The hands that reeled in a school-record four touchdown receptions for Pomona-Pitzer a month ago might someday save lives by excising cancer cells from ailing bodies.
Duncan Hussey, who has played defensive back and wide receiver for the Division III Sagehens, earned a near-perfect score on his medical boards the summer before his senior year. He probably could have gotten into any medical school he chose but stayed to attend graduate school and play in an environment that nurtures his mind and his soul.
"Football isn't your life goal. It's a way of breeding the right characteristics and toughness and discipline to succeed in whatever you want to do after, in life," he said.
"It's about being able to challenge yourself to do something extra other than just being a student. I couldn't be more grateful for that experience and those lessons you pick up at a smaller school like this."
Hussey squeezes games and practices among molecular biology labs, preparing for medical school interviews, and four tough classes. But gorgeous autumn days like Saturday, with his parents cheering from the bleachers at Merritt Field and joining other parents to feed the entire team afterward, hold a central place among his fondest memories despite the Sagehens' 42-7 loss to powerful Cal Lutheran.
"Obviously, I'm not going to the NFL. I'm not playing after this," he said. "It's a personal challenge, and it's so much fun to do with all the guys that you love to play with."
His blond hair streaming out the back of his helmet, Hussey made seven catches for 63 yards Saturday against the Kingsmen, who had more than twice as many players on their roster. Weakened by injuries, the Sagehens are 0-3 after their Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference opener.
Still, Hussey finds gains in defeat.
"We're not the most fearsome program at the moment," he said, "but mentally, the effort we put in, that constant fight to overcome the challenges we have at Pomona and Pitzer because of admissions and the small team size, it makes those moments when we do find success so much more rewarding because you know what went into those, you know the sacrifices and how much harder we as a team might have had to work to find that success, as opposed to another team that might have more physical and better talent."
Hussey grew up in Seattle, where his father worked for Microsoft and, later, a software startup. The second of Peter and Winky Hussey's three children has wanted to be a doctor as long as he can remember.
He also wanted to play football, like his older brother, Luke, though Duncan was barely 5 feet tall and 100 pounds when he began high school and was about 5-7 and 155 pounds when he was ready for college. He considered following Luke to Dartmouth, alma mater of their parents, uncles, great-uncles and great-grandfather, but he wouldn't have been able to play football. He visited a high school friend at Pomona College and liked what he saw. But it’s the vision of Sagehens Coach Roger Caron that has made his career so successful.
"Even in a school full of extremely high-achieving scholars, he was at that level or higher coming out of high school," said Caron, who played offensive tackle at Harvard and for two seasons with the Indianapolis Colts. "He's one of the best and brightest we've ever had."
That's saying a lot, given the selective Claremont schools' outstanding record of producing scholars and titans.
"I've been here about 20 years, and you find that students are the same on the field as they are off the field," Caron said. "If they're a high-motor, high-achiever, nonstop, aggressive, highly motivated, passionate kid on the field, that's exactly how they are in the classroom. He is a combination of both, and you could see that when he was a high school kid. We're lucky to have him."
Winky Hussey, a former teacher and now a librarian at a school for homeless kids, frets about Duncan getting hurt because he had multiple concussions in high school. She's counting down the games left in his career, now six.
"But we've never gotten in the way of their passion because they've managed it beautifully in terms of their school and it's given them best friends for life," she said of her sons.
Inspired by a class in the molecular genetics of cancer, Duncan hopes to specialize in oncology. "It's going to be a challenge for a long time coming and I just want to be a part of that battle," he said.
Playing football has prepared him well for that crucial fight.