Before the 2010 football season started, Joe Dudek decided to do something radical with the running backs he coaches at Pinkerton Academy in Derry, N.H. Well, it wasn’t exactly extreme in terms of a normal ball-carrier’s world, but for Dudek it was pretty far out there.
He wanted them to block. Imagine that.
“I taught them how to block and graded them on blocking,” he says. “The biggest joke is that I never threw a block in my life.”
Dudek didn’t have to block during his career at Plymouth State, because he did just about everything else a running back could. He set the Division III career record for touchdowns, breaking the NCAA all-division mark set by Walter Payton. He gained national acclaim after Sports Illustrated said he deserved the 1985 Heisman Trophy and then finished ninth in the voting. He rushed for 5,570 career yards. At a time when college football is known as much for fathers’ seeking money in return for their sons’ services or players who trade memorabilia for tattoos, Dudek’s story resonates louder than ever.
Here was a guy who became the first person in his family to graduate from college. Who took a semester off to drive a van for Blue Cross/Blue Shield so he could pay his tuition and worked odd jobs — even cleaning up the very stadium in which he played after games — the rest of his four years to pay the bills. Even if Dudek didn’t throw a block, as he says with a self-deprecating laugh, it doesn’t matter. He did enough for Plymouth State to warrant a lifetime pass from the job. Today, as he raises a family and works as a VP for Southern Wine and Spirits, Dudek cares less about his football exploits and more about what his time at the school helped him become.
“I went to Plymouth State to play football and get an education,” he says. “In the end, the education is what got me to where I am today.”
Of course, were it not for the Sports Illustrated article, which presented Dudek as an alternative Heisman candidate during a season that featured no real frontrunner, we never would have heard of him. Even though he scored a then-record 79 touchdowns, Dudek toiled in near-anonymity at Plymouth, a small school that sits practically in the middle of New Hampshire, and his “candidacy” was largely the work of SI writer Rick Reilly’s desire to tweak the Heisman system. Dudek didn’t care about that. In fact, he was honored to be mentioned, even if it was in Reilly’s classic, tongue-in-cheek style. (An excerpt: “Like a lot of superstar college tailbacks, Dudek’s car has fewer than 600 miles on the odometer. Unlike a lot of theirs, his just turned over (past 100,000).”) At first, Dudek thought he would be part of the magazine’s center section, which often featured athletes who didn’t attract national attention. Then came the big surprise. As Dudek was about to address his former high school’s football banquet, he got a phone call saying he would be on Sports Illustrated’s cover with Bo Jackson from Auburn and Chuck Long from Iowa.
“I was able to go back in and announce to my school I would be on the cover,” he says. “It was so overwhelming. I didn’t have the opportunity to appreciate it. Even after the Heisman vote, I didn’t understand what it meant for Division III football and the little guy.”
Dudek had always been “the little guy.” He grew up in Quincy, Mass., and went to North Quincy High School, where his gridiron exploits were met with little notice. The University of Maine showed some interest, as did Boston University, but since Dudek didn’t start playing football seriously until his sophomore year of high school, he hadn’t maximized his potential by his senior season. Some of his friends were already at Plymouth, a school with a strong business program and a picturesque campus, so he decided to go there.
Once on campus, Dudek became quite a force. He led Plymouth to an undefeated season as a freshman and to the Division III playoffs the following season, 1983. By the time the ’85 campaign dawned, Dudek was 12 TDs shy of Payton’s record and beginning to get noticed. “As I got closer to the record, I started to get a lot of attention from the Boston TV stations,” Dudek says. “The day I broke the record, it was a big thrill when a helicopter landed on (Plymouth’s) baseball field, and a TV crew got out.”
One would think that Dudek’s accomplishments and the acclaim he received would have added up to some NFL interest. Dudek hired an agent, powerful Boston representative Bob Woolf, and expected to be chosen in the ninth round. “I got a call from the Cowboys telling me to be ready,” he says. But no one selected him. The darling of Division III was left to find a home the hard way. “That was a devastating night,” Dudek says. “To go from having no dream of being drafted and then having a dream and then having it taken away was devastating.”
The next morning, the sun did indeed rise, and Dudek fielded calls from the Cowboys, Chargers, Broncos and Patriots, all of whom wanted him to sign a rookie free agent contract. He chose the Broncos but spent the ’86 season on injured reserve rehabbing a slightly injured shoulder but mostly learning the NFL game. “I was the running back from the other team every day in practice and took it seriously,” he says. The following season, Dudek was cut late but got a call from Denver to play when the NFL went on strike. At first, he declined to cross the picket line. “I respected my teammates too much,” he says. But the second week, when established players like Oakland’s Howie Long and Broncos’ receiver Steve Watson crossed, and labor peace was imminent, Dudek joined the team and rushed for 128 yards and two TDs in the Broncos’ victory over the Raiders on Monday Night Football. “That was a great experience,” he says. The next week, Dudek helped Denver beat Kansas City, but that was it for his NFL experience. He tried to hook on with the Jets in 1987 but didn’t stick. “I got everything out of football I could,” he says. That includes a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame, which he earned in 1997.
Dudek put his business degree to good use by joining Coors as a sales rep and turned his competitive instincts loose on the beer industry. He was successful, but he was also a family man who grew tired of being away from his wife, Jodi, whom he met while at Plymouth, and their children. So, he took the job with Southern Wine and Spirits, which allows him to stay closer to home.
The Dudeks live in Auburn, N.H., a classic small New England town that sits about 45 minutes from Boston, the 18-mile New Hampshire coast and Lake Winnipesaukee. “It’s a perfect place for a family,” Dudek says. From that base, Dudek coaches at Pinkerton, where his son, J.D., is a freshman. (His daughter, Taylor, is in fifth grade.) He is also on the committees that choose the Division III Heisman and the D-III Coach of the Year. He’s especially proud of the work he does for Plymouth, raising funds as part of the school’s President’s Council. “Plymouth gave me so much,” Dudek says.
And he has given back an awful lot — even if he didn’t ever throw a block.