By Helen Sowell

I’d like to introduce you to an individual who personifies the title “student-athlete”. This fifth-year senior and three-year starter has helped lead his team from irrelevance to real contender, sitting tied atop the Coastal Division of the ACC. His name is Sean Renfree, quarterback and graduate student working toward a master’s degree in humanities while stewarding the Duke Blue Devils to a 6-3, 3-2 record.

The 6’5, 225-lb. Scottsdale, Arizona native is piloting the Devils in their 100th year of competition. Duke has participated as a member of the ACC since its inception in 1953. Unfortunately, it’s been 23 years since their last title and the team’s last non-losing season was almost two decades ago. But wait a minute…….something’s changed! The Blue Devils are moving in a different direction under Head Coach and noted QB guru David Cutcliffe and company. Becoming bowl-eligible with their sixth win over bitter rival UNC (first win over the Heels since 2003) demonstrated this resolve as Renfree delivered, going 23-36 for 276 yards and a touchdown.

Programs from BCS conferences like the ACC attract top-tier talent from all over the country and Cutcliffe’s latest protégé is no exception. Sean was highly touted coming out of Notre Dame Prep in 2008 as a ParadeAll-America. Initially committing to Georgia Tech, this year he enters as the Devil’s all-time leader in completion percentage (63.4) as he manages Cutcliffe’s offense inside and out. He’s also looking to become the first Duke player to pass for more than 2,500 yards in a season for three consecutive years (to date he stands at 1,885). But there is significant pressure inherent in being a success on the gridiron and in the classroom and with that a great deal of stress. Balancing both commitments can be challenging, to say the least, particularly when the academic expectations are high.  

Renfree has proven to be a capable manager, drawing national attention to his accomplishments on and off the field despite significant injuries along the way like reconstructive knee surgery for a torn ACL that cut short his freshman year in 2009. To date, he’s missed time with a bad elbow and he suffered concussion-like symptoms this past weekend against Florida State, knocking him out of the game. But competitors cannot be held down for long. A traditional pro-style pocket passer, he may “think” too much because he strives to make the perfect throw. An example of his determination came during the UNC contest when he threw a final-minute TD pass for the win. With victory in hand, he became head cheerleader, leading the fans in the celebration chanting “bowl, baby bowl!” That team effort earned the Blue Devils the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl National Team of the Week honors for games of the weekend of Oct. 20. (Incidentally, Duke remains undefeated at home, hosting Clemson Saturday at 7:00 on ESPN2.) 

But there is so much more to this young man than athletic prowess. The two-time Academic All-ACC and four-time ACC Academic Honor Roll member graduated in December, 2011 with a degree in public policy studies. He posted a GPA of 3.4 as an undergraduate and currently holds a 3.7 in his graduate pursuits. His production has earned accolades for not only these academic achievements but for his tireless work in his community and for the university. He’s one of 10 finalists, for the Senior CLASS Award. Thisprestigious honor focuses on the total student-athlete and encourages students to use their platform in athletics to make a positive impact as leaders in their communities.

Examples of his generous community involvement include organizing weekly volunteers to Duke’s Children’s Hospital. He also proffers his time to Ronald McDonald House charities and is a staff member at Active Teens, which encourages teens to exercise and live a healthy lifestyle. Additionally, he is heavily involved in the Durham Rescue Mission, a non-profit that provides food, support and shelter to those in need as well as Read with the Blue Devils and the MLK “Million Meals” Event. Sean has also been named one of eleven to the 2012 Allstate AFCA (American Football Coaches Association) Good Works Team. Being chosen from 117 nominations, he is the 4th Devil to earn the distinction. Coach Cutcliffe explains, “Sean goes about his business very quietly. He spends a lot of his time in service for a lot of people. He doesn’t advertise all the things that he does on this campus, off this campus and in his own community.” 

The National Football Foundation (NFF) & College Football Hall of Fame announced Sean Renfree as one of 15 recipients of the 2012 William V. Campbell Trophy which recognizes an individual as the absolute best scholar-athlete in the nation. Selected from a nationwide pool of 147 exceptional semi-finalists from all NCAA divisions and the NAIA, the award represents all that is right about college football.

Indeed, Sean Renfree is a remarkable student-athlete demonstrating the ability to balance academics with athletics while donating his limited free time and energy to serve others. The NFL may be a possibility, but one need not worry about this young man’s future. He represents Duke University, the ACC, college football and the next generation in a very positive way. There’s truly no limit to what he can accomplish.