December 2, 1985
On page 420 of the Denver Broncos' media guide is a chronological list of every 100-yard rushing performance by a Bronco. Near the top, Floyd Little and Otis Armstrong dominate the list. Down low, Terrell Davis is everywhere. Someplace near the middle, easily missed, is this line: JOE DUDEK...23-128, 2 TDS...OCT. 12, 1987 VS. L.A. RAIDERS.
The line's simplicity belies, at least in Dudek's eyes, a crowning moment. For one game, a 30-14 win over the hated Raiders, Dudek proved to himself that he had the goods to thrive in pro football. So what if it was a scab contest during an NFL strike? "That was my statement to the big boys," says Dudek. "I may have come from a small school, but I could play."
Eleven years later Dudek gets chills when he remembers cutting through the silver and black. He revels even more, however, in recalling that in 1985, as a 6'1", 195-pound senior running back at Division III Plymouth ( N.H.) State, he scored a college-record 79 touchdowns and, largely thanks to SI's Dec. 2 cover story, became a Heisman Trophy candidate. "I haven't been the same ever since," says Dudek, 35. "I'll always be remembered as SI's choice for the Heisman."
Truth be told, neither SI nor Dudek thought he had a real shot at winning the award. (He finished ninth, 1,453 votes behind winner Bo Jackson of Alabama.) The point was, small-college players such as Dudek, scrappy little guys with big hearts, deserve some attention too. Upon leaving Plymouth State after the '85 season, Dudek signed with the Broncos, who kept him on the taxi squad during '86. He was cut in training camp before the '87 season, but he came back to play in those two replacement games. Soon after, Denver let him go for good. "I've never been too disappointed," he says. "When I left high school, I was hardly recruited. I ended up being part of two Super Bowl teams." Not only that, but last August he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Dudek lives in Derry, N.H., and works as an account manager for Coors. He and his wife, Jodi, have a two-year-old son, Joey. Joe is finishing his college education, in business management, at Plymouth State. "I've had two great spans in my life," he says. "The first was that senior year of college, with the rushing records and the cover. The second, with the Hall of Fame and my family and my job, is right now."