DENVER (CBS4) - After playing under the lights at Mile High Stadium, a former Denver tight end has chosen to trade in his NFL helmet for a Denver Fire helmet. Former Bronco Wesley Duke is now one of Denver Fire Department's newest and most energetic firefighters.
Duke, who played for the Broncos in 2005, said the decision to become a firefighter was fueled by commonalities between athletics and firefighting, and a desire to give back to the community that supported his career in the NFL.
"I've done a lot of good jobs. This is my third professional career, and by far the best," Duke told CBS4's Dillon Thomas.
After leaving professional football, Duke worked as an over-the-road truck driver. He got married and had three children in that time. Duke said truck diving paid well, but wasn't as exciting and potentially fulfilling as working a servant to his community.
So, after being recruited in-part by DFD Captain Greg Pixley, Duke decided to go all-in on a career in fighting fires.
In order to meet criteria in the DFD application process, Duke had no other option, but to quit his trucking job on the spot. He said he made a delivery one night and then returned home with the intent to show his commitment to DFD. With the support of his wife, he chose to take a risk on potentially not graduating the academy just for the chance to pursue a dream.
"I had to quit that job to go all-in to try and pursue this career," Duke said. "It was a sacrifice I made."
After a strenuous application process, Duke was accepted in to the fire academy. There, with the support of his fellow applicants, he successfully graduate with Denver Fire Academy Class 19-03 in January of 2020. CBS4 was there during the graduation, where Duke was beaming with joy.
His wife pinned his badge as his children stood on stage beside them.
"Congratulations, daddy," one of his daughters said as he received his badge.
Nearly a year later, CBS4 caught up with Duke at DFD Station #17.
Even as 911 calls for help interrupted the interview a few times, Duke's infectious laugh and personality were still evident. CBS4 shadowed Duke as his fire company responded to calls including medical assistance, gas leaks and more.
When asked why Duke wanted to be part of the firefighting career, he said it was all about giving back to the community that embraced him during his stint in the NFL.
"Just knowing that you are helping people. I have a heart to serve, so this gives me that opportunity," Duke said. "Usually, we meet people under some difficult circumstances. Being able to do that, and be a calming voice to help them through that, this job is outstanding."
The memories of catching touchdowns in front of thousands of fans still resonates with Duke.
"Ahh, catching the touchdown against the (Buffalo) Bills was really nice," Duke recalled.
Duke said the NFL may have paid more monetarily, but firefighting overcompensated with gratitude and fulfillment.
"I feel like, yeah, this is (the dream job) for me," Duke said.
While many kids dream about growing up around athletics, the Duke children say their father has the best job.
"They know daddy played football, and they know daddy drove trucks. They got to experience a lot of that. But, by far they are more excited to say daddy is a Denver firefighter," Duke said.
In a profession which has historically been dominated by white men, Duke and many of his fellow 19-03 classmates are helping change that culture. Duke was just one of several minority graduates, alongside several women who joined the department.
Duke said DFD has been extremely welcoming, encouraging and an overall pleasure to be a part of.
Duke was recently transferred to a new fire station in the Montbello neighborhood. Duke was thrilled for the transfer, saying it was close to a Boys & Girls Club he treasured. He hoped to use his proximity to the club to encourage other children of many different backgrounds to pursue public service.
While Duke's career under the lights at Mile High Stadium may be over, his path ahead has never been clearer, thanks to the flashing lights on local Denver Fire engines.
"Denver gave me an opportunity to come play football for them, so now it is my opportunity to give back to them," Duke said.
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