TAMPA — As an emotional Kwon Alexander went to the bench Sunday after intercepting a Falcons pass to spark the Bucs early on, he was greeted by a rush of coaches and teammates, then Duke Preston, who is a little of both.
"Are you kidding me?" Preston said, crouching in front of him, their faces inches apart. "What you've been through, boy? C'mon, baby! Keep it going, baby!"
Two nights earlier, Alexander had learned his 17-year-old brother, Broderick Taylor, had been shot and killed in a fight in their hometown in Alabama, just an hour and half west of Atlanta. That the Bucs could pull out a 23-20 overtime victory with Alexander — for Alexander — became an inspiring national story.
It started six months earlier, in the closeness of a core group of Bucs rookies — Alexander was one of five to start in that game, along with quarterback Jameis Winston, tackle Donovan Smith, guard Ali Marpet and receiver Donteea Dye. The man tasked with bringing that group together, with helping them handle the transition to NFL life, is Preston, hired in February as the team's director of player engagement.
Back in summer, Preston asked the Bucs rookies three questions: "Who are you? What's true? What do you stand for?" In the first two weeks of meetings, they didn't mention money, drugs, alcohol, even football — the foundation was "their purpose as men," he said.
"Who are they when nobody is watching," he said. "And how do they respond when life kicks them in the teeth?"
Life kicked Alexander in the teeth in the early hours of the day before the Bucs played the Falcons. The team was already on edge, having seen a 24-0 lead disappear in a 31-30 loss at Washington the week before.
"What else could happen?" Preston wondered. "But you see guys come together around each other and fight to pull themselves out of that situation. That's the mind-blowing stuff that makes football valuable for life."
Preston, 33, has an ideal background and perspective for his new job. He's young enough to be drafted out of the University of Illinois, where he earned a speech communications degree, the same year as guard Logan Mankins and receiver Vincent Jackson, and spent four seasons with the Buffalo Bills as an offensive lineman.
After his playing days, he earned master's degree in Christian education from Dallas Theological Seminary and counts his faith as "the cornerstone I stand on."
If his own NFL experience weren't enough, his father Ray spent nine years as a linebacker with the Chargers, so Preston grew up aware of the challenges of a physically demanding profession where players "retire" 30 years before most people and must search for a new purpose and drive in their lives.
Players can relate to him on personal levels as well. If they're entering into fatherhood for the first time, Preston and his wife, Lisa, have four children ages 5 and under, so he has gone through much of the same new-parent experiences.
Shortly after he was hired away from a similar job at Notre Dame, Preston went to Bucs coach Lovie Smith with a program that had him visiting with rookies three days a week in the offseason. Smith told him he wanted the rookies meeting every day to prepare them for the season ahead.
"He's done an outstanding job," Smith said. "He spent more time with our rookies than anyone early on. . . . It's all through Duke, teaching them how to be a professional football player, to make the transition. He's that liaison to the rest of the guys. I lean on him quite a bit. He's my right-hand man in a lot of different situations that come up. Duke being a guy that's played, they listen to you if they know you've followed the same steps they're going to follow. He's a big part of our staff."
They've bonded with outings at veterans' hospitals and soup kitchens. They bowled against rookies from Tampa Fire and Rescue. Preston remembers watching as the group attended a Rays game, seeing the interaction — offense bonding with defense, players from the biggest college programs and the smallest little-known schools.
"You see the bond between Jameis and Kwon, and we're fortunate we have all those young guys in sports where they're playing and contributing," Preston said. "The closeness within that group has been a catalyst for success on the field, and they really genuinely care about each other. That's been awesome to see."
Preston had dealt with sudden family tragedy before Alexander's brother — in preseason, Bucs safety Keith Tandy learned that his nephew, Javyon Quarles, had been killed at 17 in an accident on the football field when a piece of equipment fell on him, hitting his head and killing him.
When Tandy found out, the second person he called was Preston, who quickly set up a flight home for him to Kentucky, driving Tandy to the airport himself. When you see Preston with his hand on a player's shoulder, congratulating him during a game, know that he's also next to him in his most difficult times as well.
"He definitely made everything a lot easier for me," said Tandy, who had his mother, a breast-cancer survivor, lead the team out of the tunnel weeks later.
Most NFL teams have a position like Preston's, but the Bucs have empowered him to be involved in key personnel decisions. He attended the pre-draft scouting combine this spring and sat in on interviews, and was in Tallahassee for Winston's pro day at FSU; his bond with Donovan Smith started with conversations on his pre-draft visit to One Buc Place.
"There are a lot of places where there's a role, but it's not valued and there's no vision for it," he said. "Here there's a high value placed on it, and the vision is unmatched. . . . My role is just to help them understand what it takes to be a professional, to be a man."