Duke's strange journey back is extra special to father, son

Danowskis reunite, look to share title

College Lacrosse

April 27, 2007|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun Reporter

This is how a father and a son come full circle. This is how a father and a son part ways when it's time, only to have a nightmare pull them back together for one special year, before life inevitably will split them up again.

After all these months of playing mentor and counselor to a program in need of a healing hand and a rock-solid teacher, Duke lacrosse coach John Danowski appreciates the surreal nature of it all.

It was only about five years ago, while he was working on a two-decade run as one of the game's more successful, respected coaches at Hofstra, that Danowski was telling his teenage son, Matt - destined to become an elite, Division I attackman - to get out of Long Island.

Don't feel obligated to come to Hofstra to help your old man win games, he told his boy. You owe me nothing. Get out on your own and find out who you are. Earn a prized degree from a prestigious school. Kick some butt in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Help Duke win a national title.

Matt is 21 now, a senior enjoying his last go-round while he prepares to graduate with a history degree at Duke and builds a strong case to become the nation's Player of the Year.

And he knows how right the old man was all along. And how right it feels that the father, like the son, left behind the familiar to pursue a mission.

"The best thing you can do in your life is be a parent. For 21 years, [Matt] was my son first," said John, who, with the exception of some brief, summer league seasons, had never coached Matt.

"If Matt wasn't here, I wouldn't even have applied for this job. It would just have been a story to me. But the story hit home, because I knew the people involved. It was intriguing, wondering if I could be successful at another place. The most overwhelming aspect of this was I've got to help Matt and his friends."

The scars are fresh, as a program puts a crisis - ultimately born of false accusations - behind it.

A year after that infamous team party, after a stripper accused former Duke players David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann of rape and caused a season to end early and 16-year coach Mike Pressler to resign, the case that sparked a national stir officially has crumbled.

Return to normalcy

Long before April 11, the day North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper publicly chastised District Attorney Michael Nifong for pursuing a case without merit and dropped all remaining charges against the players, John Danowski was helping Matt and his friends move on.

"It could have been awkward, but [John] did a good job of coming in and saying I'm here, this is a fall tryout and this is how I want to do things," Matt said. "He doesn't scream. He's never too high, never too low.

"He's made it feel pretty normal around here, even though this is not a normal year. We've done a good job of keeping that fine line between father/son and player/coach. I see him a couple of times a week [away from lacrosse]. I've gotten to know him again in a different manner."

From the day John leased an apartment about a mile off campus - his wife, Patricia, still lives back in Farmingdale, N.Y., where she works as an ultrasound technician and makes it to most Duke games - he said he has been careful about giving Matt space.

Other than the nearly daily, lacrosse-related contact during the season, father and son dine together once or twice a week and occasionally go food shopping for Matt. They talk about the past, present and future. They enjoy each other's company.

A feeling of mutual hurt has strengthened a bond that was always strong. A year ago, after Matt told his father he was "98 percent sure nothing happened" at that party, a strange, painful spring unfolded.

The Blue Devils had their designs on returning to the NCAA title game they had lost in 2005 yanked away, just eight games into the season. Up north, John was leading Hofstra to a 17-2 finish, his best in 21 years there.

"I actually talked to [my parents] less and less, because I didn't want to pass [the pain] on to them," Matt said.

"Hofstra was the only team I followed [after Duke lost its season], and there was a hint of jealousy. But one of the most hurtful parts of [the case] was it was taking attention away from his team and what they were doing."

Said John: "I struggled off the field. My wife was miserable. I was miserable. Getting on the field was a sanctuary."

Headed for title shot

When some Duke parents urged him to seek the Blue Devils' job last spring, John listened to his heart. And just like that, Danowski was hired and breaking away from the program he had built. He won 192 games and guided the Pride to eight NCAA tournaments.

Some things quickly became apparent to the Duke players. John could be hands-on and hands-off, meaning he was a stickler for hustle and discipline, and at the same time was removing some of Pressler's structure and giving the players more room to create.

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