The quarterback bounced gamely to his feet, took a step or two and then thought better of it. Paul Justin, a reserve passer for the Indianapolis Colts, sank to the turf and reappraised his situation: On the play just completed he had dropped back to pass when Buffalo Bills linebacker Bryce Paup came crashing into him so hard that Justin now had to wonder if the horseshoes on his helmet had been loosened. After being helped up and led to the sideline, Justin took the rest of the day off.
Following that Nov. 5 game, all Justin could recall of Paup's sack was the sudden appearance of "white light." Members of Colts management made no complaint to the league office; they thought Paup, who had beaten the block of tight end Ken Dilger, had made a hell of a play. Still, the NFL fined Paup $12,000 for face-mask-to-face-mask contact.
It turns out the fine wasn't just a slap at Paup, a six-year veteran who prides himself on his tough but clean play. It was an insult to the dozen or so retirees who gather most afternoons at the Truck Haven Cafe in Jefferson, Iowa (10 miles from Paup's hometown of Scranton)—a group whose dental work could collectively be referred to as The Bridges of Greene County. "People in Iowa know sports as well as we know anything, and that was a clean hit," former newspaper editor Dudley Strawn said recently. "Bryce will knock the tar out of you, but he won't cheap-shot you. He embodies the values of this area."
While a few of Strawn's cronies rolled their eyes during this oration, no one interrupted him. The annual flesh bazaar known as the NFL's free-agent signing period was in its first week, making it a fitting time to pay tribute to Paup, the Greene County native who stands as one of the most inspired signings in the league's brief history of unfettered free agency. Luring Paup from the Green Bay Packers in March 1995 proved to be the biggest reason that the Bills won 11 games and returned to the playoffs last season after a one-year hiatus.
Along with his league-leading 17½ sacks for Buffalo, Paup forced three fumbles, intercepted two passes and was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year. As Deion Sanders, who won that award in 1994, might say of his successor, it's time to give Paup his props.
Paup would never use that sort of hip expression. Even before he began sporting a flattop haircut, which makes him look like a walking helipad, he was one of the squarest guys you could find. Paup is a God-fearing, teetotaling, epithet-eschewing family man who married his high school sweetheart, whom he first espied at a church retreat in Jefferson.
Of course he didn't barge right up and start laying his rap on Denise Dunlop, the fabulous babe at the church lock-in. Bryce has always been one to proceed more cautiously than that. Having learned that Denise, a senior at Jefferson High, was not going steady with anyone, he sent an emissary bearing a message to her. Eleven years later, Paup still gets tongue-tied recalling his communiqué: "I said, well, you know, just, uh, I'd be interested."
The next weekend, smooth operator Bryce was cruising Jefferson in his jacked-up 1975 Camaro when he pulled alongside a car in which Denise was a passenger. Marshaling all his courage, he stepped off the cliff: There was a dance the following weekend; would she care to go with him? She would. The fact that Paup's dancing owed more to Fred Flintstone than Fred Astaire did not prevent them from having a splendid time. "He was quiet, real sensitive and caring," remembers Denise. They were married in the summer of 1990.
His reputation as a sensitive, caring man was what drove Paup to get his first flattop last year. "I wanted to look meaner," says the 6'5", 247-pound Paup. "Everybody thought I was just a nice guy who played hard, and I wanted to change that image."
Green Bay had plucked him out of Division I-AA Northern Iowa in the sixth round of the 1990 draft. He made the Packers in large part because of his versatility: He could play both inside and outside linebacker; against a run-and-shoot team he could also play as a down lineman, at end. "A real unselfish player," is how Green Bay assistant coach Bob Valesente recalls Paup. "He'd do anything we asked."