By Aaron Allen, The Seattle Medium
“I thought life would be easy growing up, but everything is not easy you gotta work for it,” says Denali Dukes, a senior DB/LB and RB for the Garfield Bulldogs. “Matter of fact you gotta work for it all the time. Not everything is going to be a handout for you, you have to work for it and your outcome will be better for it.”
For Dukes, who was born and raised in Seattle, his goals are simple — to be the best and most complete student/athlete in his family.
“What inspires me?” says Dukes. “I have family members, who are student athletes, who I look up to and I want to be the best student athlete in my family!”
Dukes, who’s playing career has come full circle, attended Garfield as a freshman, transferred to Rainier Beach and then back to Garfield, where he will finish out both his high school academic and athletic careers.
It is rare to find such a young talent as Dukes, who works diligently and possesses a maturity to balance both his athletics and academics. It is not an easy task.
Dukes football career began with the Beacon Hill Cowboys, where he played his entire junior football career winning three championships. So, Dukes understands what winning means, what it takes to win and wants to bring that hard work, blue collar and winning mentality to the Bulldogs.
“In the beginning I considered the CD Panthers, but my mother suggested the Beacon Hill Cowboys,” Dukes recalls of his time in junior football. “Playing for the Cowboys is where I first realized I had some talent in this game. I really started to develop my talents in football and throughout my career there we were able to win three championships.”
Dukes also understands what it takes to overcome adversity and brings that swagger and understanding into both football and his studies. For such a young man, Dukes has experienced things that young people his age should never have to experience. During his freshmen year in high school tragedy struck Dukes to his core, when he lost a cousin to gun violence and his brother was injured during the same incident. During that tumultuous time, Dukes wanted to give up, but the unwavering support of family, coaches and friends gave him the necessary energy and strength to move on and continue his quests to become a complete student athlete.
“During my freshmen year in high school my cousin and my brother were shot and my cousin died right in front of me,” remembers Dukes. “So that was upsetting to the point I couldn’t concentrate on football and didn’t play football my freshman year and my grades suffered as well.”
“But how I overcame that was I had to realize I had to move past it, I had to get over it, because I loved football and I just couldn’t let football walk out of my life forever just because of this incident,” Dukes continued. “I told myself, this is going to stay with you no matter what, your grades were going down but I learned how to get past it and focus and play the game that you love and become the best student athlete.”
Dukes’ ability to face adversity head on and provide leadership in the face barriers has been seen firsthand by his coach Reggie Witherspoon, who applauds Dukes for the example he sets for his fellow teammates at Garfield.
“Denali has shown the ability to overcome and play through his pain and things that ultimately help mold and shape him into the young man he is today,” says Witherspoon.
“I think through his traumatic experiences is why he is the way he is today,” Witherspoon continued. “We had a lot of guys out with injuries this last game, and he knew that our backs were against the wall so he encouraged his guys, knowing we had an uphill battle, he encouraged his team to tough it out, push through this, and to see that showed his leadership and what type of young man he is.”
His cousin and teammate Jacolby Cochran is also a witness to the growth and leadership of Dukes, as they both are trying to bring Garfield a successful football season.
“As a cousin he’s been my guy forever,” says Cochran, who plays wide receiver and safety for the Bulldogs. “For as long as I can remember, Denali has always helped me to be better, he is truthful and honest and I can always count on him.”
“As a football player Denali is the heart and soul of our defense,” added Cochran. “He’ll push everybody to their limits to help them get better. He is the active guy, he talks and communicates to everybody well. He is one of the best hitters and tacklers I know. His IQ on football is amazing, the way he plays reminds of Jamal Adams of the Seahawks.”
Dukes has dreams and goals. He definitely wants to go college and earn a degree as well as play college football. His favorite program is Ohio State, but he understands that he must take advantage of any opportunity that comes his way. According to Witherspoon, colleges are already noticing the standout but the season is still young and there is more work to do but Dukes is preparing himself for the next level of his journey. He is fighting and leading to prepare himself for the unknown. But he is ready for the struggles and the work it will take to be a successful young Black man in his world.
In addition to football, Dukes prides himself in the classroom as well. After the tragic experience and his grades dropping, Dukes doubled down on his studies and regained the confidence needed to achieve academically.
“This is the crazy part. I am doing excellent in school and the teachers love me,” says Dukes with a smile on his face. “And, it’s not because I am an athlete, they just know. One of my teachers emailed my mother letting her know that I am a leader in the class and that my participation in class goes above and beyond the call of duty.”
Dukes describes himself as a respectful hard worker, who knows when to listen and when its time to get down to business.
“I know when its time to focus, when it’s time to have fun and [I know] the difference between the two,” says Dukes.
Witherspoon agrees and says that Dukes is the type of player and person that you can’t help but to root for.
“Dukes is a young man who knows how to fight,” says Witherspoon. “He uses football and this brotherhood that has formed on this team to motivate him to get to higher heights, shaping him to be a better player and young man.”
“He’s a great leader, the team looks up to him,” he continued. “[He is] the older statesman of the team, so it’s always a blessing to have an older guy on the team that guys can rely on and get advice from. And also to understand his resilience is what is leading him in the direction he is heading.”
“I am extremely proud of and happy for Denali and what he has done,” Witherspoon concluded.