Coney Durr knows what helpless feels like.
A visceral memory from the 2017 Purdue game, when the Gophers cornerback — not even a year out from tearing his right ACL — briefly entered the game to replace an injured teammate.
On what ended up being Purdue’s winning drive, Durr yielded a near-40-yard play.
“He caught it and ran for a long time, and I was hobbling with my knee brace on,” Durr recalled. “That was so hurtful to me because I know what I’m capable of, but my body is not letting me do it.”
Durr had gone from the coveted recruit with more than 30 college offers, to rising-star freshman making his first start in the 2016 Holiday Bowl, to injuring his knee in the third quarter, to experiencing the physical and mental toll of recovery.
Now as a fifth-year senior, he is in a similar position. Except this time, his mind and body are cooperating. The circumstance is not.
A COVID-19 outbreak of 25 cases on the Gophers this past week caused the team to cancel Saturday’s rivalry game with Wisconsin and likely jeopardizes next weekend’s meeting with undefeated Northwestern.
It’s been a major blow to what should have been Durr’s final season, a chance to improve on 2019’s breakout 11-2 year, in which he made 33 tackles and had 11 pass breakups and a pick-six. Instead, the NFL hopeful saw his already-shortened and delayed Big Ten schedule further dented. This while the 2-3 Gophers struggled with an inexperienced defense after turning over the majority of the starters.
Durr envisioned something like this for the Gophers before the season, despite daily antigen testing and having only family in the stands. Even though he basically goes from the football facility to his apartment and back, he still couldn’t avoid the virus.
When his grandmother — whom Durr keeps a picture of on his dresser and inked on his arm — died unexpectedly this past summer, he came down with COVID-19 after traveling home to Louisiana for her funeral.
“Before the season, fans were like, ‘Just play’ and all this, but I can definitely tell you, I can see a lot of guys having trouble,” Durr said of the team’s struggles dealing with limited social lives and worry about outbreaks and cancellations. “Mental health and being depressed with all this going on.”
Now the 22-year-old finds himself in a spot similar to three years ago, battling between surrendering to what feels like a hopeless situation or persisting.
Those who know him best already know what Durr will do.
“Most guys would have probably quit or gave up or just [been] like, ‘I can’t be me anymore,’ ” fellow cornerback Phil Howard said. “But his perseverance and his story is a testimony, and Coney will continue to overcome any adversity thrown his way.”
Fear of failure
Howard was one of Durr’s roommates their freshman season and remembered hearing Durr through the walls at night, crying in his room from the pain following his knee surgery.
It was a drastic change from the Baton Rouge native known for always smiling, for fitting right in with his Minnesotan-heavy recruiting class. The music encyclopedia who loved dancing, fishing in the pond behind his house in Louisiana, his mother’s red beans and rice and falling asleep at any moment, even mid-conversation.
Even now, Durr tears up thinking back to that time, how he constantly thought, “I’ll never be the same again.”
That school year was one of the toughest for Durr. While not directly involved in the team’s sexual assault allegations, Durr still felt the impact on his class and position group from suspensions and transfers. The university fired coach Tracy Claeys and his staff after the bowl game and hired P.J. Fleck. Dealing with a major injury on a depleted unit with new staff coming in had Durr considering transferring to his second-choice school, Virginia Tech.
He had never thought of himself as someone who forsook his teammates or ran from a hard situation. But staying and dealing with it presented problems Durr is only now comfortable sharing.
“I suffered from anxiety and depression,” Durr said, adding there were days he couldn’t even be alone, paralyzed with fear about not being able to perform. “Being 19 years old [at the time], I wasn’t really too much educated on mental health, and stuff like that. So I was like, ‘I’ll be all right. I’ll be fine.’ But I really wasn’t.”
Durr had played in seven games as a freshman, mostly on special teams before the Holiday Bowl. In 2017, he appeared in two. But even though medically cleared, he wasn’t ready. Being a cornerback requires reaction, making unanticipated breaks depending on the receiver. It takes a lot of trust in one’s body, something Durr didn’t have so soon after hearing his ACL tear on the field.
Durr received an NCAA medical hardship waiver for an extra year of eligibility. And in 2018, he played his first full season of college football, putting together a decent year with 36 tackles, seven pass breakups and two interceptions.
As a full-time starter in 2019, Durr caught some NFL attention, a focus he hopes a less-than-ideal 2020 won’t steal from him with his 23 tackles and four pass breakups through five games.
For the once-little fan who had LSU’s purple and gold plastered across his childhood bedroom, the dream has always been to have a long NFL career. But Durr is more than just a player.
This summer, Durr was outspoken on social media addressing the racial injustice reckoning in the wake of George Floyd’s killing under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer and the players’ rights for playing amid a pandemic. He, along with athletes across the conference and country, helped argue for better safety practices.
He also was one of the main forces behind the Gophers’ HERE program, which aims to end racism with education. The once-a-month meeting allows the Gophers to share personal experiences with racism while also learning the history of systemic racism through guest lecturers.
“After the season I definitely kind of want to expand and do more with it,” Durr said, hoping to see it in schools or other teams. “So I’m pretty excited about the opportunities that that has opened up to me.”
It might even be something he institutes within his own program once he’s a college coach. Durr, currently working on his master’s degree, has always enjoyed coaching his teammates, even helping Howard transition from receiver to cornerback. Durr looks up drills, walks them through film sessions and perfects his own technique. He started an Instagram account for helping high school defensive backs review their tape.
That future could start in 2021. Or Durr could come back, thanks to the NCAA’s ruling to give every athlete a do-over eligibility year because of the pandemic. While this certainly wasn’t the season Durr wanted as a send-off, he’s also undecided if a sixth year is right.
But in this, at least, he isn’t helpless. He’s in control.
“For him to get back to ‘Coney’ has been a tribute to his work and his sacrifice and everything he’s been through,” Howard said. “It just shows that Coney’s a force to be reckoned with.”