Texas Christian University head football coach Sonny Dykes wonders if there might be a higher power driving the Horned Frogs along the wild, euphoric journey that has been the 2022 season. His team, which experts picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 in preseason polls, has crafted a 12–0 record punctuated by improbable comebacks, an emphatic rout or two, and one absolutely insane finish. As Dykes thinks back on the roaring crowds at Amon G. Carter Stadium and how all of Fort Worth seems suddenly invested in his team, what else could explain the unexpected success?
Dykes suspects that maybe—just maybe—the football gods want all those fans in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Athens, Georgia, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to know about his quarterback, Max Duggan, who has dealt so gracefully with the highest of highs and lowest of lows in his four years at TCU.
Duggan will lead the Horned Frogs onto the field for his forty-first career start Saturday in Arlington, this time in the Big 12 championship game against Kansas State. If the Horned Frogs win one more time—and maybe even if they don’t—TCU will be one of the four teams in the College Football Playoff, where the Horned Frogs will be matched up in a national semifinal game against Georgia or Michigan or some other brand-name powerhouse.
“The entirety of what’s happened to us this season, it’s hard not to go, ‘Well, there’s got to be a reason this happened,’ ” Dykes told reporters after last weekend’s 62–14 beatdown of Iowa State. “It’s almost like an act of God that this has happened. And then you go, ‘Okay, why? . . . Well, here’s this guy that’s played incredibly well at an incredibly important position.’ ”
Enter Max Duggan. The TCU quarterback’s story could be a Hallmark Channel special, with a career of injuries and comebacks, then a demotion to second string, followed by another comeback. On the other hand, focusing too much on the human element of his story might gloss over his accomplishments on the field, and how he seems sure to be in New York later this month as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
“I think his calmness and his confidence is one of the things that’s been a trademark of this team,” Dykes told ESPN earlier this season. “I think the quarterback position by nature, in a lot of ways, is kind of a narcissistic position. It has to be about you a lot of times, and Max is one of the few guys I’ve been around, it’s never about him. It’s always about his teammates and trying to make those around him better. And I think that’s why people appreciate him so much. He cares more about the team than he does himself.”
Duggan is six-two, 210 pounds, and a native of Council Bluffs, Iowa, who culled through a long list of scholarship offers and found his way to Fort Worth for a reason that might only make sense to Texans. He thought the city might be a great place to spend his college years and that having TCU’s campus set right in the heart of the city offered the best of both worlds.
“One of his priorities was to be at a school in a big metropolitan area,” Max’s dad, Jim Duggan, told the Athletic. “He didn’t want a small college town. He got to Fort Worth, looked around campus, and everything around TCU really hit home with him.”
Duggan played in all twelve TCU games as a true freshman in 2019 and started the last ten. His coming-out moment was throwing two touchdown passes and scampering eleven yards for the clinching touchdown in a 37–27 victory over Texas.
“Being able to get that win against them at home with the fans storming, I think that was the start of trusting yourself,” Duggan told ESPN’s College GameDay.
If he thought it would be smooth sailing after that, he quickly found out otherwise in the shortened 2020 pandemic season. During a preseason COVID-19 screening, Duggan learned that he had been born with a heart condition called Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, and that it required surgery. “It put catheters through my neck and groin,” he said. “I had a nine-hour procedure. And then two days later, I had a blood clot from the surgery, so I had to go into emergency surgery right after that. It kind of just puts a stop in your life.”
He didn’t start the opening game that season, but Duggan came off the bench to throw three touchdown passes in a 34–31 loss to Iowa State. He played most of the next season with a broken bone and torn tendon in one foot. He was seen on campus limping to class without the prescribed protective boot because he didn’t want photographs to end up on social media.
When surgeons went in for the repair work after the season, they couldn’t believe he was able to tolerate the pain of such an injury throughout his junior year. “I don’t think a lot of people know I didn’t practice at all,” he told the Associated Press. “So I literally would get shot up [with painkillers] and hopefully try to gut it out. So it was, it was pretty difficult.”
He struggled at times on the field—sixteen touchdown passes, six interceptions, 352 rushing yards—and that still eats at him. Former Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson, the leader who had taken TCU football to a 2011 Rose Bowl victory, rose up to defend his quarterback even after Patterson was fired after the eighth game of the 2021 season. “I better not hear anything bad about Max Duggan!” Patterson tweeted. “He didn’t have surgery to help TCU win when others turned it down!”
Duggan was back and ready to play last spring as TCU’s new coach, Dykes, was settling into the job. Discussing what happened between himself and Duggan in these last few months brings tears to Dykes’s eyes. The coach informed Duggan that he was naming Chandler Morris the starting quarterback. After three years of being number one, Duggan suddenly was a backup. Had he immediately entered the NCAA transfer portal in hopes of finding a new starting gig, few would have been surprised.
Instead, Duggan told Dykes that he intended to be the best backup quarterback in the country and that he’d do anything to help Morris succeed. But when Morris got hurt in TCU’s season opener at Colorado, Duggan trotted onto the field and led the Horned Frogs to the first of a dozen straight victories. “I’m probably as proud of Max as any player I’ve been around,” Dykes said after the Colorado win. “He never had a bad practice. He never pouted. He never thought of himself one time. How many people can you truly say that about? I’m kind of emotional about it, honestly. He’s the way you’d want your son to handle that situation.”
Duggan has played the best football of his life with 29 touchdown passes, three interceptions, 3,070 yards, and a 66.6 percent completion rate so far this season. “There was never a thought of me leaving,” he said. “I was going to be here. I wanted to make sure I graduated here. I wanted to make sure that I was here when TCU was back on top.”
Among Duggan’s gutsy highlights in the Horned Frogs’ undefeated run was a late touchdown pass to beat Kansas and a fourteen-point comeback he engineered in an overtime win against Oklahoma State—after a teeth-rattling hit had briefly knocked him out of the game.
“When you see your team leader is tough like that, it’s a confidence boost for everybody,” tight end Jared Wiley told the Athletic. “He’ll stick in there and make big plays, take a shot. His running adds another element to our game. It’s a boost knowing how tough he is.”
TCU beat Oklahoma and Texas in the same season for the first time in program history. They walloped the Sooners 55–24 in the fourth game of the season and beat Texas 17–10 in a game in which the TCU defense allowed all of 28 rushing yards. But the highlight was the Baylor game in mid-November. That one was Max Duggan’s finest hour. TCU trailed 28–20 midway through the fourth quarter when the quarterback led a 90-yard scoring drive that included five pass completions for 55 yards and a 21-yard run.
TCU was down 28–26 when the Horned Frogs got the ball back at their own 31-yard line with 90 seconds remaining and no timeouts. No sweat. Duggan completed passes of 19 and 9 yards and also had a 12-yard run. With 17 seconds remaining and the clock ticking away, Dykes hustled his field goal team on the field for Griffin Kell’s 40-yarder as time ran out. TCU, 29–28.
When asked about his quarterback’s play this season, Dykes has often focused on Duggan’s leadership. “It’s just our guys’ undying belief in him, and our guys trying to play their tails off for him because they have so much respect and admiration for what he brings to our football program every day,” he said.
“He’s always been a dog,” offensive lineman Wes Harris told reporters earlier this fall. “He’s just a winner, he’s a gamer, and every time you look back there, you feel confident with the guy. . . . Max, he’s been a leader ever since he stepped on campus; I voted for him [as] team captain the past four years, so that’ll tell you what I think about that guy.”
Duggan will receive his business degree later this school year. First, though, TCU has a crack at its first national championship since 1938, and that would be the very definition of a quarterback’s storybook season. Especially this quarterback.
“I love Max,” TCU cornerback Josh Newton said of Duggan. “He doesn’t talk, he’s like a lion. When the lion roars, the lion doesn’t roar like the hyena. But, when he roars, everybody gets big eyes. I love playing with Max. Pure dog.”