coaching kickers at Carson-Newman and working with FCA. He moved on to be recreation and evangelism director at First Baptist Cleveland (Tenn.) before earning a degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. In 1992 he, his wife Andrea and four children moved to Port Elizabeth, Africa, to serve as IMB missionaries.

In 2008 Duncan stayed with the IMB, helping coordinate its mobilization efforts, but moved back to Tennessee and began working with CNU kickers again. His son, Curt, followed in his dad’s cleats and became an All-American for the Eagles. Duncan has been at Manley in his current role since 2016. 

In addition to tweaking with some rule changes and all games taking place in Birmingham, the USFL brought back its original eight teams. That left out the Showboats, but still brought back nostalgia for Duncan. Photos of him remain online as well as grainy videos, such as one of him hitting a 52-yarder as time ran out to beat the New Orleans Breakers.

“I played with and against some great athletes during that time,” he said. “Reggie, Herschel (Walker), Steve Young, Anthony Carter. I remember (Tampa Bay Bandits coach) Steve Spurrier and Pepper couldn’t stand each other,” he said, laughing. “I don’t know why.

“I can’t believe the league is coming back after 40 years. We’ll see how it goes.”