UCLA’s Thomas Duarte embraces being a role model

Thomas Duarte came from one of the most prestigious high school programs in the nation. California’s Mater Dei has produced multiple Heisman winners (John Huarte and Matt Leinart). Duarte, though, was enough of an impact player as a receiver/linebacker that the program retired his No. 18 jersey. Duarte, who will be drafted next week by an NFL team after a productive career at UCLA, is eager to keep making an impact, and hopes to do so in a unique way.

The son of a Mexican-American father and a Japanese-American mother, Duarte got used to being at the Rose Bowl and seeing his picture up on the big screen and eliciting a warm reaction, often times from Asian kids or their parents who would approach him and say, ‘We just want to thank you for what you’re doing and representing us so well.’

"I think a lot of people were surprised when I took off my helmet or when they saw me off the field, but it was always fun for me to see the different reactions when they realized that I looked more Asian than Mexican," Duarte said on The Audible this week. "It was a different experience but I’m appreciative that I am role model for a certain crowd. I have a lot of people looking up to me because of my descent.

"I am humbled and I’m gracious for it."

Joey Roberts is the director of scouting for the Elite 11. In 2012 the event was at Redondo Union High School in Southern California. Roberts said it usually is a mixed bag when it comes to the receivers they get; the group usually is comprised of local junior college players and high schoolers. Each, if they prove good enough, will run about 200 routes over the course of the day.

"I remember it vividly," Roberts said. "I remember him shredding the defense. Every quarterback gravitated to Thomas. He owned the middle of the field. Thomas probably caught at least one touchdown from every quarterback there. We wondered if he’d last the whole day. He was running every route full speed. He made Jared (Goff) and Christian (Hackenberg) look real good. His hands stood out. There wasn’t a linebacker who could cover him. He was too big for a cornerback. He was just so fluid and could really get in and out of his breaks."

At UCLA, Duarte was a go-to guy for both Brett Hundley and then Josh Rosen last season.

Duarte won’t be the first player of Asian descent in the NFL. Hines Ward, Eugene Chung, Dat Nguyen, Haruki Nakamura and Roman Gabriel are among those who came before him. 

The 6-2, 230-pounder is being looked at as an H-back and is regarded by NFL personnel folks as a reliable target who has drawn comparisons to Redskins standout Jordan Reed. At UCLA, Duarte certainly proved to be someone the Bruins could lean on. In 2015, he caught 53 passes for 872 yards and 10 TDs, and in the process, has kept turning heads — €”something he’s been doing since he was a little kid making all the plays.

"I am pretty sure that every team I’ve been on that I was the only guy that had an Asian background," he said. It was different for me in the locker room because I got a lot of questions. … Just like my teammates helped me grow. I helped them grow and to see that sports aren’t only for certain races. If you can play, you can play." 

I have a lot of people looking up to me because of my descent.

Thomas Duarte