March 4, 2021

About four years ago, a local restaurant owner in a town outside of Rock Hill, South Carolina, asked Bret McCormick for research help for a shrine dedicated to NFL players from the area. 

McCormick, then an assistant sports editor for the Rock Hill Herald (and the newspaper’s one-man sports department), was handed a list. When he got to the late Jim Duncan, McCormick was struck by the former Super Bowl champion’s short life. Duncan, who was Black, was born in 1946 and died in 1972 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound with a policeman’s revolver. 

What began as curiosity in 2017 thrust the journalist into a special investigation into Duncan’s death. The result is Return Man, a seven-part series and podcast by the Rock Hill Herald and McClatchy Studios that was published in late January. 

McCormick’s written series begins in a police station in Lancaster, South Carolina, where Duncan “strode up to the counter where a detective stood, sifting through the day’s mail, not paying attention to the trim, handsome hometown hero approaching from behind.” McCormick reported that what happened next — around 11:20 a.m. on Oct. 20, 1972 — has been a mystery for nearly 50 years in this small town an hour south of Charlotte.

Through archival photos of the football star both on and off the field, old newspaper stories, and interviews with those who knew him from childhood and beyond, the authoritative investigation places a magnifying glass on Duncan’s life and many struggles including but not limited to money problems and a brain injury at a time when, McCormick reported, the NFL understood little about the game’s potential impact on the human brain.

“I thought it was remarkable,” said Davin Coburn, the executive producer, for audio for McClatchy who oversaw the production of the complementary podcast to the series. “I thought it was an incredible feat of investigative reporting, and that’s before you add in the component of everything else that (McCormick) was juggling as a one-man sports department there in Rock Hill.”

McCormick kept the early stages of his project quiet. He already had his hands full as the only full-time person on the newspaper staff dedicated to sports. He was responsible for coverage in a town where, he said, high school football was the end-all be-all. Without freelancers, McCormick said it would have been impossible to do everything. McCormick’s job was dictated by the school year, so he was able to get more work done on Return Man in the summer months. 

When he got Elroy Duncan, Jim Duncan’s brother, on board, McCormick then began telling people about the series. Since Jim Duncan’s death happened decades ago, many of the sources the sports journalist found who knew the football star were older and a few had their own health issues. A few were dead. 

“There were times when I felt a little bit voyeuristic because you’re digging something that is really painful and traumatic to most people involved, so what is the point? The initial point was to hopefully find something out that had not been found out. I did that in a way … the story is really filled in,” McCormick said. 

Part 5 of the series begins with the description of a framed sign on the desk of the current Lancaster County coroner, about the duty to provide the community with a fair and accurate investigation. McCormick reported that it was debatable whether Duncan’s family was treated “equally and fairly” back in 1972. There was a lack of transparency from authorities that left what McCormick called an “information vacuum” in the wake of Duncan’s death; there were no photos produced from the scene, no released investigation reports, and no autopsy.

McCormick said there was a poignant quote from his interview with Rosey Gilliam, the son of Duncan’s high school and football coach: “We’re at a point now where if you took away the date and time could you imagine that happening today? And the answer is yes you can.”

“I thought that was really powerful because the answer is definitely yes,” McCormick said. “I think if someone read this story and thought, ‘Oh wow, that does seem like something that could happen now,’ I hope their next thought would be like ‘Wow, we’ve not really advanced … in terms of how we treat the victims of Black families or treat Black people.’ I think that’s a good thing to take from it, as well. It really is eerie that it’s something you could really see on CNN right now and it wouldn’t be out of place.”

Part of a deal with iHeartMedia, the podcast arm of the project — like the series itself — took a while, Coburn said. “I think with his reporting and with everything that he has invested in this story, it’s amazing that listeners get to hear directly from Jim Duncan’s family,” he said. “You hear from his coaches, you hear from his neighbors and his teammates and his friends. Bret did a fantastic job creating a full portrait of a really complex guy. I think those memories and those stories are what really help listeners grapple with questions around the death of a guy who was not only a local hero in South Carolina, but he was a national sports hero, as well.”

Coburn added that it’s impossible to hear Duncan’s story and to not draw parallels to events that are happening today, including ongoing debates about police tactics particularly with regard to communities of color.

McCormick left the Rock Hill Herald in July 2019 for the Sports Business Journal in North Carolina. The Return Man series was unfinished, but McCormick was able to make an arrangement with his current and former employers to continue working on the project to see its completion.

One of the good things of being a “lone wolf” in Rock Hill, McCormick said, was being given a long leash for stories and coverage. The freedom allowed him to work on this project.

“I just hope people that are working at smaller papers would see this and not be deterred from taking on something that seems too big,” he said. “I think for the journalism industry, maybe that’s the best message … hopefully it doesn’t take you four years, but you can do big stuff like this if you got a little bit of help.”

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Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to Poynter.org. She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a…
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