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Max Duggan has TCU in the playoff thanks to his arm, grit and tears

Fiesta Bowl: No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 TCU, 4 p.m. Eastern on Saturday (ESPN)

TCU quarterback Max Duggan was emotional following the team’s 31-28 overtime loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game on Dec. 3. (Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
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The retired Nolan Richardson, a great basketball coach and an American original, used to speak of one curious detail of his recruiting methods: the importance of sobbing. If he visited a high school gym, saw a prospect’s team lose and saw that prospect sobbing over in the corner or somewhere, he would want that guy because that guy cared.

That concept found one of its better examples Dec. 3, in maybe the telltale news conference of the college football season, when Texas Christian quarterback Max Duggan spent almost eight minutes veering into sniffles and lip quivers and red eyes as he answered questions about a wrenching 31-28 overtime loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game. By now in life, any people happening upon that tape without recognizing they would want that guy on their team would have to count as doofuses.

“Sorry,” Duggan said at one point.

There’s no need for sorry.

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The unlikelihood of Duggan and TCU doing what they’re doing right now — getting ready for Michigan in a Fiesta Bowl College Football Playoff semifinal — comes barreling in a swirl of elements, which include a heart surgery during college (in 2020), a coaching change in 2021 and the fact that Duggan wasn’t the starting quarterback for Game 1 this season. Yet around the top of the list of enchantments would be that a guy from Council Bluffs, Iowa, has developed an unmistakable adoration for his school in Fort Worth. The Fiesta Bowl on Saturday will become Duggan’s 46th game for TCU, the first 36 or so barely known to a busy nation at large, all in one of the odder college careers in recent years.

At one of a bushel of zeniths this year, Duggan celebrated a 43-40 double-overtime win over Oklahoma State, wrung from a 30-16 fourth-quarter deficit, and ran through the gamut of love: “I love this place,” he told reporters in Fort Worth. “I love the school. I love the city. I love this program. And to be involved like that with a big win like that, get the fans in there [on the field], coaches are happy, players are happy, it’s a one-of-a-kind feeling.”

He spoke like that during transfer-era times, when many players might not get to experience that form of depth, as they hopscotch understandably from school to school, seeking opportunity. But everything TCU accomplished in 2022 coming off a 5-7 season, plus all the depth of camaraderie among the players, plus all the fresh ambitions wrapped around a love of the smallish school, all turned up as Duggan spoke when finally the Frogs had lost.

Their 12-0 record had flirted strongly with 13-0 and then had gone to 12-1, so his nose kept running with it. The halting crying went on and on with a beauty the culture might have lacked back in weaker eras such as last century, when a player might fear ostracism for such.

“Yeah, I don’t know,” he trailed off at one point while talking about the possible playoff berth, his voice cracking as he said. “I wanted that one really bad.”

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Asked to pinpoint the emotion, he explained, “Just since my four years I’ve been here, there’s been a lot of lows, and then to be so close to bringing this school, this university, a championship, the seniors on this team, the guys who have been through a lot, I think that’s where it hurts the most. You’ve been so down before, so low. To get so close and [have] it fall short, I think that’s where it’s coming from.”

Eventually, he sharpened that: “The love that we’ve got for each other, the love that we’ve got for this university, you know, for this school to be proud of the team that’s out there on the field. You know, I know we came short, but this team competes, they fight, they fight for each other, they fight for this university. There’s nothing more that we wanted for each other and for this school, and we fell short, so, you know, we’re sorry for that.”

Then he cried on his sleeve.

Originally in 2018, when he committed to TCU out of Lewis Central High in Council Bluffs, near Omaha, he told various reporters in Iowa about fancying the approach of Sonny Cumbie, then the offensive coordinator. By 2021 and 2022, Cumbie would have gone on to two Techs: Texas (as offensive coordinator) and then Louisiana (as head coach). By mid-2021, the university would dismiss head coach and legend Gary Patterson amid a 21st season, with Jerry Kill finishing up that year before Kill moved on to New Mexico State.

While TCU was losing, 48-14, to Iowa State in a thudding closer to 2021 in Duggan’s home state — yeah, you’re never as far away as you think you are — word was spreading that Sonny Dykes would come in from across town at SMU.

So, yeah, that has gone well.

Whereas Duggan had gone from 100th nationally in passer rating in his freshman season of 2019 to 57th in 2020 to a little-noticed 18th in 2021, he climbed all the way to eighth in 2022. He led five marked comebacks. His name turned up in the frequent vicinity of the word “gritty.” He put together a drive against Kansas State that might have seared itself into lore had TCU won — and might just anyway — rushing for 95 yards during the game-tying march. He ended up looking as if he might need a stretcher, and if you do need a stretcher, best to have it come get you in an end zone.

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He became a Heisman Trophy finalist, declared for the NFL draft and marched to graduate Dec. 17.

That’s some blur, just seven years after he played quarterback at 14 for Lewis Central and for his father, Jim, which couldn’t have been the easiest. Jim Duggan wound up telling the Heisman show in New York about the lad’s colossal and built-in will.

Lewis Central had a big season in Duggan’s senior year in 2018 and made it to the state semifinals at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls, with Duggan telling Iowa media outlets, “It brought the community together,” a matter about which he seems to care. But back in 2015, with things just getting going, Kevin White of the Daily Nonpareil in Council Bluffs reported from the field after a closing playoff loss, including some input from a quarterback still 14.

Wrote White: “‘I love this group of seniors,’ a red-eyed Max Duggan said after the game.”

Always get the guys who aren’t afraid of red eyes.