By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (September 7, 2015) — Not many people get the chance to re-write the ending to a chapter of their life.
Malcolm McDuffen has the opportunity to do just that at Tarleton State.
That means Bubba Tandy has the chance to play alongside his old high school teammate one more season.
It also means head coach Cary Fowler gets to continue a personal tradition of sticking with his “Hoptown Homies,” in the 2015 season, which for Tarleton begins next Saturday at 7 p.m. against Findlay (Ohio) at Tarleton’s Memorial Stadium.
To understand the relationship between Fowler, McDuffen and Tandy, one must first understand their roots in a place known as “Hoptown.”
“Tough town. A lot of guys doing hard industrial work, high crime rate, just a tough place to live and grow up,” said Fowler. “A lot of guys never get out of there.”
Hopkinsville has a violent crime rate 9.96 percent higher than the national average and 91.09 percent higher than the Kentucky average, according to cityrating.com. The property crime rate in Hopkinsville is 54.34 percent higher than the national average and 72.86 percent higher than the Kentucky average.
It’s also a great sports town. Except many of its young heroes never make it onto the big stage.
“We’ve got NFL players, NBA players, all kinds of professional athletes from Hopkinsville, but the world won’t ever know who the best athletes from there are, because a lot of them never make it out,” said Fowler.
McDuffen makes it sound as if not a lot has changed back in ‘Hoptown,’ a nickname used enough that the city’s official website is Hoptown.org, since Fowler grew up there.
“It’s a small town and a lot of people don’t make it out sports-wise. There is a lot of talent but it doesn’t always come out and showcase itself on a big stage like Bubba is trying to do and like I have had the chance to do,” said McDuffen. “It’s still a small enough town that a lot of people know each other’s family, and even if you’re from the other side of town, people really relate to each other.”
McDuffen and Tandy made the most of their time together at Christian County High School, one of two high schools serving Hopkinsville. Both were football and basketball stars, reaching consecutive state basketball tournaments together before McDuffen made it a third straight year as a senior with Tandy having already graduated.
Tandy even earned the title of Kentucky High School Player of the Year, and it was football that led each to the University of Kentucky in Lexington, 208 miles northeast of Hoptown. It was the same opportunity years earlier that helped Fowler escape 56 miles to the west to Murray, Kentucky, where he played football for Murray State.
“We were fortunate. We all had somebody looking out for us, trying hard to keep us on the right path,” said Fowler. “I know what kind of influence Malcolm’s momma and daddy have had on him, and that’s a big reason he’s where he is. His mom is an educator and his dad played football at Murray State. Malcolm’s high school coaches were my high school coaches. He had good people in his corner and he worked hard to make the most of his opportunities.”
McDuffen is hard to miss when he lines up in the Tarleton State defense. Even among other large, gifted athletes, 6-4, 245-pound linebackers who can run aren’t that common at the Division II level.
But McDuffen doesn’t just stand out for his size, or for the fact that he is a veteran of 32 games at Kentucky,a member of the Southeastern Conference. He has a degree and is working on his masters degree in business agriculture while completing his eligibility in Division II with his Division I clock having expired.
In short, McDuffen is no longer a kid coming out of high school, a junior college transfer, or even your typical upper-class leader.
“He’s a man. Boyhood is over with for him. He’s a full grown man and he’s a great example of a man for these other young men to follow,” says Tarleton head coach Cary Fowler. “You meet Malcolm and it doesn’t take much more than an instant to see that he’s a special person. I’m excited to have him here, and I’m excited for all our young guys who can watch and see how he carries himself on and off the field and in the classroom, just how he lives his life.”
But McDuffen isn’t just here to show off his Division I skills, and he by no means expects anything in Division II to simply be handed to him. Rather, he is still trying to improve, to learn, to hone his craft.
“I’m just dying to use everything I’ve learned up to this point in my career, both in in school and and on the field, to help my team,” he said. “We have a lot of competition ad linebacker, and that’s good because we are making each other better. I’m just try to learn as much as I can in the short amount of time I’ve been here, and hope I can help the team win.
“My position didn’t really change much from high school to Kentucky, so for 15 years I’ve done something one way. Here I’m in a different system,” McDuffen humbly points out. “It’s just another challenge, something I have to adapt to and take head on just like the other challenges in life.”
McDuffen is competing with Kansas State transfer Cody Marley, a former Denton Guyer star who made five tackles in Tarleton’s season opener before being injured in week two a season ago.
“They’re both great players, both have NFL bodies at that position and both have been in programs that are part of big-time football games on a weekly basis,” Fowlers says of the Division I transfers at linebacker. “And the best part is Malcolm is versatile enough you will even see them on the field at the same time quite a bit.”
That’s because McDuffen can also play defensive end in a defense that will be coordinated by Fowler himself. He assumed that role following the resignation of past defensive coordinator and current Dallas Kimball High School head coach Henry Cofer.
McDuffen credits that versatility to having been in the SEC.
“Football in the SEC has helped me a lot. I’m used to going up against humongous linemen and big running backs, athletic tight ends and receivers, so maybe that doe give me a little advantage over some others here,” he says. “The athletes are a little smaller, we don’t have all the big, freakish athletes I’m accustomed to playing against.”
But it’s still football, and McDuffen already sees that it’s played with the same tremendous passion in Division II.
“There’s still the same anticipation for the season, and I can see in practice everyone plays just as hard and they all want the same things,” McDuffen said. “Everyone wants to win a championship and is going all out for it.”
And his favorite part of it hasn’t changed either.
“My favorite thing has to be game day – the atmosphere, all the excitement that builds the whole week leading up to it, then the time comes and we go out there and everybody is ready to hit somebody and make plays. It’s great,” McDuffen said.
It’s an experience he wasn’t sure he would ever enjoy again. Having exhausted his eligibility at Kentucky, he naturally thought his career was over. But under a fifth year rule, he is able to play immediately at the Division II level while working on his graduate studies.
“I’m extremely excited and feel blessed to have this opportunity. It kind of came out of nowhere, to be honest, and Coach Fowler gave it to me and I can’t wait to go out on that field and show him how much I appreciate it through the way I play,” said McDuffen. “I didn’t have the career I wanted at Kentucky, and he’s helping me find the kind of closure I’m looking for in my college career.”
With what he hopes is a championship season alongside a star receiver and head coach reunited 807 miles away from home in Stephenville.
“It’s always good to have someone from the hometown. I feel an obligation to step up anytime I have the opportunity to help the young me from back home, because we share a special bond.”
Editor’s note: For more on Bubba Tandy from ‘Hoptown’ in a story published previously by The Flash, CLICK HERE.