PORTLAND — He got his copy of the new coffee table book, Sports Illustrated: The Covers and turned the pages quickly, searching for the magazine cover from December of 1985. He found it.

That’s when Joe Dudek relaxed.

“I was kind of pinching myself. It’s surreal how everything happened for me that year. Seeing myself again on the cover of Sports Illustrated was like saying it all really happened.

“I was the youngest of seven children and the first to go to college. I thought I was going to be construction worker. Then everything changed.”

As he spoke, individual players from the Maine Sabers semi-pro football team, stole a few seconds from Wednesday’s practice at the Portland Sports Complex to rush up to shake his hand and thank him for coming. Many of them were born after Joe Dudek gained national attention for running with a football in his hands.

No matter. They had typed his name into the Google search engine on the Internet and discovered the astonishing, once-in-a-lifetime story. How a tall, skinny running back for tiny Plymouth State University in New Hampshire became a big name.

“None of it would have happened if I wasn’t on the cover of Sports Illustrated,” said Dudek. “I would have been a footnote.”

He shared the cover with Bo Jackson, the great running back from Auburn and Chuck Long, the Iowa quarterback. The magazine was making a case for unheralded talent in college football by touting Dudek, a Division III player, in its cover story: “Thinking Fan’s Vote for the 1985 Heisman Trophy.”

Besides each photo was a box. Dudek’s box had the checkmark.He had smashed Walter Payton’s NCAA career rushing touchdown record of 66. Dudek rushed for 76. He rushed for two or more touchdowns in 24 games, another overall NCAA record. In his four-year career from 1982 to 1985, Plymouth State’s record in the Eastern College Athletic Conference — which included Maine Maritime Academy — was 37-6.

It was a dream realized for a kid out of Quincy, Mass. who was overlooked by college recruiters after his playing days for North Quincy High were over. Maine had expressed some interest but Dudek wasn’t sure how he’d fit in that program. Would he even play?

At Plymouth State, Dudek was a freshman running back standing on the sidelines when the starter got hurt. The shy Dudek realized opportunity when he saw it and mustered up the courage to say something. Put me in, coach.

On his first carry, he was stopped for little or no gain and off balance as he was going down. He stuck out a hand to prop himself up and realized his legs were still moving. He looked downfield and saw a clear path. He ran for more than 50 yards and a touchdown. Plymouth State upset Norwich University, 53-14 that day.

Dudek won the job he never relinquished. Even as he was reminded Division III schools do not offer athletic scholarships. At times, he was on the work detail, cleaning up the very stadium he played in. He took a semester off to drive a van for Blue Cross/Blue Shield. Head coach Jay Cottone wondered if Dudek was coming back and recruited Joe Pompeo off Portland High School’s championship team, telling Pompeo he’d have big shoes to fill.

“Then I go to (preseason) camp and the first guy I’m shaking hands with is Joe Dudek,” said Pompeo. He had to wait his turn.

It was Pompeo who suggested to Sabers owner Steve Goodrich that Dudek has a message to spread and Goodrich’s players might want to hear it. That’s what put Dudek at Wednesday’s practice, an unpretentious observer who gripped a football in his right hand.

A right hand with a large ring. Dudek signed as a free agent with the Denver Broncos in 1986, a year he spent on injured reserve. Denver won the AFC championship and he got a ring. The next season he was cut in training camp but invited back as a replacement when the NFL players went on strike.

He played in a couple of game, scored a couple of touchdown and gained more than 150 yards. Then the strike was over and Dudek was gone. The Broncos won another AFC title and he got another ring.

He feels blessed, which was his message when the Sabers ended their practice and took a knee in front of Dudek. They play a team from Braintree, Mass., Saturday at 4 p.m. at Fitzpatrick Stadium. Dudek has said he’d like to return to watch.

The discipline of football, the brotherhood and the love of the game changed his life. He married his college sweetheart. He has children. He’s the vice president of sales for Southern Wine and Spirits, a distributor with offices in more than 30 states. Once a week, he coaches the running backs at Pinkerton Academy in Derry, N.H.

He’s 47 years old and when he told the Sabers to keep their dreams alive, no one looked at the turf or up at the ceiling. Dudek has lived his words. No one believed otherwise.


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