Most Heisman Trophy candidates don’t start the season on the bench.
Your Caleb Williamses, your CJ Strouds, even your Stetson Bennetts, we’ve seen these guys for years, we’ve heard their names even longer. (In Bennett’s case, nearly a decade.) Climbing from a backup role to an invitation to the Heisman ceremony in New York over the course of three months is the kind of ascent you expect in over-the-top scripted college football TV shows, not actual college football.
Max Duggan, who guided TCU into the College Football Playoff and earned that Heisman love for it, already has enough storylines in his past to make for an entire Netflix series. High expectations, early success, injuries and health scares, a humiliating benching, a triumphant season, magnificent comebacks, an emotional plea, all leading to a berth in college football’s marquee event. It’s a hell of a story, and all it’s lacking now is a fitting conclusion.
High school: A coach's kid made good
Born with a sterling athletic pedigree — his father was a South Dakota quarterback and his mother was a South Dakota hurdler — Max lived football from birth, wearing old Green Bay Packers helmets around the house as a lad. Jim Duggan had been a football coach for years before Max’s birth, so when Max came along, he gravitated toward the sideline, handing out water to players and soaking up lessons every day, whether he realized it or not.
Justin Kammrad joined Jim Duggan’s staff at Lewis Central High School in Council Bluffs, Iowa when Max was still a middle-schooler. Even then Kammrad could see there was something different about the kid. “He had all the intangibles, he was heads above the other kids,” recalls Kammrad, who took over the Lewis Central program after the elder Duggan retired. “When he was in eighth grade, he would come work out with the high schoolers after basketball practices at middle school. Not many kids his age would do that.”
By the time he reached high school, it was clear Max was destined for, if not greatness, at least high school-level fame. That happens when you’re the coach’s kid … and you get handed the keys to the team when you’re just 14. He won the job of starting quarterback at Lewis Central as a freshman, beating out an upperclassman for the job.
The fact that Max was the coach’s son raised eyebrows and caused some grumbling in the stands, but Kammrad insists it was ultimately his call, not the senior Duggan’s, to start Max. Very quickly, it became obvious that Max was right for the job regardless of the name on the back of his jersey. Duggan threw for 1,400 yards his freshman year, and threw only 10 interceptions his entire high school career.
“After my freshman year of high school is when I started to realize that it was a real possibility that I could go somewhere [to play college football],” Duggan recently told TCU’s university magazine. “I never expected it to be at TCU or a Power Five. But there were small schools around southwest Iowa that were reaching out to me. After my sophomore year was when I received my offer from Iowa. That’s when it became a reality that I would have a chance to go play Power Five football.”
“From a football-playing standpoint, Max never really displayed any struggles,” Kammrad says. “I know that’s crazy to say. The one thing he struggled with was an injury his junior year, when he had a broken thumb. But from that, you saw strong leadership. He knew he couldn’t play, so he was actively involved in the game plan, in practice, helping [his replacement] to be the best possible quarterback until he got healthy enough.”
By the time of that junior season, despite his injury, Duggan was drawing interest from the entire country. He spurned Iowa and Iowa State, preferring to put distance between himself and his hometown. Georgia, Notre Dame, Penn State, North Carolina, Ohio State, Oregon and Tennessee were happy to entice him. But a visit to TCU in March of his junior year — and in particular a connection with then-TCU offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie — opened Duggan’s eyes and won his loyalty.
“Football was a big part of it,” Duggan said of his decision to leave Iowa. “But outside of football, I wanted to go somewhere new. I wanted to meet new people from all around the country, see new things, gain new interests, and I wanted to go to a school that would set me up for the future.”
Duggan is on the leading edge of a growing trend: quarterbacks committing to their chosen universities in the spring of their junior year, or in some cases even earlier. Colleges want to lock down their prospects as soon as possible to plan for the future, and Duggan fit nicely into TCU’s plans … at least to start.
“We were a little curious about why in-state schools hadn’t recruited him a little harder,” says Adam Gorney, national recruiting director for Rivals. “Looking back, it was a good call [for Duggan to leave Iowa]. At TCU, he could throw the ball around and be a little more creative [than he would have at Iowa or Iowa State]. In typical Midwestern fashion, he wasn’t critical of the in-state schools, he just looked elsewhere.”
College Part 1: Good, but not good enough
College football’s elite programs thrive on continuity. Coordinators may change, but the head coach — and thus the organizational philosophy — remains the same. Alabama, Georgia, Michigan, Clemson … a player arriving at these schools as a freshman can generally count on things remaining stable until his Senior Day. One notch down, though, and the waters get more turbulent.
Duggan didn’t know it, but he was blissfully, naïvely walking into choppy surf. The final three years of the Gary Patterson head coaching regime coincided with the first three years of Duggan’s TCU career. The Horned Frogs went 16-18 over that span, but on-field struggles weren’t the only challenge Duggan faced.
Prior to the 2020 season, Duggan took an EKG test, part of the enhanced testing protocols put in place at the time because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The test, which measures the heart’s electrical activity, found an abnormality in Duggan's heart known as Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, one that required a nine-hour procedure for him to continue playing.
Duggan underwent the procedure and was well enough to start for TCU every game of the 2020 season, leading the Horned Frogs to a six-win year and a spot in what was then called the Mercari Texas Bowl. It would be Duggan's last high point for quite awhile.
The 2021 season was Patterson’s last, and he was fired right around the time Duggan was benched in favor of Chandler Morris, an Oklahoma transfer. The disheveled and discombobulated Horned Frogs finished 5-7 and missed out on postseason play. After TCU hired Sonny Dykes, who made no promises about the starting job, Duggan was looking at the end of his football road.
No one would have blamed Duggan if he’d leapt into the transfer portal right then. He would have been an attractive prize, a 29-game Big 12 starter with almost 6,000 career passing yards and, thanks to the COVID exemption, two years eligibility remaining. So why didn’t he go?
“He’s an extremely loyal individual, extremely passionate about Fort Worth and TCU,” Kammrad says. “Part of that is the Midwest culture: finish the job, see it through, not jump ship. I’m sure there were a lot of suitors contacting him, but he knew, 'If I leave, there will be a lot of people saying I told you so.'
"He wanted to prove himself once again.”
Duggan ended up starting this season on the bench, but didn’t stay there long. Barely three quarters into TCU’s first game against Colorado, Morris injured his knee when a defender landed on him — not a season-ending injury, but enough to open the door for Duggan.
College Part 2: Riding a rocket
On Duggan's very first play, he broke free for a 33-yard run. He capped his first drive with a touchdown, and never looked back. Morris had been out for only a couple games, but by the time he was ready to return, the TCU train had left the station without him — and with Duggan at the throttle. Duggan’s determination and willingness to finish the job he’d started impressed his new head coach.
“He loses the job, which is hard when you’re getting ready to be a senior, but he never blinks, he never had a bad practice, never pouted, never thought of himself one time. How many people can you say that about?” Dykes said in late September. “He’s the way you want your son to handle that situation.”
What happened next will live on in TCU history: 12 straight victories, an entire season spent dancing on the thin line between brilliance and chaos. Duggan surpassed 3,000 yards passing and 400 yards rushing, with 36 total touchdowns. He led four game-winning drives and was inches from a fifth.
The last-second hurry-up field goal to defeat Baylor looms large in college football’s collective memory, but it was Duggan who orchestrated the drives to bring TCU back from eight points down with barely two minutes to play. The 43-40 double-overtime victory over previously unbeaten Oklahoma State, the wins over five top-20 ranked teams — it all led to the Big 12 championship, where Duggan crafted one of the finest individual efforts of the 2022 season.
Down 28-20 with less than five minutes remaining, facing third-and-15 on his own 30-yard line, Duggan raced 72 yards over multiple plays to set up a touchdown and a game-tying two-point conversion to force overtime. Kansas State won 31-28 in overtime, but TCU’s herculean effort to get there kept playoff-hopeful Alabama at bay — and Duggan’s tearful postgame news conference cemented the Horned Frogs’ slot in the playoff.
"There's nothing more that I want than to bring this school a championship," said an emotional Duggan. "Today we fell short. I didn't make enough plays to help us offensively ... I think that's where it hurts the most is that you've been so down before, so low. To get so close and it falls short."
"The guy is one of the best players in college football," Dykes said after the game. "I think it's pretty obvious."
It’s been a dizzying rise for the kid from Council Bluffs. He began the year wondering whether he had a future in football. He ended it as the subject of a TCU social media campaign — #HE15MAN — and tribute video narrated by fellow Frog and Pro Football Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson. He has won acclaim from Heisman winners like Johnny Manziel and Robert Griffin III. He finished second in Heisman voting behind winner Caleb Williams. He was the subject of a joyously profane tweet from fellow Texas legend Dez Bryant, who gushed after the Big 12 championship, “I wanna drive up to the stadium and shake and salute Max Duggan’s hand … I LOVE FIGHT AND HEART ITS [sic] CONTAGIOUS.”
After the playoff, what next?
Duggan and the rest of the Horned Frogs will need fight and heart to hang with Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl and CFP semifinal. TCU is a 7.5-point underdog, per BetMGM oddsmakers. Beyond that, Duggan’s future is murky. He still has a season of eligibility remaining, but he also has the NFL's attention now.
“I wouldn’t put it past him to say, 'I love this place so much, I’m coming back,'” Kammrad says.
Rivals projects Duggan as a second- or third-day draft pick, and a viable potential fixture in the league.
“He’s a very talented college quarterback who can make all the throws,” Gorney says. “Playing under Sonny Dykes only helped him. There are definitely going to be NFL teams that take a shot at him. Playing hurt, his competitive drive — teams have gotten much better looks at him this year.”
The question that awaits Duggan is the question that faces every quarterback leveling up to the pro level: can you adjust your game to a much faster speed?
“Can he sit in an NFL pocket and not get hurt, not get hit, and throw the ball all over the field?” Gorney wonders. “From a competitiveness standpoint, leading a franchise — Max could absolutely do that. But he’s a guy coming from the Big 12, where he lines up as fast as humanly possible. Running an NFL offense is a little more complicated.”
Duggan’s journey — starter to bench to starter to CFP — isn’t one many players have made, or would even be willing to make. With all the off-ramps and options available to players now, especially talented one-time starters, Duggan could have skipped out of Fort Worth, but he didn’t, and to Kammrad, that’s an example worth following.
“I hope he’s inspired a lot of young football players by what he’s done,” Kammrad says. “I hope they look at Max differently than what’s currently going on with the transfer portal, and [players] not staying in one place. I hope they look at a kid that didn’t give up, didn’t run away from competition but embraced it, took it as an opportunity to grow and finish what they committed to. I think his story’s truly inspiring.”
Duggan and TCU square off against Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl at 4 pm. ET New Year’s Eve.
Contact Jay Busbee at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.