[Photo courtesy of Plymouth State Sports Info]
At a time when face-to-face chatter in the office, school or neighborhood served as a means of spreading news instead of handheld devices, it usually took something out of the ordinary to attract widespread attention.
To that degree, few, especially outside New England, probably would have known much about Joe Dudek if not for his appearance on the cover of the December 2, 1985 issue of Sports Illustrated. He appeared with Auburn’s Bo Jackson and Iowa’s Chuck Long, the frontrunners for the Heisman Trophy, which Jackson would win. The publication was not sold on the two leading candidates and felt the senior from Plymouth State in New Hampshire deserved much consideration.
“It definitely put my name out there, put me on the map with regards to a national level,” said Dudek, who finished ninth in the Heisman voting, two points ahead of Oklahoma State’s Thurman Thomas. “I was known throughout New England, but I think getting on the cover of Sports Illustrated and being compared to the likes of Bo Jackson and Chuck Long really got me more onto the national stage.”
Dudek completed a career in which his 79 touchdowns shattered Walter Payton’s NCAA mark and his 5,570 yards rushing were the most ever in Division III. He accomplished such feats while leading the Panthers to conference titles in each of his four seasons.
Though many of Dudek’s records have gone by the wayside over the past 30 years, the memories of those he meets through business or other means have not.
“To this day when I introduce myself people remember me,” said the 1997 College Football Hall of Fame inductee. “They remember because my name is Dudek, which is a little more unique than Smith or Jones. Secondly, I think a lot of people appreciated that somebody from a small school was being recognized. Put it all together and I think it was a time in my life when I went from being in my own little world in New England to all of a sudden being on a bigger stage.”
Before too long his stage would be Mile High Stadium on a Monday night. After being bypassed in the 1986 NFL draft, which comprised of 15 rounds, Denver was among a few teams that called the Massachusetts native. Dudek felt he had a good chance to play with the Broncos and signed as a free agent. After a year on the practice squad he got a break early in the 1987 season and made his debut.
Labor unrest in the NFL resulted in a player’s walkout following Week 2. The Broncos asked Dudek to play, but he had no interest in crossing the picket line. After the team lost its first game with replacement players they reached out to him again saying they really needed him, players were starting to cross the line and that he would have the opportunity to start on Monday night at home against a Los Angeles Raiders team that would have a couple of its regular defenders in the lineup, including Howie Long. (Dudek made his NFL debut before Jackson, who three weeks later made his debut with, ironically, the Raiders. Jackson played with the Kansas City Royals and waited for the baseball season to conclude before switching sports. He sat out the 1986 football season after not signing with Tampa Bay, which selected him No. 1.)
“I really couldn’t pass up that chance and it was a really special night,” said Dudek, who ran for 128 yards and two touchdowns in a Denver win. “I left that game knowing that I could compete and play at that level. I remember the crowd chanting my name and coming from a small school it was pretty special.”
After the following week’s victory at Kansas City the striking players returned and Dudek was back on the practice squad. That is where his two-season NFL career ended, but Denver was the city where another career was launched.
The Broncos had a work-related program for players and Dudek took advantage of it by hooking up with a Coors Brewing distributor in Denver.
“I started talking to sales reps and they talked about how they compete against Budweiser and Miller and I thought, ‘Boy, I’m a competitive guy. Maybe I should get into this,’” said Dudek who received his degree in business administration. “I fell into this business and it’s a business you find that once you’re in it you love it. I am very fortunate to spend 28 years now in the industry.”
Dudek is the vice president and general manager of the New England division of Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, a company he has been with for eight years. He credits football for providing him the foundation for much that has taken place in his career since he last walked off the gridiron.
“You learn teamwork, hard work and dedication to the craft you are in,” said Dudek, the youngest of seven children and the first in his family to attend college. “Putting in that work will hopefully give you the rewards that you are looking for. I think that is what has happened to me in my positions in sales, and now sales management. My goal was to work hard and to be the best and I have walked into every situation with that kind of attitude. I am fortunate that I have taken that work ethic to my sales career and I think that has made me better because of it.”
It is a similar message he and his wife of 27 years, Jodi, have provided their kids. Daughter Taylor is a junior in high school and a three-sport star who committed to play lacrosse at the University of New Hampshire. Son Joey, a 2014 draft pick of the New Jersey Devils, is in his sophomore season at Boston College is among the Eagles’ leading goal scorers.
A moment Dudek will never forget was the phone call from then Plymouth State athletic director John Clark informing him he would be on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He still receives a few magazines with an autograph request in the mail each year at his home in Auburn. New Hampshire, that is.
“To this day I still can’t believe it,” he said. “I remember getting the call that I was going to be on the cover and then seeing the magazine at the newsstand. I had to pinch myself because it was not supposed to happen to somebody going to a small school like Plymouth State.”
It happened to Joe Dudek and it remains a big part of his life.