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Former Gridiron Standouts Prepare for Next Steps
Courtesy: Bradley Amersbach, GoDuke the Magazine
Release: 04/10/2014
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Photo Courtesy: Duke Photography
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DURHAM -- Dave Harding and Ross Cockrell proved themselves as integral members of the football program during their respective tenures at Duke. This fact is not surprising when one compares the two. Both found themselves on the same track to pursue a graduate degree in political science. Both garnered the respect and admiration of their teammates and the Duke coaching staff, being named captains in their final season. Both showed a genuine passion for the sport.

Ironically, this shared passion is what sent the former roommates on divergent paths as their playing careers at Duke came to a close.  

Although Harding hoped to pursue a career in the NFL, the former offensive guard was forced to push those ambitions aside due to a football-related back injury. A self-proclaimed student of the game, Harding was not willing to let go of a sport that played such a significant role in his life, so he began considering alternate avenues that would allow him to remain involved in the game. After reflecting, Harding believed broadcasting provided a viable option to stay engaged in the sport.

“I’ve always been interested in journalism and broadcast media,” Harding explained. “Going back to my elementary school days, I was an anchor on our morning news and with all of the traveling I did overseas, my sisters and I would make movies and put together stories with the video cameras.”

An amicable and extroverted individual, Harding exuded confidence and intelligence as a regular at football media days on Duke’s campus. Nearly every Tuesday during the football season, one could find Harding striding easily into the Brooks Building with a smile on his face, casually joking with teammates and local media members in attendance. Student-athletes can find speaking with the media frustrating and inconvenient, but Harding viewed these moments as an opportunity to cultivate skills he could use after his playing days ended.

“Once I got to Duke, I always tried to be around the reporters and learn from them, from a player’s perspective,” Harding said. “As I established myself as a player, I was able to be one of the more consistent players that met with the media, and I enjoyed that.”

Harding was not satisfied with simply learning from media members, however. As he looked to put his skills and observations into practice, he seized any opportunity he saw to gain experience in broadcasting, making appearances on coach David Cutcliffe’s radio and television shows. Applying what Harding had observed and putting his analytical and speaking skills to the test caused his interest in the field of broadcasting to flourish. He decided to reach out to Duke’s assistant director of athletics Art Chase to learn more about how he could make the transition from student-athlete to full-time analyst in the booth. Given his ambition, work ethic and energy, Harding took the same approach to broadcasting as he had when preparing for competition: he immersed himself in the craft.

“Once it became apparent the NFL wasn’t the path I was going to take, I sat down with Art Chase, told him that I was interested in pursuing a broadcasting career and decided now’s the time I’m going to make the shift and focus away from being a football player to what my next step is going to be,” Harding explained. “Art’s really helped me with that. I’m trying to get as much experience being the interviewer or the person talking about football as I can. That’s been a challenging transition but one I’m excited about. I’ve had a lot of opportunities in the last three months that have given me good experience to begin with, most of all doing the color commentary for ESPN3’s broadcast of Duke’s spring football game and going back to become the co-host of the signing day show for Blue Devil Network.”

Harding exhibits the requisite skills necessary to establishing a successful career as a broadcaster: knowledge of the game, strong communication skills and self-possession. Importantly, Harding also cites his personal experiences in the rebuilding of Duke’s football program with helping to better understand the game and provide insight into the development of a program.

“I have a good foundation of understanding the college football game and I know what it takes to win 10 games in a season and to make it to a major bowl game,” Harding stated. “I’ve had those experiences as a student-athlete which are bound to help when I’m providing the color commentary for a football game. On the other side of that, I know what it’s like to lose, to go 3-9. I have personal experience that supports the whole spectrum of college football. Having played for a great coach in Coach Cutcliffe, I’ve learned what a good coaching style looks like and the fundamentals of what makes a good college football player.”

Enduring the difficult seasons and embracing the team’s more recent success provides Harding with knowledge, empathy and credibility. As a student-athlete who has gone through the interview process on a weekly basis and stood on the receiving end of many questions, Harding has learned to combine the mentality of the player with that of the analyst and interviewer, making the transition that much easier. Playing alongside former student-athletes like Cockrell, who aspires to compete in the NFL, allows Harding to better understand the mental and physical demands of an elite athlete.

“One thing that really struck me about Ross was that he didn’t look past this last Duke season,” Harding said. “He gave everything he had to the team, to help the young defensive backs come along, and to help us reach the ACC Championship and get to the Chick-fil-A Bowl. He put all of his energy into that, which I really respect. You see some guys looking to the NFL during their season and not giving it everything. Ross has his priorities straight.”

As Harding begins to develop his skills in the booth, Cockrell continues to hone his talents on the field. Recently participating in the NFL combine, Cockrell had the chance to showcase his abilities to numerous NFL coaches who analyzed and stacked the Duke defensive back against other prospects looking to make their way in the league. For Cockrell, who was all smiles during the combine, the experience seemed a realization that he was one step closer to playing in the NFL.

“It was a lot of fun,” Cockrell admitted. “You’re able to see and meet people that you’ve grown up watching. For instance, in the hotel we were staying at, if you go down to the lobby, you see Rex Ryan, John Harbaugh, some of the big name head coaches, and they’re right there in front of you. It makes your dream of playing in the NFL a reality for you.”

Cockrell posted strong numbers during his time at the combine, including a vertical jump of 36.5 inches that put him among the top 20 defensive backs in the combine. For Cockrell, who has been involved in the sport from a young age, playing in the NFL has been a constant dream. Since the age of six, he has had the hopes of taking his ability to the next level, and his credentials while playing for Duke more than exemplify his potential. A two-time first-team All-ACC honoree, Cockrell demonstrated his ability during significant playing time in the secondary, starting in 49 games over his four-year career, including 12 as a redshirt freshman.

Cockrell’s experience and understanding of the game proved integral for the Blue Devils in 2013. In his final season with Duke, Cockrell was tasked with educating a young contingent of defensive backs. As evidenced by the exceptional play of Duke’s secondary this season, Cockrell’s ability to educate fellow teammates exemplifies his strong comprehension of the sport. For Cockrell, the competition on the field is what he believes has best prepared him for his next step into the NFL.

“I think the best thing about Duke was the level of competition I played against,” Cockrell explained. “We played some of the best players not only in college football but also in the NFL today. That on-field experience I think was the best part of playing at Duke.”

Although Cockrell and Harding are taking divergent paths to remain involved in the game of football, the passion the two exhibit for the sport remains unquestionable. Cockrell made the decision to move across the country to the campus of UC Irvine in preparation for the NFL combine, while Harding has committed to fully immersing himself in the broadcasting field in order to glean as much experience and knowledge as possible.

Harding and Cockrell recognize the efforts the other has made in achieving his goals and feel confident success is imminent.

“I knew whatever (Ross) did, having seen him work in the classroom and knowing what kind of guy he is, with the work he put forth and the effort he put forth, was going to be great,” Harding stated. “His work ethic is second to none and I’m looking forward to seeing that pay off come draft day.”

Cockrell exuded the same confidence in his former roommate.

“I think Dave will be great,” Cockrell said. “He speaks well. He has the look. He has the football background and knowledge. He’s one of those people you can see being on television or can see doing game analysis.”

Duke’s pro day on March 26 provided Cockrell with another opportunity to showcase his skill set and prove himself as a viable asset to NFL scouts. Harding also found Duke’s pro day as an opportunity to showcase his skill set and abilities, but this time, on the other side of the microphone.