Heart of a Horned Frog
Max Duggan’s determination has helped lead TCU to the finals of the College Football Playoff.
The nine-hour heart surgery.
Playing on a broken foot.
The loss of a starting gig he had held for three years.
This magical season.
The highs and lows Max Duggan ’22 faced during his four years as TCU’s starting quarterback have become the stuff of legend.
Jeremy Clark, the longtime TCU beat reporter for 247 Sports, expressed little surprise at Duggan’s success.
Not long after Duggan committed to TCU in 2018, Clark traveled to Iowa to watch him lead Lewis Central High School to a 51-7 playoff victory. That night the quarterback threw four touchdowns and rushed for two more.
The four-star recruit and future Davey O’Brien Award winner spoke with Clark after the game, expressing his appreciation that the reporter made the trip.
A text from Duggan a few hours later gave Clark early insight into the future TCU star’s character. Duggan thanked him again before apologizing for how he’d acted as a result of his frustration with himself.
“What kind of teenager does that?” said Clark, who hadn’t considered Duggan’s behavior as anything but gracious at the time. “That’s just who Max is.”
In the four years since that text, Duggan has logged 43 starts as a Horned Frog and has now led the Horned Frogs to the National Championship game.
“We at TCU don’t think he’s one of the best college athletes in the country, we think he’s the best college athlete in the country,” Chancellor Victor J. Boschini, Jr. said in December while introducing Duggan at his pre-Heisman news conference.
“The reason we think that is because of what Max is both on and off the field.”
Duggan, who will turn 22 in March, was born and raised in the blue-collar city of Council Bluffs, Iowa, directly across the Missouri River from Omaha, Nebraska. His parents, Deb and Jim Duggan, met at the University of South Dakota where she was a top hurdler. Her husband-to-be, meanwhile, was the Coyotes’ quarterback.
The couple relocated to Iowa where they started a family by adopting two children from South Korea, Sam and Megan. Max, who was born when his siblings were ages 6 and 4, respectively, describes the Duggan clan as a football family. His dad coached football at a local high school. Sam played quarterback for their father’s team.
In junior high, Max Duggan would work summers baling hay, building both muscle and character. (Hay bales can weigh 65-85 pounds apiece.)
In high school, Max participated in student council while maintaining an A average and lettering in baseball, basketball, track and football. On occasion, his dad would bench him. The elder Duggan also caught flak for starting his son, something that only fueled Max’s resolve.
“His mom is a stubborn farm girl from central Iowa and he’s ornery Irish on the Duggan side,” said Jim Duggan, who retired from coaching and teaching in the spring of 2019. “That combination has made Max who he is.”
As Iowa’s Gatorade Player of the Year in 2018, Max Duggan fielded interest from Iowa, Kansas State, Penn State, Ole Miss, Ohio State, Georgia and other top programs.
Sonny Cumbie, TCU’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at the time, was determined to make the high school junior a Horned Frog upon meeting him in early January 2018. For the next several months, Cumbie returned to Duggan’s school, attended his track meets and spent time with the whole Duggan family. (He still raves about Jim’s chili.)
After stepping onto campus for an unofficial visit in March 2018, Duggan fell hard for TCU. A month later, he committed. He never wavered, Cumbie said. “He’s a loyal dude.”
Duggan’s affection for TCU only deepened during his four years as an undergraduate.
“I love this place,” he told the media after the Frogs come-from-behind, double-overtime 43-40 victory over Oklahoma State in October 2022.
“I love the school. I love the city. I love this program.”
Two months later, as he prepared to head to Phoenix for the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl, Duggan described playing for TCU as a dream come true.
“The support from the school has been fantastic,” he said. “It’s been incredible. [Football] brings together our program and our university. A lot of people have a lot of pride in it.”
After graduating from high school a semester early, Duggan enrolled at TCU. He moved into Wright Hall in January 2019 and a few months later started spring practice.
He started 10 games as a true freshman in 2019. He finished the season with 2,077 passing yards and 15 touchdown passes.
The coronavirus pandemic upended his sophomore season in more ways than one. A routine electrocardiogram in the summer of 2020, part of the university’s Covid-19 protocol for student-athletes, revealed that Duggan had Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. The congenital defect makes the heart beat abnormally fast.
He was diagnosed on a Friday. Late Monday afternoon, he underwent a nine-hour surgery in Houston.
Two days later, Duggan was back in Fort Worth … and heading to the emergency room. At midnight he had emergency vascular surgery to remove a blood clot.
“That was the one that really set him back,” said Jim Duggan, who drove his wife and daughter to every home TCU game, a roughly 20-hour round trip, for four years. (Sam Duggan flew in from Denver when he could.)
But the blood clot wasn’t enough to keep the quarterback down for long. Eight weeks later, he started for the Frogs against Iowa State.
The pandemic caused TCU to play one fewer game during the regular 2020 season and to miss the Mercari Texas Bowl. Nevertheless, Duggan finished his second year as a Horned Frog with 3,321 passing yards and 30 touchdowns along with 404 rushing yards plus six additional scores on the ground.
Midway through his junior season, the 6’2” signal caller encountered more health woes after breaking a bone in his foot during the October game against the Texas Tech. (He nonetheless led the Frogs to a 52-31 victory.)
Afterward, Duggan refused to wear a boot out of concern that his injury might leak on social media. He played with the fracture for the final seven weeks of 2021 before having surgery in Dallas in late November.
“His broken foot and the fact he was still playing on it gave me a lot of motivation,” said junior receiver Quentin Johnston. “He’s always fighting for us, which makes it that much easier for us to fight for him.”
The Frogs finished eighth in the Big 12 with a 5-7 record that season. Head coach Gary Patterson exited the program in October.
In August 2022, about a week before the season would kick off, new TCU head coach Sonny Dykes met with Duggan to inform him that he and offensive coordinator Garrett Riley were selecting Chandler Morris to start the season. Though many speculated on Duggan’s next move, he said he never entertained thoughts of transferring.
“We understood the logistics of a new coaching staff,” Jim Duggan said. “Max knew he was going to have to do something spectacular to win over the coaches, who want to start from ground zero with new people.”
His son’s reaction, however, caught many who didn’t know Max Duggan well by surprise:
“I told Coach Dykes I was going to be the best backup quarterback in the country,” Duggan said.
“Max never blinked, never had a bad practice, he never pouted,” Dykes said. “He never thought of himself one time. How many people can you say that about that you know in your life?
“You can say that about Max Duggan, that’s for sure.”
When a knee injury sidelined Morris during the second half of the 2022 season opener against the University of Colorado, Duggan stepped up and never looked back.
He started the next 13 games, leading the Frogs to a 12-0 regular season, one that saw him throw for 3,321 yards with 30 touchdowns and 404 rushing yards with six touchdowns on the ground.
“Max is one of those guys who in the last minute you want to get the ball in his hands,” said cornerback Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson. “For me personally his best leading is the way he plays football.”
Other teammates and coaches describe Duggan as a self-directed and self-motivated player who never panics or complains.
“The team tries to match his energy because if you’re going to play as hard as him, you’re going to be playing really hard,” said junior linebacker Johnny Hodges.
Duggan said he realized how truly special the 2022 team was after a trio of mid-season wins: 55-24 over Oklahoma; 38-31 over Kansas; and a stunning double-overtime victory over Oklahoma State.
“Three ranked opponents and we were down in all of three of them and came back,” said Duggan, who threw a 73-yard touchdown pass to Taye Barber in the first quarter of the Oklahoma game before running 67 yards for another touchdown a minute later.
“There have been times he’s put the team on his back and figured out how to win games,” Dykes said. “He’s just one of those kids who has been incredibly steady in his approach and in the way he’s handled himself.
“When things go great, he’s got the same mentality as when things go bad,” Dykes said. “Everyone in our program appreciates that consistency.”
Duggan’s calmness and resolve on the field along with his trust in his teammates helped him lead the Frogs to six come-from-behind victories. His parents always considered him level-headed, even as a child. He brings that discipline and focus to the field.
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
In December, Duggan racked up a passel of awards in addition to crossing the stage to collect his degree in marketing.
“Max was so happy and proud to get accepted into the Neeley School of Business,” Jim Duggan said. “It was always really important to him to graduate from Neeley.”
The sports world also heaped accolades on Duggan.
By unanimous vote, he was named Associated Press Big 12 offensive player of the year.
He and his family traveled to Baltimore where he was presented the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award. He became the first Horned Frog to receive the honor, which highlights character, citizenship and academic achievement.
From there, the Duggan posse (parents, siblings, girlfriend, athletics staff) decamped to New York City for the Heisman Trophy Ceremony. He toured the city — his first trip there — in the company of fellow finalists. At the Saturday night ceremony he mingled with 23 former Heisman winners, from Tony Dorsett to Tim Tebow.
On that stage alongside his parents, Duggan listened as his mother described how her son found time to inspire a new generation of players by coaching a team of young flag football players that season. Their nickname? Duggan’s Destroyers.
“We talked about when he was a little kid, as he looked up to other people, that was important to him,” Deb Duggan told the Heisman audience.
Duggan was the Heisman runner-up to USC’s Caleb Williams. He was the Frogs’ highest Heisman finisher since 1955 when Jim Swink also placed second. Duggan was the university’s first finalist since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2000.
As she fixed his purple necktie in advance of the Heisman ceremony, Deb Duggan revealed to her son that he’d won the Davey O’Brien Award, named after the legendary 1939 TCU grad. Duggan is the first Horned Frog to win.
“From his exceptional play on the field to his steadfast leadership and unrelenting will to win, Max truly embodies who Davey O’Brien was,” said Foundation Executive Director Kendall Cason Iles ’10.
Eight days later, Duggan declared for the NFL draft.
“Being a student athlete at TCU has been the greatest experience of my life,” he said. “It has helped me develop as a football player, earn a degree and become a better man.”
Duggan had consulted with his family, friends and coaches before opting out of a fifth year of playing for TCU.
“He’s got that pro mentality,” Dykes said.
Duggan timed the announcement to distract as little as possible from the Frogs’ preparation for the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl. The players spent the Christmas holidays in Phoenix, practicing for the matchup with No. 2 Michigan.
While Jim Duggan paced the concourse (“It was the worst game for me as a coach or a parent”), his son led the 51-45 win over the Wolverines, sending the Frogs to Monday’s National Championship Game at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles. Duggan helped the Frogs become the first Big 12 team to make the National Championship game since the college football playoff era began in 2014.
Boschini, who traveled to NYC for the Heisman ceremony and was in Phoenix for the epic upset, is still dreaming of everything to come.
“We have not seen the last of Max Duggan,” Boschini said. “I am absolutely certain he will be a huge figure in the future of TCU for many, many years ahead.”