Duck Punt: How Phil Robertson found stardom after giving up football
In the late 1960s in Ruston, Louisiana, two Bulldog quarterbacks’ life paths diverged sharply. You might have heard of Terry Bradshaw, who went on to attain the top pick in the 1970 NFL Draft, a lengthy career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, four Super Bowl victories, a spot in the Hall of Fame and a second career in front of the camera. You might not have heard of Phil Robertson, who was ahead of Bradshaw on Louisiana Tech’s depth chart but gave up football with one year of eligibility remaining because the game and any future in it interfered with his heart’s dearest passion: duck-hunting season.
“At the time, no one quite understood what exactly was my problem because I didn’t put football as the ultimate goal, being this stud hoss football player, but what they didn’t see then, they get it now,” Robertson said. “Because as it turns out, what am I talking about now?”
Robertson was referring to the duck call business he started out of his home, which became the Duck Commander regime and led some 40 years later to the creation of Duck Dynasty, which premiered Wednesday on A&E. This is one of those times where a one-sentence pitch will tell you immediately whether a show is for you: “Duck Dynasty follows a backwoods millionaire family running a duck call empire on the Louisiana bayou.” (Being inveterate hilljacks, we are immediately drawn to this premise, even though it’s not a shot-by-shot remake of Dynasty cast with waterfowl. We checked.)
Coming out of Vivian, Louisiana’s North Caddo High School, Robertson said he fielded offers to join the football programs at LSU, Ole Miss, Baylor and Rice, but chose Louisiana Tech to remain close to home. After redshirting his freshman year, he was joined by some soon-to-be famous company on the depth chart.
“The quarterback playing ahead of me, Phil Robertson, loved hunting more than he loved football,” Bradshaw wrote in his autobiography, It’s Only a Game. “He’d come to practice directly from the woods, squirrel tails hanging out of his pockets, duck feathers on his clothes. Clearly he was a fine shot, so no one complained too much.”
Asked whether there was any truth to the squirrel tails anecdote, Robertson one-upped his own legend: “Squirrel guts! Squirrel guts hangin’ out my pocket!” He spoke fondly of Bradshaw and of his time with the Bulldogs, though he’s never been back since giving up football. “Bradshaw’s a great guy,” Robertson said. “I was the one that named him the Blond Bomber, and while he was at Tech, I said ‘Son, you’ve got the want to and the drive to play in the NFL, you got a great arm,’ and I said ‘You got brains,’ and when I got to brains, Bradshaw said, ‘Are you serious about the brains?’ I said, ‘Well, you have enough sense to play in the NFL.’ As it turned out, I put it this way, he must’ve been smart enough to win four Super Bowls.”
After three letter-winning seasons and with one year of eligibility remaining, Robertson had had enough. He says he spurned interest from the Washington Redskins and went after the ducks full time in the fall while completing his undergraduate degree. “Bradshaw will tell the story better than I do,” Robertson said. “To put it bluntly, he was very happy that I chose ducks because he moved up a slot. I was blessed with a good arm, or Bradshaw wouldn’t have been playing second string to me.
“But you gotta remember, my heart was then and to this day — let me put it this way: Throwing a touchdown pass to a guy running down the sideline, and he runs down with the ball for six, it was fun. However, in my case, it was much more fun to be standing down in some flooded timber with about 35 or 40 mallard ducks comin’ down on top of me in the woods. That did my heart more good than all the football in the world.”
Robertson went to work as a schoolteacher for several years after graduating from Tech, obtaining his master’s degree in education via night classes, with a concentration in English. “I kinda liked ol’ Shakespeare and them guys, you know,” Robertson said. “I went back and got my master’s just in case. I thought, if I ever needed it, I’d have the sheepskin to show people no matter how dumb I looked, actually I was about half intelligent. I got the degree to let ‘em know I wasn’t as dumb as I acted.”
And all the while, Robertson continued to hone his hunting craft. Dissatisfied with commercial duck calls, he began producing and selling his own about 40 years ago. These led to a series of duck-hunting videos that began 25 years ago, which led in turn to stints on the Outdoor Channel. Then came the call from A&E.
“Let’s face it,” said Robertson, “the bar has been set pret-ty low for you to get on American television these days. I think they said, ‘Why don’t we try a functional family,’ and somebody said well, that’s a novel idea. Round here, you know, there’s no outbursts, belligerence, cursing, gettin’ drunk, dope, no, we’re all Godly people, so maybe it’s a little switch for a change. We’re not actually rednecks, but we probably could be called goodoleboys.”
Indeed, we can think of a few college fans who’ll be able to relate to the Duckmen’s no-shave, no-laundry policies during the 10-week season. “We shower our bodies during the hunting season, but under no circumstances do we ever wash our clothes,” Robertson said. “We hang ‘em up and let ‘em air dry. We begin to look like the landscape around us, you know what I’m sayin’? Oh, they’ll get it. Hey, life is good, life is good.”
Duck Dynasty airs Wednesdays at 10 on A&E.