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The Story of Bo and Joe

How the greatest athlete of our time forever changed the life of a kid named Dudek

I suppose Joe Dudek was never truly famous, except in the minds of people like me, who happened to be 13 years old in December 1985, and who happened to believe that Thursday was the greatest weekday of them all, because it meant a brand-new issue of Sports Illustrated would inevitably arrive curled up in our mailbox. I mean, Dudek still has occasional brushes with something that resembles notoriety: Every so often, an old SI shows up at his house, and he autographs his photo on the cover and ships it back to some obsessive completist who no doubt attached a self-addressed stamped envelope from a hoarder’s shack in Kalamazoo. Every so often, a person will roll his granite slab of a surname about on their tongue, and they will ask, “Why does that sound so familiar?” Every so often, someone will glance down at his thick fingers and notice the AFC championship ring or the NFL alumni ring that his wife ordered for him, and they will ask him about it, and then Dudek will tell them about who he once was, for a brief period, before he came to live the rest of his life.

So I guess you could say that at irregular intervals, Joe Dudek is still quasi-famous, even if you might argue that his 15 minutes were manufactured with a Warholian flourish, even if you might argue that he was specifically targeted for fame because he embodied the antithesis of celebrity in that flamboyantly weird American epoch known as the 1980s.

On Saturday night following the Heisman Trophy ceremony, ESPN will air a 30 for 30 about Bo Jackson, who, for a short time before the rise of Michael Jordan and the implosion of Bo’s own hip, was both the most famous and most remarkable athlete in our nation’s modern history. I have written extensively about Bo in the past; I believe he is the greatest pure athletic specimen I’ll ever see in my lifetime, and I believe the particular fame that built up around him laid the framework for what it means to be a famous athlete in 2012. I believe that Bo happened along at the right time and engendered such tremendous enthusiasm that he became a unique sort of American icon, and I believe that no athlete embodied the spirit of the Reagan era more than Bo did. His career was brief, but I believe it was tremendously important, and the myth he created was so great that smaller myths built up all around him. And this is where Joe Dudek (above, center) comes in, because without his association with Bo Jackson, Dudek’s existence might be completely different.

“I do believe that magazine cover changed my life — it motivated me to become something more,” he says. “For the rest of my life, Bo and I are going to be attached at the hip.”

I ask him where he might have wound up if they weren’t ever connected, if none of this had ever happened, and he pauses for a very long time.

“I honestly don’t know,” he says. “I was the right guy at the right place at the right time.”

We are driving in Dudek’s sport-utility vehicle, on the way back to Manchester from his son’s prep-school hockey game in rural New Hampshire. Except for a brief interlude in Colorado, he has spent most of his life in New England. He works as a vice-president at Southern Wine & Spirits, a major liquor distributor with a headquarters in nearby Concord; he has a wife he met in college and they have a son and a daughter, and he tells me over and over again that he could not possibly be happier with his life. Everything that happened back then — that confluence of good luck and good timing and genuine achievement — feels a little bit like he’s eavesdropping on someone else’s dream. “Joe doesn’t like to talk about it,” his wife, Jodi, tells me, and part of this is because Dudek is a legitimately humble man. When Jodi decided to display some of his football trophies in a small corner of their house, Dudek protested, worrying that people would find it ostentatious. “Joe,” she said, “it’s your house.”

But I also wonder if Joe Dudek worries that if he tells the story too much — just as it is with those hyper-surreal Bo Jackson highlights — it might cease to be real.

It started, of course, with a magazine writer and a magazine editor, but before that, it started in North Quincy, Massachusetts, in a family with seven children that had recently escaped from the rough neighborhood of Dorchester. The father was an electrical designer; the mother worked at a drugstore. None of the first six children had gone to college, and the youngest assumed that he wouldn’t, either. He imagined he would get a job working construction with his brothers; he played soccer until his sophomore year, and then he picked up football. He was a running back and he had good speed and he was undersized and no one showed much interest, except a Division III school called Plymouth State in New Hampshire, which had recruited a group of Quincy kids before and figured there was no harm in inviting another, even if his prospects were cloudy.
Joe Dudek
Dudek’s grades weren’t very good, but he sold himself to the admissions office. He took out steep loans to pay the out-of-state tuition. His freshman year, he was backing up an All-America candidate, and he assumed he wouldn’t see the field, but then the All-America candidate went down with an ankle injury during a controlled scrimmage, and Dudek came in. Dudek wasn’t a power back — he was an upright runner with a long stride, a poor man’s Marcus Allen — but he hit the hole on a dive play, fell backward onto a pile of bodies, bounced up without landing on the ground, and scrambled 66 yards for a touchdown. From time to time after that, his teammates referred to him as “Crazy Legs.” The next week, he was supposed to attend his brother’s wedding — he assumed he wouldn’t be playing — and instead he scored four touchdowns against Norwich. When he showed up for the tail end of the reception, no one believed him, because he’d never done anything like that in high school.

Over the next three games, Dudek scored nine touchdowns. Plymouth State went undefeated, but they weren’t considered good enough to compete in the NCAA’s Division III playoffs.

In the spring of his sophomore year, Dudek took a semester off to drive a van, delivering supplies for Blue Cross/Blue Shield to help pay his tuition. His own car cycled past 100,000 miles, and he kept scoring touchdowns, and by his senior year, he’d set the Division III record for rushing yards and was on the verge of breaking Walter Payton’s NCAA career touchdown record. The school’s sports information director, John Gardner, began courting media, and on the day Dudek broke the record with his 67th touchdown, a news helicopter from a Boston television station landed on the field. This, he assumed, was about as big as things would ever get; a few NFL scouts were sniffing around, but Dudek was already making plans for what would come next when Rick Reilly called.

Reilly was in his first year at SI, covering college football. He was unimpressed by the Heisman Trophy field, and more than that, he and editor Mark Mulvoy were seeking to make a statement. College football was seething with blatant and in-your-face corruption, punctuated by the sordid happenings at Southern Methodist University. And even though Bo’s career at Auburn had nothing to do with this — even though the supposedly inconsequential injuries, like a thigh bruise that kept Jackson out of certain games and that Reilly cited as the primary reason for Bo’s lack of qualifications, were, in fact, very real1 — he and Iowa quarterback Chuck Long became symbols of the Heisman’s insistent celebration of mediocrity. By extension, they became symbols of college football’s inevitable degeneration into a semiprofessional avocation. In search of an anti-antihero, Reilly happened upon Joe Dudek, who had the name, and the car, and the lack of scholarship money — one of the myths that made the rounds was that Dudek actually worked cleaning up the stadium after the games (he’s still not sure where that came from) — and who had run for 265 yards in his final game at Plymouth. Then, suffering from injuries and exhaustion, he had to be carted from the field by ambulance.2 Thigh bruise, indeed, Reilly sneered at Bo.

The cover: A mug shot of Bo, and a mug shot of Chuck Long. And at the bottom, a mug shot of Joe Dudek. Check boxes next to each; only the bottom box marked. Headline: The Thinking Fan’s Vote for the 1985 Heisman Trophy. Inside, a shot of Joe posing next to the brown jalopy he drove, the totem of purity and innocence SI was seeking. The article’s headline: “What the Heck, Why Not Dudek?”

“At a time of growing suspicion about the money side of big-time college football,” wrote the Christian Science Monitor after the issue was published, “Joe Dudek has emerged as a symbol of the virtues and appeal of the game’s purely amateur version.”

“There’s nothing wrong with creating a hero,” Mulvoy told a few years ago. “Let’s face it: Madison Avenue did it, everybody did it.”

Bo Jackson
The irony, of course, is that they would soon do it to Bo, on an exponentially larger scale: Those brilliant and self-referential Nike commercials and that “Bo knows” catchphrase would propel him to a level of fame he never could have anticipated and never really asked for. Years later, Bo would tell me that all the people who presumed they were using him were actually being used by him. He made a fortune, and he became, for a brief time, a modern-day superhero, streaking across outfield walls and through stadium tunnels. Then, when it was over, when he’d come back to baseball and retired again, he retreated to a quiet life in a gated community in the Chicago suburbs, on his own terms.

It wasn’t like Joe Dudek didn’t realize that he was being manipulated, too, that his story was being elevated into its own little fairy tale. He felt guilty that it came at the expense of Bo (and, to a lesser extent, Chuck Long), but it was so surreal in its speed that he had trouble absorbing it all. “It all happened so quick,” he says now. “If it happened all over again, I wish I could have slowed it down a little.”

He was being honored at his high school’s football banquet when Gardner, the school’s SID, called a pay phone in the hallway to inform him that he’d gotten the cover over Marvin Hagler; the next day, he raced to a local magazine distributor to buy a copy as soon as it went on sale. He appeared on Good Morning America with Bo, and he played in the Japan Bowl, a college all-star game, with Bo. During the practices, he thought, I can play with any of these guys. Except Bo.

“He would hit the hole, and then get to another gear that you shouldn’t have for someone that big,” he says. “He is by far the best athlete I’ve ever seen.”

And Joe? He was still Joe. But his mailbox was crammed with letters from agents. He thought he might get chosen in the NFL draft. He even received 12 first-place votes in the Heisman Trophy balloting, no doubt from 12 people who had never seen him play a single down (he finished ninth overall).

The day after the photo shoot for the SI cover story, Dudek was driving down a snowy road to get medical treatment. He slammed into a parked vehicle and totaled his car, with 106,000 miles on the odometer. He would never drive it again.

Dudek wasn’t drafted, but he did catch on with the Denver Broncos, playing mostly on the practice squad, a longshot who engendered sympathy because of the symbol of purity he’d come to represent. In 1987, the NFL players walked out on strike, and the Broncos, desperate for a back who knew the playbook, begged Dudek to return. At first, he refused — he was the son of a union man, after all — but then the Broncos guaranteed him a spot on the taxi squad for the remainder of the season, and Dudek came back for a Monday Night game against the Raiders. He ran for 128 yards and two touchdowns, and caught five passes the following week against the Chiefs before the regular players returned (the Broncos went to the Super Bowl). He never played in a regular-season game again, but through the Broncos he got a job at the Coors Brewing Company, thereby leading him to a career in the liquor business. (If not for that, Dudek says, he might have wound up working construction again.)

Five weeks after the Broncos defeated the Raiders, Bo Jackson made his Monday Night Football debut against the Seahawks — in the sport he famously referred to as a “hobby” — and he blew through the tunnel at the Kingdome, and toppled Brian Bosworth’s burgeoning fame, and birthed a phenomenon that we’re only now beginning to grasp, one that we may never witness again.

As proof, here is Dudek’s son, J.D. — he used to play hockey and baseball when he was younger, but then his coaches told him to choose, one or the other, which is how it goes for most young athletes these days. J.D. picked hockey, and committed to Boston College heading into his junior year last summer, and then transferred to a prep school with more than a half-dozen future college players on the roster. It is serious hockey, far more serious than anything Joe was doing at his son’s age, when he was just starting to take up football.

But then, all that was a long time ago. I have no idea what Bo Jackson remembers about Joe Dudek, if anything, or if he feels any sort of synergy. But I can tell you that Joe Dudek remembers Bo with a fondness that has less to do with their actual relationship, and everything to do with the way their stories became connected, and the way Bo opened those who watched him to an ecstatic sense of possibility. In fact, Bo and Joe only really spoke once, in the green room at Good Morning America; Dudek was a shy kid sitting in the corner, and Bo came up and introduced himself, repressing the stutter that had plagued him since childhood.

“You must be Joe,” he said. “I’m Bo Jackson. It’s great to meet you.”

And that one time, Joe Dudek shook the hand of the man who inadvertently altered the course of his life.