Bryce Duke finished high school in May, but there wasn’t much pomp given the circumstances.
“I pretty much just got told I graduated,” he said. “I haven’t got my diploma yet. That’ll probably come via email, I’m guessing.”
What would have been an elaborate ceremony at a 14,000-seat basketball arena was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although Duke, who graduated with honors and won a role model award voted on by his classmates, isn’t sure he would have been there anyway. Halfway through his senior year, he signed to play soccer for LAFC, giving up a classroom for online courses.
So while the kids he grew up with in Peoria, Ariz., were preparing for the prom, Duke was preparing for his rookie season in MLS.
That too was interrupted by the coronavirus outbreak, which halted play after two games, turning a spring of life-changing accomplishment for Duke into one that will partly be memorable for what didn’t happen.
“It’s not a perfect season, like all the other ones where everything ran smoothly for me,” he said. “But everything happens for a reason. This is definitely going to be something that I remember. Maybe not in the most positive way.”
That’s not to say there weren’t high points, like his professional debut 17 minutes into the second half of LAFC’s CONCACAF Champions League game in León, Mexico, 10 days before his 19th birthday. Or his first two MLS appearances at a sold-out Banc of California Stadium.
Then, 12 days into March, it all stopped, and Duke, a midfielder, hasn’t passed a ball to a teammate since. For the last three weeks, he has been doing voluntary individual workouts at LAFC’s training center at Cal State Los Angeles, preparing for what MLS hopes will be a return to play in Florida in late June or early July.
It’s the longest he’s gone without a full practice or game since he started playing for the elite CISCO club at age 5. Yet Duke looks at it as a test that eventually will lead to a bigger reward.
“There’s always going to be obstacles,” he said. “This had to happen, but it’s just another obstacle I’ve overcome. This is kind of an eye-opener because it tests your mentality.”
That’s a mature perspective from the only under-20 player on LAFC’s roster. But it’s one that doesn’t surprise Bob Bradley, his coach.
“From the beginning, Bryce has made a very good impression,” Bradley said. “For a young player, he’s smart. He picks up ideas. He’s confident, and so in the few moments when we use him in games, we were really excited to see just the way he stepped on the field.
“We think that he’s a young player with a fantastic upside.”
Duke showed uncommon maturity just by deciding to come to LAFC since it meant passing up a trip to Spain and a tryout at Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy.
After two years playing at Real Salt Lake’s academy in Utah, Duke returned to Arizona to join Barcelona’s U.S. residency program in Casa Grande, where he was spotted by Mike Sober, LAFC’s director of soccer operations.
Duke’s homegrown rights belonged to Salt Lake, so LAFC had to work out a deal with the team before it could sign him. That happened in late January, less than a month before his scheduled trip to Barcelona.
Officially the Spanish club was offering only an audition while LAFC was offering a contract. Duke took the sure thing, with his mom, Shannon, driving him from the academy to a UPS store to print, sign and scan the paperwork and send it back to LAFC before Duke caught a flight to Los Angeles that evening.
Less than 24 hours after he arrived, he was on the field for the team’s first preseason friendly with Uruguayan powerhouse Peñarol.
“It was strange,” he said. “I’m not playing with kids my age who are taking the same [pre-calculus] classes. I’m playing with guys who have kids, newborns, families. It’s definitely a whole culture change.”
A change he welcomed because it meant he has accomplished the goal he had set for himself even if meant passing up prom and graduation.
“Looking back, I knew that tradition was not even remotely important to Bryce,” said Shannon Duke, who went to her prom with high school sweetheart Chris Duke, the man she would later marry. So when a delivery driver left the tassel from Bryce’s graduation cap on the family’s doorstep last week, he told his mom to keep it.
“How about graduation pictures?” she asked.
“No, not really,” he replied.
“He had the mind-set of one goal and one goal only,” Shannon Duke said. “Every choice Bryce had made, he has not had a hiccup.”
Until now. But the COVID pause, the Dukes believe, will only make what comes next that much better.
“He got a taste of being on the field, hearing the crowd, living the dream,” Shannon Duke said. “He’s excited and he just wants to keep them in the moment.”
In his own way, her son has graduated. He just didn’t need a cap and gown to do it.