QUINCY, Mass. — Rita Dudek works in a convenience store. Sells everything from toothpaste to Hawaiian Punch. Once a week she puts out the magazines —
“It only takes me an hour,” she says — cutting open the bundles and placing them on the shelves. Last week, after she put them out, she found herself checking the customers who walked past. She couldn’t help it. Were they looking at the new Sports Illustrated? At the cover? Were they looking? For there, beneath a headline that read “The Thinking Fan’s Vote for the 1985 Heisman Trophy,” were three faces with a box next to each: Bo Jackson of Auburn, Chuck Long of Iowa and someone named Joe Dudek of Plymouth State, an obscure Division III college in New Hampshire.
And Dudek’s box had a red check in it. On the cover. Of Sports Illustrated.
The magazine’s choice for the Heisman Trophy winner.
Joe Dudek. Rita’s son.
Joe Dudek? His life changes
“This has really changed everything,” said Joe Dudek, dressed in a corduroy sports jacket and red tie. He was sitting in a restaurant in Medford, Mass., awaiting a local sports banquet. Friends and teammates were mingling. Dudek himself looked unspectacular — crew-cut hair, a slightly crooked smile, average football build. A little small, actually.
But in this small-town restaurant, he almost glowed. Violinists dream of Carnegie Hall, oilmen of the Forbes 400. But if you carry a football, like Joe Dudek, you fantasize about the cover of Sports Illustrated.
With a check mark. The room was buzzing.
“Did you see that article?”
“Hey, he’s great. I’m not surprised.”
“Is he going down to New York for Heisman ceremonies?”
“Did you say he was going to New York?”
“Hey. You think he’s got a chance?”
Dudek found out about the cover only the night before it came out. He and his girlfriend drove to the first open newsstand and bought a copy. They read it in the car. Five times.
The article is mostly a tongue-in-cheek comment on the overblown big-name Heisman candidates. And its writer never met Dudek. Just spoke to him over the phone.
But a cover is a cover, and in these parts, it was like Rocky Balboa being given a shot at the heavyweight title. People Dudek had known for years began asking for his autograph. The phone rang. Reporters arrived. TV camera lights glared. The phone rang. Channel 7, Channel 56, the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald. Could they have a minute? The phone rang. At the family Thanksgiving, Joe Dudek was a celebrity. His nieces and nephews drew crayon signs: “Hurrah for Joey!” Agents are circling. The pros are interested.
An article that criticized the hurricane of Heisman hoopla created a little storm of its own. Division III ‘just as tough’
Not that the article is without merit. In his four years at Plymouth State, Dudek, 21, scored more touchdowns (79) than any other collegian ever to wear a helmet. He gained 5,570 yards (a Division III record). In his final game two weeks ago, he ran 34 times for 265 yards and two touchdowns before he was taken from the field by ambulance, exhausted and injured, with four minutes left.
He has received no silver-spoon treatment. No scholarships. Dudek, the youngest of eight kids, pays to go to school, and owes more than $10,000 in student loans. He lives in a regular dorm. He never played in a bowl. Division III? The farthest he’s traveled to play is Schenectady, N.Y.
But now. The cover. The Heisman check mark.
“I know what people think,” Dudek said. “It’s a Division III school. Who do they play? But guys here play football because they love it. To me, the hits are just as hard, the holes are just as tough to get through.”
Sadly, the Heisman is less understanding. It will be awarded this weekend. Jackson or Long will get it. Joe Dudek will not win. No. Will he?
“I know I won’t,” he said. “I’d be thrilled to even finish in the top 10. But I have the magazine. Nobody can take that away. Playing out here in Division III, there’s usually nobody to tell you if you’re any good or not. This tells me that maybe I at least belong with those other guys, you know? That means a lot.”
A new Sports Illustrated arrives at the convenience store today. Rita Dudek will cut the bundles and put them out. A new cover. A new face. The week is up.
“That’s OK,” Joe Dudek said. “I’m kinda looking forward to the next week’s issue, the letters to the editor they get for picking me.”
He laughed. “That should be pretty interesting itself.”