“My dad wanted to watch them,” Dan said. “He got to watch all the games his sophomore year.”
That's how important football and family was to Ron Duncan, a Wittenberg Hall of Famer who played tight end on the 1963 and 1964 college division national championship teams and professionally with the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles. He died at 70 in Springfield in September 2013, so he never got to see Liam and his younger brother Riley move to the next level of football.
Liam is now a junior wide receiver at his grandpa’s alma mater, Wittenberg. He earned his first career start and caught his first pass in the season opener against Westminster on Sept. 2. Riley is a freshman offensive lineman. They add to the family legacy every time they wear the red and white.
Dan knows how much his sons’ decisions to attend Wittenberg would have meant to his dad.
“He’d have been over the moon to know that even one, but both of them, decided to do it,” Dan said.
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Liam and Riley knew all about their family’s football exploits growing up. Their dad, a Northeastern graduate, played linebacker at the University of Hawaii from 1989-91 under Bob Wagner, a 1969 Wittenberg graduate. Their uncle Ron played tight end at Ball State from 1984-97, caught 105 passes and is a member of the school’s Hall of Fame.
“We’ve been playing backyard football since God only knows when — since I started walking,” Riley said.
“Football is just a part of our family,” Liam said. “When late August and early September rolls around, it is football until late November or early December. It is football in our house every weekend. It’s what we do.”
Riley and Liam grew up across the country in Oregon but got to know Springfield well, visiting at least once a year. Their grandma Karen Duncan still lives in Springfield, as do their mom Jennifer’s parents, Jim and Joann Riley. Jennifer is a Kenton Ridge graduate.
The brothers even met Wittenberg coach Joe Fincham a number of times long before they decided to join his program. Dan would often drop by and visit Fincham with them.
That wasn’t Fincham’s only interaction with the family.
“Ron and Karen have been really good to our program and Wittenberg and me personally,” Fincham said. “I think a lot of the family. I played against their uncle in college when he was at Ball State.”
Even with that connection, there was no guarantee the brothers would attend Wittenberg. There’s a Division III powerhouse, Linfield College, 91 miles from Eugene, Ore.
“Riley’s choice was probably even harder than Liam’s,” Dan said. “Linfield was really recruiting Riley hard. Linfield didn’t recruit Liam hard because they had no expectation he would go to Ohio. They didn’t realize he had a connection. They really pushed on Riley, and Riley still made the decision to go to Wittenberg. They both made the decision in part because of my father. Legacy was important.”
Liam didn't have any trouble making his decision to attend college three time zones away from home. He knew kids from his high school who attended college far from home and then returned because they were homesick. He knew he wouldn't have that problem.
“I have family here, and if I’m feeling homesick, I can go hang out for a couple hours,” he said. “My mom’s best friend, basically our aunt, lives right down the street, so I could go talk to her.”
Riley, on the other hand, said he surprised everyone with his decision.
“When I was on campus, I had that feeling that’s something special here with the legacy we have,” he said. “It just felt like this is where I belonged.”
Liam and Riley both have replica Wittenberg jerseys featuring their grandpa’s No. 81. Riley inherited his grandpa’s collection of Wittenberg T-shirts and wears them almost every day.
Both brothers said they were too young to remember their grandpa telling stories of his playing days, but they have heard plenty of stories from other members of the family.
“Wittenberg has always been a part of our family history,” Liam said.
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Their dad has enjoyed seeing the game bring the brothers closer together. They were teammates on the varsity squad when Liam was a senior in high school and Riley was a sophomore. Now they’re teammates again, though Riley is part of the biggest freshman class in Wittenberg history and will have to work his way up the depth chart to get playing time.
“It was a great experience as a father watching both of the guys be on the field at the same time,” Dan said. “I know Liam certainly loves Wittenberg, and I believe Riley will, too. He’s just getting his feet wet now.”