On Sunday night, Demi Lovato will finish singing the national anthem at Super Bowl LIV in Miami, the game will kick off, and the fans will yell like crazy.
I’m betting the loudest screams will come from South Philly’s Jackson Duncan and Zymir Cobbs-Duncan. They’ll be attending the championship game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs at Hard Rock Stadium as personal guests of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Early last month, he extended the invitation after hearing something remarkable about them: On Jan. 15, Duncan, who is only 35, planned to legally adopt Zymir, who is 19.
The story of how this dynamic duo became an instant family began about three years ago. Zymir, 15 at the time, had been in foster care from the age of 5, bouncing in and out of more than a dozen placements. He was living in a group home in North Philly with about nine other youngsters when he enrolled in Focused Athletics, a nonprofit that Duncan founded in 2015. The organization offers free SAT preparation, tutoring, workout sessions at area fitness centers, and mentorship opportunities to disadvantaged young athletes.
On the day they first met on an athletic field in Hunting Park, recalled Duncan, “Everyone else was stretching and Zymir was just sprinting like a maniac. He was just so full of energy.”
Zymir, who was taken with Duncan’s kindness and concern, quickly bonded with him over their shared love of football, boxing, and working out: Zymir played defensive end for the Panthers at Imhotep Charter School. Duncan, a brown belt in Brazilian jiujitsu, had played football at Franklin & Marshall College.
In Duncan, Zymir found the father figure he’d always wanted but never had.
In Zymir, Duncan saw a bit of himself. He, too, had moved around a lot as a kid: When he was 7 years old, his mother went to prison for killing his father.
“I lived with a couple of different families until she was released,” said Duncan, who grew up in Chester County. “It was pretty traumatic."
Memories of those hard times led him to found Focused Athletics.
“The whole stigma attached to everything that happened to me definitely followed me throughout high school. ‘Oh, that’s the kid whose mom killed his dad,'” recalled Duncan, who came to see "athletics as being a path I could take to get out of all that.”
“Sports helped me forge my identity," he added.
When Zymir turned 16, Duncan used a gift certificate to celebrate with him at Parc restaurant on Rittenhouse Square. That evening, Zymir asked Duncan a surprising question: Would he adopt him?
Duncan — a ruggedly handsome and then-childless bachelor who works as director of operations for Odin Properties — laughed off the suggestion.
“I said, ‘Excuse me?’” recalled Duncan, who wasn’t thinking about fatherhood at the time. The next day, Duncan got calls from both Zymir’s child advocate and his case manager.
“They said, ‘I heard the good news — Zymir says you’re adopting him!’ He kind of forced my hand on that one," Duncan said.
So Duncan began the process of filling out paperwork and getting his home certified so he could become Zymir’s foster father. It was tough going at times as Zymir settled into Duncan’s bachelor pad at 17th and Spruce Streets. Unused to structure, he bristled when Duncan insisted, for example, that the teen improve his grades.
“We battled. We were like two bulls butting heads sometimes,” said Duncan. “I told him the other day, ‘If you asked me to go back and raise you all over again, I don’t know if I would be able to do it.’ He’s a big kid. He’s super headstrong. It took everything in me to get him to where he’s at.”
Today, Zymir is thriving. He’s a freshman at Scranton’s Lackawanna State College, earning A’s and is playing football for the school’s Falcons as a linebacker.
“You would never expect for me to be where I am at right now,” said Zymir. “Coming from where I was at in life, I was going on the wrong path.”
So how did they come to NFL Commissioner Goodell’s attention?
The Philadelphia Eagles submitted their story to the National Football League, which was looking for feel-good stories.
Duncan and Zymir were invited to Lincoln Financial Field on Jan. 5 for the Eagles game against the Seattle Seahawks. At one point, Duncan and Zymir were brought over to the players section and introduced to Goodell, who told them he had been reading up about Focused Athletics. Then, the commissioner announced the stunning news. They were going to be his guests at the Super Bowl. That moment, caught on video and posted on Twitter, is priceless.
As Goodell hands Zymir a football, he tells him, “You’re going to the Super Bowl!” Zymir’s jaw drops and his face goes blank. He literally cannot speak. Toward the end, his eyes tear up but, still, no words leave his lips, even as he’s hugged by both Duncan and Goodell.
“He was pretty shaken up,” Duncan told me. “It was a pretty emotional day for us.”
But not as emotional as the one 10 days later in the courtroom of Common Pleas Judge Walter J. Olszewski, who pronounced Jackson Duncan the legal father of Zymir Cobbs, whose last name has now changed to Cobbs-Duncan. The men — now tethered by both love and the law — embraced and cried as their friends and loved ones cheered.
Speaking of loved ones, the Duncan household has grown quite a bit since the days of being a Rittenhouse Square bachelor pad. Duncan is fostering two more children: a boy and a girl. His girlfriend, Haley Houck, a former Temple University lacrosse player, has joined the household as well. To accommodate the gang, Duncan moved from Center City into an old triplex in South Philly that he converted into a single home with six bedrooms and three baths. (He withdrew money from his retirement plan to finance it).
“Everybody thought I was crazy,” taking in foster kids, Duncan told me. “All of my friends were like, ‘Dunc, what are you doing?’ I said, ‘Well, look. There are 5,200 kids in foster care right now.’ It’s really been a blessing [being a foster parent], and I hope our story will help more people to foster or adopt and help these kids that are really in need.”
As he spoke, I thought about the bond between a beloved mentor and a grateful mentee, and the precious one between a father and a son. You’re lucky in life if you have one or the other. Zymir managed to find both in the same man.
For him, it has made all the difference.