By John Bauman
February 15, 2021
It all started with an itch, one of those back-of-your-mind thoughts that quietly eats at you… what the hell really happened here?
Reporter Bret McCormick was looking into a request from a restaurant owner in Fort Mill about local football players who went on to play in the NFL. As he was scanning a list on ProFootballReference.com, he saw Jim Duncan– who was born in 1946 and died in 1972 at the age of 26.
That’s Jim Duncan, star high school football player at Barr Street High School in Lancaster, South Carolina. That’s the same Jim Duncan who was a fourth-round pick of the Baltimore Colts in the 1968 NFL Draft. That’s Super Bowl champion Jim Duncan. And he was dead at the age of 26.
While working as a reporter for The Herald (Rock Hill, SC) in 2017, McCormick wondered what happened. He started by searching Duncan’s name on Google to find his Wikipedia page. It still contains only a few sentences on the circumstances surrounding Duncan’s death: “On October 21, 1972, Duncan walked into a police station in his hometown of Lancaster. Police officials said that he grabbed a pistol from one of the officers and shot himself in the head. An inquest later supported this account of Duncan’s death, but the ruling angered his family members, who cited inconsistencies in some of the events surrounding Duncan’s death.”
Thus began McCormick’s years-long voyage through Duncan’s life, including 50 interviews with those who knew Duncan and culminating in Return Man, an eight-part documentary podcast. The first episode launched on Tuesday, January 26 and subsequent episodes have been released weekly.
Return Man tells the story of Duncan’s triumphs on the football field and his unfortunate death off the field. McCormick spoke with law enforcement officials and family members who were alive at the time to try to find the truth of what happened in that police station in 1972, but he emphasized that listeners will have to hear all eight episodes to understand the entire context surrounding Duncan’s death.
McCormick did all the reporting for the podcast by himself while working for The Herald. Between covering local high school games and Winthrop University sporting events, it was sometimes a challenge for McCormick to find time to report Duncan’s story and keep tabs on the different investigative threads.
“It was really hard to keep track of everything because I would get going on something and then I’ll have to go somewhere [else],” McCormick said. “And then the next time I picked it up, it’s like, ‘Where did I leave off?’ and there’s 50 rabbit holes and just pick one and go down it.”
As he looked for primary sources, he found that there weren’t many articles written about Duncan’s death from that era. There was a story from the New York Times, one from the Philadelphia Inquirer and one from Jet magazine written in the immediate aftermath of Duncan’s death. McCormick was motivated by a desire to fill in the gaps and find the truth in Duncan’s untimely death.
“The way it was dealt with, it was just swept away and erased,” McCormick said. “So, that was always something that stuck with me and motivated me to, if nothing else, to try to rejuvenate his life story.”
Duncan’s story is also one that is inseparable from the racial climate of the day. Duncan was a Black athlete in 1970s South Carolina, an area that was slowly progressing after the Civil Rights movement. The geography of Duncan’s life also played a role: Lancaster, where Duncan grew up, didn’t have a historically Black college as nearby Rock Hill or Charlotte did. And even Rock Hill has an ugly Civil Rights record. On May 9, 1961, a group of freedom riders were severely beaten by a mob at the Rock Hill Greyhound bus terminal. The group included Civil Rights icon and future US Congressman John Lewis, who at the time was 21 years old. McCormick explores this important element of Duncan’s death throughout the eight-episode podcast series.
In fact, McCormick hopes audiences examine the implications of Duncan’s death and ask: Could a story like this have happened today? And if so, how much progress have we really made as a society?
“I think if anything, it’s a measuring stick to show how far we have not gone,” McCormick said. “Sure, we’ve made plenty of advances for Black and brown people in the United States … But there’s so much more work to do. And really, in some areas, I would say like police relations and voting rights, almost no progress at all. So I would want people to think about those things.”
McClatchy and iHeartMedia worked with McCormick to produce the podcast. It’s the first in an anthology of character-driven audio series, titled Longshot, that all will focus on the intersection of sports and social change.
McCormick, who now works in Charlotte at Sports Business Journal, had never done a podcast before Return Man. He was initially reporting on Duncan’s death for a story at The Herald. However, his sister helped him see the potential of the story in a narrative podcast format.
He also credits Davin Coburn, Executive Producer of Audio at McClatchy, for helping polish the podcast. Return Man incorporates the present-day interviews and mixes them with audio sources from back in the day.
“I think I only did maybe one or two interviews that I didn’t record,” McCormick said. “And then from there on, I was recording everything. So, I interviewed probably over 50 people. So there’s a lot of people that you don’t ever hear from; a lot of people that didn’t even make the story. But they just increased my knowledge of the situation, one way or another.”
Some of the most impactful interviews came from Duncan’s family. He also interviewed Duncan’s widow, Alice, who ultimately declined to be a part of the podcast. Those interviews brought back lots of emotions for the Duncan family, reminders of their difficulties getting a lawyer after Duncan’s death and how, in their view, the NAACP was slow to move in support of the family’s case.
His family was also able to speak more to whether or not Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) played a role in Duncan’s last years of his life. The impact of brain injuries and CTE has come into much sharper focus in recent years as concussion research has progressed, but in the 1970s there was not as strong a connection between playing football and potential CTE. It’s impossible to know whether or not that impacted Duncan in the final months of his life.
Thus far, three episodes of Return Man have been released. Episode 1, titled “The Milltown,” focuses on where Duncan grew up. “From the Cotton Fields to Glory,” Episode 2, shares stories of Duncan’s early on-field triumphs. And Episode 3, “The Burden,” talks with those who knew Duncan and speculates on whether or not head injuries had begun to take their toll on him.
It will be a few weeks until the final episode of the podcast is released, but McCormick is already proud of the response the podcast has received and the positive attention it has brought to Duncan’s life.
“I’m just thrilled that it got out because it was a lot of work,” McCormick said. “I would always want [Duncan’s] family to know that I didn’t stop working on it when I left [The Herald], which would have been easier, especially as my wife and I had a kid last year, and then, you know, a pandemic happened. And it just has been a hard year to try to do all this stuff, all at the same time. But, I just didn’t give up on it.”
And, if anyone else ever stumbles across Duncan’s Wikipedia page, McCormick hopes that they’ll be able to learn more about Duncan.
“If somebody gets around to it, it will be more filled out; less about just football and his death,” he said. “[They] could talk about who he was as a person a little bit.”
Duncan’s tragic death in 1972 cut short his life and promising football career. He would have been 74 years old if he were still alive today. But thanks to the Return Man podcast, Duncan’s story will live on.
Listen to Longshot: Return Man on iTunes and Spotify, an eight-part podcast series brought to you by The Herald (Rock Hill, SC), McClatchy Studios, and iHeartRadio. The podcast is hosted by Bret McCormick and produced by Matt Walsh, Kara Tabor, Kata Stevens, Rachel Wise, and executive produced by Davin Coburn (McClatchy) and Sean Titone (iHeartRadio).