Early last semester, new Wingate softball coach Jamie Stanclift asked her players to create something to put in their lockers – a painting, a drawing, a picture of some kind that meant something special to them. “That’s the reason you play,” she told them.
It was meant to serve as a positive motivator, to give players a boost during those early-morning workouts, chilly January practices and long, drawn-out conference doubleheaders. For years, Jordan McDuffie has had her own internal motivation to keep plugging away at softball, but nonetheless she was glad to take part in the exercise. And she didn’t have to think long about the subject of her picture. She printed out a photo of her and her dad, her “huntin’ buddy,” and taped it up.
“That’s what’s in my locker: my dad and I at my very first Wingate softball game,” the senior catcher says. “That’s why I play: for him. He’s alive, and that’s a miracle.”
Seven years ago, it looked doubtful that Jeff McDuffie would live to see his eldest daughter wear No. 20 and catch for the Bulldogs, three decades after he wore those same gold numerals on his back and squatted behind the plate for the Wingate baseball team.
It was the day after Christmas 2012. McDuffie, a 1990 Wingate graduate, had just returned from a quick trip to his office at Randolph Electric Membership Corp., in Asheboro, and he felt wrecked. “I told my wife, ‘I’m going to go lie down. I don’t feel good,’” he says. “And it hit me.”
Searing pain wracked McDuffie’s midsection. A gallstone had made its way into his pancreas and was blocking the passage into his small intestine, causing McDuffie’s pancreas to fill up like a water balloon. The day after Christmas, it finally burst.
The pain was excruciating, easily the worst McDuffie had ever felt. After being fitted with an IV at Randolph Hospital in Asheboro, a nurse asked McDuffie to describe the pain, on a scale of 1 to 10. “About a 12,” he said. She gave him some morphine, and once it kicked in she asked again. “You might have got it to a 9.”
Doctors gave McDuffie a 20 percent chance to live. Because of the pain, it was apparent they’d have to knock him out in order to treat him. “I remember going to see him,” says Jordan, who was a freshman in high school at the time. “He was lifeless pretty much. It was awful.”
By the time he woke up, he was an hour and a half down the road, in Charlotte’s Carolinas Medical Center Main, and a month in the future. When he finally regained lucidity, it was Jan. 26, 2013, and McDuffie, tubes snaking out of his mouth and nostrils, had beaten the odds and survived.
Like father, like daughter
For a self-described “daddy’s girl,” that was one tough month. Jordan grew up spending as much time with her dad as possible. He coached her in softball, and the two of them liked to hunt and fish together. Before she could shoot a gun properly, she’d sit quietly in a deer stand and color in a coloring book while her dad waited patiently for a buck.
“My mom says I’m my dad 100 percent,” Jordan says. “We go hunting. We go fishing. We spend a ton of time together.”
Two weeks after having surgery to repair a torn labrum before her senior softball season, Jordan begged her dad to take her deer hunting. “That was the first time he had taken me since he’d been sick,” she says. “I was in a sling and I killed a big deer. That’s my most memorable hunt with him.
“I cherish each one of those memories. It was hard during that time (Jeff was sick). I was imagining, What if he doesn’t make it? That’s who I spend all my time with.”
Jeff had multiple surgeries over a three-month stretch. His gallbladder and most of his pancreas were taken out, but their removal left behind scar tissue on the bile ducts connecting his liver and small intestine. That sent him back to CMC in Charlotte, where doctors inserted stints to open them up. Now essentially without a pancreas, Jeff is a diabetic, relying on insulin to survive.
The Jeff McDuffie who left the hospital for good in March 2013 was a shell of the one who had enjoyed Christmas dinner a few months earlier. He was suddenly so thin that longtime acquaintances didn’t recognize him.
He barely resembled the three-sport athlete who was the only freshman on Randleman High School’s 1981 state championship football team. Although professing to be “the slowest guy on the team” in Little League, Jeff would eventually mature into a Hall of Fame athlete at Randleman, in Randolph County, winning three state titles in football and being named all-state in baseball. At Wingate, he caught more than 100 games in his four years.
“I know I’ll never measure up to that,” Jordan says. “I just want to make him proud.”
Jordan was no slouch in high school either, earning all-conference honors while hitting .350 for her career. But after the labrum tear, she was relegated to hitting duty as a Southwestern Randolph High senior. She got no scholarship offers for softball, but she was a standout golfer in high school and could have gone that route in college.
Jordan wasn’t having any of it. She wanted to be a catcher at Wingate, just like her dad.
“I can play golf for the rest of my life,” she remembers thinking. “All I can get is four more years of softball, so I’ll get it while I can.”
And she had a feeling that her dad’s alma mater was the place to do it. “I came and visited because it was the school where he went,” she says, “and I fell in love with it.”
Jordan played sparingly her first two seasons at Wingate and then missed the 2019 season entirely because of a concussion. But with her softball horizon quickly approaching, and with a new coach leading the way, Jordan has been energized this year.
Always a hard worker, she’s approached this season with a renewed sense of purpose. Although the Bulldogs have started out 0-5 while playing a difficult schedule, McDuffie has gotten a little playing time. She got a hit in a close loss to Embry-Riddle over the weekend, and has pinch hit and pinch run on other occasions.
“She is without question the most improved player on our team so far,” Stanclift says, calling Jordan “gritty” and saying that she “empties her tank to help the team.”
“Her determination, selflessness and competitiveness will help her go far in life off the field,” Stanclift adds.
What career Jordan chooses is still up in the air, but a few weeks ago her parents perhaps got a hint at where life will take the business management major. She showed up at home on a Friday when she didn’t have class and, although she wanted to hang out with her family, she had another reason for being there.
“She shot a duck here a couple of weeks ago, and she said, ‘I think I’m going to try to mount this duck by myself,’” Jeff says. “She went down to our little shop and called up a video on YouTube on how to mount a mallard duck. It looks pretty good. I’m impressed!”
Jordan had been contemplating attending cosmetology school after she graduates from Wingate but is now leaning toward taxidermy as a profession (that business degree would certainly come in handy).
Pretty soon, she might be ready to seriously put her taxidermy skills to the test. A few months after her senior softball season ends and she shakes President Brown’s hand at Commencement, Jordan will receive her graduation present: an elk-hunting trip out West, just she and her dad.
There, the bond between father and daughter will deepen. Their catching days behind them, the two No. 20 Bulldogs will simply enjoy each other’s company, the future laid out in front of them as wide and intriguing as a Western landscape.
Neither one takes such moments for granted.
“I’m thankful that I’m still here,” Jeff says. “By the grace of God, I’m still here.”
Feb. 10, 2020