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Volleyball Bids Duke Adieu

Volleyball Bids Duke Adieu– Terry Pettit

On September 18, Horace “Smitty Duke”, age 68, a setter-hitter for the 1968 United States Olympic team that upset the Russians in the Mexico Olympics, the setter the Mexicans called “el hombre de las manos de oro,” the man from Texas who was a four time All American baseball pitcher for the University of Dallas, who could play every position on a baseball field better than any of his teammates, the man who was selected to the All World Volleyball team at the World Cup in Czechoslovakia 1966, the man who was the only non-West Coast male on the U.S. 68 Olympic team, the man who died his hair red along with teammate Mary Jo Peppler when they played professional volleyball for the El Paso – Juarez Sol in 1975, the man who was a legend in Texas because he chose volleyball over a career in professional baseball, the man who made the single greatest attack I ever saw in volleyball, died from prostate cancer in his home in Unicoi, Tennessee.

The play: It was 1971 at a USVBA tournament at an event center St. Louis, Missouri. Smitty Duke was playing for the Dallas YMCA, his home club when he was not playing internationally. He was stationed at right front in a 6-2 offense, attacking from the right side in the front row while setting when he was in the back row.

A free ball came over the net and was passed to the back row setter. With the middle attacker up in the air for what the volleyball world called a Jap,(a quick set in the middle) the setter backset the ball to Duke. Smitty had several options. Because the block was split he could spike the ball cross-court for a kill. Because the ball was set to the pin he could have easily wiped the ball off the outside blocker with a simple wrist -away shot down the line. Even a tip would have scored easily.

Instead, he chose to wipe the ball off the inside hand of the blocker which would require the ball to travel a minimum of thirty feet for the shot to score. The shot was hit harder than any attack I had ever seen. After deflecting off the opponent’s inside hand the ball traveled laterally for three courts while still rising and hit the wall thirty feet above the floor. Play stopped on all five courts while everyone but Smitty Duke thought about what just happened.

Why did he do it? He did it for the same reason that he chose a relatively minor sport over a much more lucrative option. In a state where football and baseball received all of the coverage and notoriety, Smitty Duke was famous for choosing volleyball. He didn’t do it because it was what the situation called for. He didn’t do it to draw attention to himself. He did it (both the choice and the shot) because he could.

Terry Pettit – Author of Talent and the Secret Life of Teams, available at

Smitty Duke 1942-2010


  1. clem johnson clem johnson

    knew smitty in arkansas while he lived in a teepee. his most famous shot i remember seeing at the nats in memphis was a header dink. taught to him by a hungarian when he was on tour.
    smitty approached the net to hit with all the look of crushing the ball, he would let out a grunt and his hand would wiff the bal. then the ball bounced off his head soccer style right over the block. too cool.
    he hit well with either hand and even though he was in his forties when i knew him, he was always the best player in the building.

  2. Jake Freeman Jake Freeman

    I first met Smitty in the late 60’s while I was a member of the Univ. of Texas volleyball team.(’68-’71) He was playing for the Dallas YMCA and they won the majority of tournaments I participated in. After a tournament we hosted in Austin, Smitty took me aside and taught me an overhand serve which I used for several years. His kindness towards me that day were never forgotten. When he showed up in Fayetteville, AR in the early 1980’s, we played together on a club team and I treasured those games we played together. He was the most amazing player I ever played with and against, and I’m greatly saddened at the news of his passing. My sincere condolences to his wife Sharon and his entire family.

  3. Jeff Thomas Jeff Thomas

    I had the privilege of playing a few pickup games with Smitty while I was a student at the University of Arkansas, and the “header dink” that Clem refers to is something I always remembered, and I even taught it to my student athletes later on during my coaching career. Smitty may have been more than twice my age at the time, but his passion for the game and creativity stuck with me for a long time.

  4. John Llewellyn John Llewellyn

    I played with Smitty in those Arkansas years along with Clem and there never was a more gracious, fun loving athlete on a volleyball court. When you watched him play, you got a real clear sense of what God had in mind for the sport. He was, of course, supremely talented but wore that mantel lightly and would offer a coaching pointer if asked. My favorite memory is of a match with the Little Rock AFB team. They had a gifted player named Raul Malo (sp?). Well, Raul and Smitty challenged each other that day. Raul stuffed one of Smitty’s sets somehow and that got his goat. So Smitty went to center front to set and locked eyes with Malo. When the pass came from the back row to Smitty, he never looked at it; he stared directly at Malo. Then, without even looking for the ball he set it perfectly to the outside hitter. Malo as the middle blocker was frozen by Smitty’s stare; there was no clue where the set might go. The hitter was one-on-one with the blocker, the set was so still you could read the inflation pressure on the ball, and the spike went straight down. Then, and this is pure Smitty, Smitty smiled at Malo and said, “I don’t like people reading my mail.” Then they slapped hands under the net and went back at it. In a lifetime of playing and studying sports I have never seen a man so perfectly and gracefully fitted to his sport.

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