Daily there were piles of things stacked in the doorway. The grass had mysteriously been cut because everyone knows that Jim Dukes likes his grass looking in tiptop shape. For nearly a month, the Dukes family didn’t have to cook a meal.
The North Oconee High School community is one of family.
“The school is one of the foundations of this community,” former football coach Terry Tuley said. “The school was created and the divisions were drawn. Everybody sort of used that as kind of a central point of the North Oconee community.”
In times of need family sticks together.
The Dukes family, Jim, wife Terie and their children have spent much of the last decade woven neatly into the stitches that is their extended family.
Jim and Terie’s children all graduated from NOHS. Their sons Jesse Roberts and J.T. both played football for the Titans. Their daughter Lacie was a cheerleader and son Zach Roberts played in NOHS’ band. Jim has coached the linebackers at the school since 2013.
Terie has spent countless hours volunteering in support of the football program since 2008. From making sure the post game meals made it to the stadium to helping identify players to organize the media guide Terie was as engulfed in the NOHS football as her coach husband and her player sons.
Unbeknownst to each member of the family, their contributions were appreciated and it was slowly intertwining their worlds with the NOHS community.
The morning of August 8, 2019 began with Terie texting Jim about Titan football.
Terie was attempting to match photos of players with their names for the program that was set to be sold at the coming home games.
Terie and Jim a week prior had driven their youngest son J.T. to West Virginia to play football at Marshal University and said goodbye to their daughter who moved away that morning.
Their first day of having an empty nest was spent trying to stay busy. Terie received a call from her father in law alerting her that Jim had been in an accident at work. Jim suffered a significant head laceration that required over 30 stitches, a partially lost ear, broken ribs, collapsed lungs multiple back fractures, third degree burns, concussion and blood clots in both legs.
Jim was transported to Gwinnett Medical Center in Lawrenceville. As Terie walked into the emergency room NOHS football team head coach Tyler Aurandt, followed by former Titans’ head coach Terry Tuley and his wife Marcia Tuley walked in behind her. Following them was a parade of people connected to NOHS football in some shape or form.
“I was amazed,” Terie said. “Jim’s family was there, my family was coming in and aside from them, I looked around and it’s Titans’ football. My phone was blowing up with Titans from as long as 12 years ago. When you look back through my phone on that day it’s like a Titans’ parent directory.”
During Jim’s time in the hospital numerous current Titans and former Titans players made their way to the hospital for visits. The entire NOHS football coaching staff found their way into Jim’s intensive care unit room despite the usual two-person minimum for visitors exhibited in hospitals.
With all of his injuries and the dire health situation Jim found himself in, the visits with his Titan family perked Jim up and the injuries seemed a little less serious.
“There were times where you wouldn’t have thought there was anything wrong with him,” Terie said. “They would walk in and it was better than any medicine the hospital could have given him. He was talking to the coaches. He would do so much more and he’d be so much more alert. I knew that Jim’s head was okay. I knew there was no brain trauma because he would be completely out of it but anything pertaining to Titan football or if the coaches came in he was as alert as I am with you right now.”
Their presence became a form of healing. Over the coming months Jim found the desire to be with the Titans as something to shoot toward.
When he was released from the hospital Jim wanted to make it to Titan Stadium prior to the Titans’ home opener against Putnam County High School. Terie packed the car with Jim’s wheelchair, walker and other medical supplies and they made the short drive over to NOHS where Jim met the Titans at their pre game meal.
Jim watched about half of the Titans’ victory that night, but secretly vowed that he was going to be in the press box for the next game, which was two weeks later against Loganville High School.
In the week prior to the Titans’ next home game Jim asked his physical therapist to up the intensity of his rehabilitation so that he could make it up the stairs in Titan Stadium to the press box. Instead doing his rehab once a week like originally scheduled, Jim asked for three visits in a week.
He practiced walking up the stairs in the family home and by Friday night he felt confident he could make the climb.
Not long before kickoff Jim was helped into the bleachers of Titan Stadium where he reached the staircase. Looking over his shoulder Jim simply told his wife to ‘let go,’ and began to climb.
The section watching what was unfolding nervously watched as he made the climb and once he reached the door and went in, as requested, there wasn’t any applause or any hoopla. It was Jim doing what Jim does.
“I didn’t want anyone to clap or anything,” Jim said. “I just wanted it be Coach Dukes coming up to the press box again. I didn’t want anything different. I wanted them to know I was there for football. I was not there to parade myself around...It gave me some sort of prize at the finish line.”
Being there for the Titans was Jim’s way of showing his players that he was living up to the lessons about commitment he was trying to teach them on a daily basis.
“Jim would say I can’t ask the boys to do anything less than I’m willing to do,” Terie said. “They have to see that I’m willing to do this.”
As his recovery progressed Jim made his way to practices and did his physical therapy on the track while the Titans practiced. It was like medicine.
Following his first night back in the press box Jim never took another pain pill.
While being near the game and the people that came with it helped Jim heal, the community held up the rest of his family.
Terie had help from Frank Gray, who worked in wound care, to help change Jim’s bandages and deal with any malfunctions to the wound vac no matter the time. Jim’s wound doctor Dr. Rachel Hamil was a parent of a NOHS student athlete. She remained accessible at all times of the day for Jim and Terie.
Heather Kincaid shopped for J.T.’s dorm supplies and acted as a spiritual counselor. The Titans’ coaching staff’s wives brought snacks, blankets and pillows to the hospital for Terie and Jim.
Former NOHS players, coaches and administrators that live in the area near Gwinnett Medical gave Terie access to their homes so that she could leave for showers, naps or anything else but not have to travel too far from the hospital.
Keith Givens cut the Dukes’ grass while his wife Tonya made sure Terie had clean clothes while she was at the hospital.
Many former and NOHS current families brought food and left it on the Dukes’ doorstep in the weeks after Jim was released from the hospital.
“We were doing what we wanted to do and volunteering in what our kids loved,” Terie said. “We had no idea the family we were building while we were doing that...The Titan community, in particular football, was my light in the dark. They kept me standing. It was also so healing for him...What they pour into those boys and what they pour into each other saved us, 12 years of it saved us.”
One of the pillars built in NOHS’ football program has been ‘holding the rope.’ The Dukes family is grateful that such a message has been sewn into their community.
Their tragedy was firsthand practice for what Aurandt means when he and his coaching staff preaches the saying.
“It’s just another testament to just how great our community is and how close Titan nation is,” Aurandt said. “When these things happen you get a chance to see the strength from your community and everyone around you...Our kids know the Dukes family. Everyone is experiencing this together. These are real life examples that you can talk to them about and reinforce your mission statement and what hold the rope means and why we chose that slogan.”