Column: Rancho Verde’s AJ Duffy ready for IMG Academy football adventure
AJ Duffy plans to board a plane to Orlando, Fla., on Jan. 29 to begin a journey few teenagers get to experience. And he’s playing it cool.
“Nothing packed yet,” he said. “I’m usually a last-minute guy.”
He’s leaving his mom, dad, three younger sisters and three dogs so he can attend IMG Academy in Bradenton. He’s a junior quarterback at Moreno Valley Rancho Verde, where his father, Pete, is head coach. He’s leaving because the offer was too good to pass up. He’ll get daily training and in-person schooling at a time when no one knows when football will resume in California, let alone when classrooms will reopen. In the fall, he figures to be making appearances on ESPN’s high school game of the week.
“I haven’t been around a bunch of guys in a while,” he said. “The training [at IMG] is top notch, the coaching, the meals. Just getting better in every aspect. I think it’s a great opportunity.”
If there are any doubts that Duffy is the son of a coach, you only need to watch highlights from his final game of 2018. He was a freshman for Rancho Verde. His team trailed Sherman Oaks Notre Dame by 10 points in the Division 2 playoff semifinals with less than 90 seconds remaining. He could barely lift his left arm after breaking his collarbone in the third quarter.
His father remembers asking him on the sideline, “If you want to come out, it’s no problem.”
“When it first happened, I was in a lot of pain,” he said. “But I don’t know if it was the adrenaline of the game, it went away.”
Duffy rallied Rancho Verde to a 41-38 victory with two touchdown passes, including a 50-yarder that slipped through the hands of two Notre Dame defenders into the grasp of receiver Jamar Simpson with less than 40 seconds left.
“He didn’t flinch,” Notre Dame coach Joe McNab recalled. “We hit him a lot. He bounced up and kept playing.”
Said Duffy’s father: “It showed another level of toughness you don’t often see.”
Duffy has grown to 6 feet 2 and 205 pounds. He has 38 scholarship offers and has used more than 10 months of COVID-19 restrictions to improve on his individual talents, thanks to having his father in his quarantine family.
“Honestly, the only bad part is not being able to play football,” he said. “I work out, have school, play my video games. I’m working out more now than when I was in school — running, lifting, throwing.”
All six members of the Duffy family can be found in their Murrieta home on laptops — Pete teaching, AJ and three younger sisters taking classes and mother Alma working.
It was in 2002, after AJ’s birth, that his father decided to leave the Los Angeles area to find a new home for his growing family. He and Alma were living in an apartment in Long Beach’s Belmont Shore neighborhood while he was the football coach at L.A.‘s Fremont High. After the 2003 season, he resigned and moved to the Inland Empire. He had grown up in a suburb of Boston before moving to Los Angeles. Now he had a son who needed room to throw things.
“As soon as he picked something up, he’d fire it,” Pete said. “He was a natural thrower — whether socks, food, toys. When he was young, there was a lot of kids running into the house, ‘I got hit with the ball.’ The first few times we thought it was an accident. After that, we decided it was natural.”
Duffy helped lead Rancho Verde to an 11-1 record in 2019, passing for 2,568 yards and 26 touchdowns while rushing for 501 yards and four touchdowns. Being the son of a coach has helped his instincts on how to handle pressure and how to make spur-of-the-moment judgment calls. “As big as the moment feels, you have to take a deep breath and relax,” he said. “It’s playing ball.”
Duffy was planning to stay at Rancho Verde for two more seasons. That has changed because of uncertainty with the pandemic. His father decided it was best his son leave for IMG even though it’s tough to let his “buddy” leave home.
“He’s made good strides with what I’ve been able to do with him, but if the goal is to be the best player you can be and you have the ability to have the best training available, why not do it?” Pete said.
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