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Don't Call It a Cinderella Story, Max Duggan and TCU Earned the Right to Be Here

Adam KramerJanuary 8, 2023

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - DECEMBER 31: Quarterback Max Duggan #15 of the TCU Horned Frogs warms up before the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl against the Michigan Wolverines at State Farm Stadium on December 31, 2022 in Glendale, Arizona. The Horned Frogs defeated the Wolverines 51-45. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)
Chris Coduto/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES – Under the bright, vibrant lights of the West Hall in the L.A. Convention Center, Max Duggan's wavy red hair almost seems to glow.

Not long from now, the Heisman runner-up will attempt to deliver one last magical act: beat Georgia as a massive underdog in the national championship.

The fact that this is even a possibility is still hard to comprehend. A team that started the year unranked in the AP Poll, powered by a quarterback that began the year on the bench, is 60 minutes away from history.

In the shadows of the Hollywood sign that paints the Los Angeles skyline, there is something tremendous at play. In a sport that has become increasingly top-heavy and predictable, TCU is an outlier. The star quarterback refuses to look at it this way, though.

"We don't really see it as a Cinderella story," Duggan said. "We believe in ourselves, and we feel like we've earned this position."

There's no questioning that. To get here, Duggan had to conquer Texas and Oklahoma, the fixtures of the Big 12. There was the walk-off field goal against Baylor and a slew of elaborate comebacks that the Horned Frogs made look almost routine.

Most recently, Duggan and TCU upended Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl to reach the championship. It was a game many expected them to lose.

"You see our coaches have talked about if you want to be great, you've got to be comfortable being uncomfortable," Duggan said. "There's going to be a lot of chaos, and I think you want to thrive in that position."

This sentiment doesn't just apply to this season. For Duggan, it encapsulates the last four years of his life and all that it took to arrive at this moment.

TCU quarterback Max Duggan (15) during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football semifinal playoff game against Michigan, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022, in Glendale, Arizona. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

The quarterback starred at Lewis Central High School in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Rather than play close to home at Iowa or Nebraska, Duggan chose TCU. Schools such as Notre Dame, Ohio State and even Georgia showed interest, although Duggan ultimately landed in Fort Worth.

Duggan found the field as a true freshman in 2019, and the results were mixed. There were snippets of brilliance along with turnovers. Still, a promising foundation was laid.

During a routine COVID-19 screening in 2020, however, it was unearthed that Duggan was born with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a heart condition that required a nine-hour surgery. Days after the procedure, Duggan was back in the operating room with blood clots.

Duggan played in 2020 and 2021, although nothing came easy. He gutted out last fall, playing much of the year with a broken foot. His performance was understandably hindered by the injury, which also required surgery.

After his foot was repaired, Duggan entered the 2022 season with a new coach as the team's backup QB. Sonny Dykes named Chandler Morris the starting quarterback before the season began. When Morris went down in the team's first game against Colorado, Duggan was thrown into action once again.

A five-touchdown performance the following week seemed to catapult Duggan forward. Just like that, after a long, winding road that was much bigger than football, Duggan was able to finally settle in.

The result has been nothing short of extraordinary. Duggan has thrown for 3,546 yards, rushed for 461 yards and scored 40 touchdowns this season.

TCU head coach Sonny Dykes hugs quarterback Max Duggan (15) after an NCAA college football game against Bayor in Waco, Texas, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. TCU won 29-28. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
AP Photo/LM Otero

"There are a lot of really great athletes in different sports, but there's just very few people that raise the temperature of the room," Dykes said. "And he does that. When he walks in the room, I think the temperature is raised."

Duggan's style is certainly unique. He's at his best when the plays break down—a mix of improv and instincts that have tortured opposing defenses throughout the year.

His playing style is frenzied, which is by design. Duggan will never win a beauty pageant throwing a football. What he does better than just about anyone, however, is finding a way to create offense when all hope seems lost.

"It's his dog mentality," star wideout Quentin Johnston said. "We could be playing the Baltimore Ravens right now. He would keep the same attitude throughout the whole thing."

This style comes at a cost. For Duggan, success has sometimes been painful.

In the Big 12 Championship Game, Duggan was on the turf time and time again. While he was able to finish the game, it was not easy. And while TCU finally lost, the profile of the quarterback was elevated despite the blemish.

TCU quarterback Max Duggan (15) falls short of a touchdown as Kansas State defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah (91) and cornerback Julius Brents (23) make the stop during overtime of the Big 12 Conference championship NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Mat Otero)
AP Photo/Mat Otero

"He's one of those guys that's truly going to lay it on the line every single play," TCU offensive coordinator Garrett Riley said. "It seems like every game, you see all his scabs getting ripped open, blood is everywhere. He's like William Wallace from Braveheart. How can you not just fall in love with a guy like that?"

The days and hours after games have often been painful for Duggan. But like almost everything else, he refuses to dwell on these moments.

"I know that guys on our O-line, guys on the defense, our running backs probably feel a lot worse," Duggan said. "There's nothing for me to complain about or feel sorry for myself. I know those guys get beat up way more than I do."

Through the pain and the touchdowns and the comebacks, Duggan has navigated TCU to the season's final game. For the QB, it won't just be his last game this year. It will be his final college football game ever.

With a year of eligibility remaining, Duggan has already announced that he will declare for the draft after the national championship. It's a decision he had struggled with but is now at peace with. Regardless of what happens on Monday night, he'll leave a tremendous legacy for a program on the rise.

Few teams seem to capture the mentality of their star player quite like this one. While it hasn't been easy or pretty, it has been effective. TCU's resiliency is, without question, its greatest asset, and this trait begins with the quarterback who wasn't sure he would see the field this year.

Duggan has transformed his opportunity into one of the most unlikely seasons in recent memory. Now, he'll attempt to conquer Georgia, something only one team has done over the past two seasons.

It's a fitting end to both TCU's season and the quarterback's career. Make no mistake about it; the challenge is daunting. The difference in talent between the two rosters is real.

If there's anything this season has reminded us, however, it's that this sport cannot and will not be defined this plainly. Duggan's journey from the bench to the Heisman ceremony is one of many reminders of just how far he's come.

On Monday night, that journey will end. Before it does, the quarterback will once again have to manufacture a little more chaos and find comfort in the uncomfortable.

He wouldn't have it any other way.