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The Longest of Heisman longshots

Twenty five years ago, Sports Illustrated editor Mark Mulvoy and first-year writer Rick Reilly made a pitch for an unknown kid from Division III Plymouth State and in the process created a cover story that still resonates today.

On occasion, Joe Dudek receives a look of familiarity when he introduces himself for the first time. "I'm fortunate that I have an uncommon name," he says. "At least once or twice a month I get, 'Dudek, Dudek, I know that name.'"

During his playing days at Plymouth (N.H.) State, Dudek shattered Walter Payton's NCAA all-division career touchdown mark and set a new Division III record for rushing yards. But that's just his resume. His fame was the creation of two men who were tired of seeing the Heisman Trophy go to the best player on college football's best team. Two men who sought a response from readers. Two men who sought change.

In early 1985, Rick Reilly was a writer for The Los Angeles Times on assignment at spring training. He received a call asking if he would like to interview for a job with Sports Illustrated. Of course, only there was one problem: he hadn't packed a sport coat. "So I came in a pair of pants and a golf shirt," he laughs. The magazine's editor in those years, Mark Mulvoy, went out of his way to make Reilly feel at home. He found someone in the office of roughly the same build, then commandeered the guy's jacket so that he and Reilly could have a proper interview over lunch. Only Reilly messed that up by spilling water all over the editor. Thought Reilly, "Well, can't get any worse than this." Mulvoy wasn't fazed. He gave Reilly a job and even instituted a policy so that Reilly didn't have to move to New York.

Reilly was the perfect addition to Sports Illustrated's stable of writers. He was young, brilliant, and found the stories no one else was writing. That fall, Reilly stumbled on a small school senior running back who had done great things but had largely gone unnoticed. In a 20-0 win over Westfield State, Joe Dudek carried the ball 40 times for 182 yards; two games later he averaged 12.6 yards per carry against Framingham State; he then broke Payton's record on Oct. 26 with a five-touchdown performance against Bridgewater State. In the season finale, an injured and exhausted Dudek left the field in an ambulance -- but not until he had carried 34 times for 265 yards.

Reilly called up Dudek to set up an interview. "He did a really good job of pulling my story out of me because I was pretty shy kid," recalls Dudek. "Back then, Sports Illustrated typically had something in the middle of the magazine that was a one-page update on somebody doing something well from one of the lower division schools. I walked into that interview thinking that's what it would evolve to."

Meanwhile, college football in 1985 belonged to two players who were a million miles away from the New England Football Conference: Auburn running back Bo Jackson and Iowa quarterback Chuck Long. Jackson was the odds-on favorite early in the season, but as the season wore on the Iowa passer began to cut into Jackson's lead. By the end of November, the two were neck-and-neck.

Mulvoy and Reilly didn't see it that way. In their view, neither had done much to distinguish himself as the nation's best player, and why did the best player have to come from a big-name school? "Look at Terry Bradshaw," says Mulvoy. "He should have won the Heisman Trophy but he played at Louisiana Tech. There are a lot of good football players who come from small schools."

When Mulvoy arrived at the magazine's offices early one Sunday morning in November 1985, he had no idea what would go on the cover that week.

"The easiest time to edit Sports Illustrated is the week of the Super Bowl or the World Series when there's so much going on and you have all these pictures to choose from," says Mulvoy. "It's those 20 or so weeks when there's nothing happening and you have to get creative and inventive and have some fun.

"That's where I felt you had to earn your money -- to make news on the weeks when there was none."

What about Dudek? Could he be the cover? Mulvoy started to mull the idea. He got a kick out of the fact that Dudek hailed from Quincy, Mass., where Mulvoy had once caddied at a golf club. And like Reilly, he wasn't sold on Bo Jackson being a shoo-in. Soon the decision was made: Construct a ballot for the cover with Jackson, Long and Dudek, and give Dudek a big red checkmark. The headline: The thinking fan's vote for the 1985 Heisman Trophy.

Mulvoy had once again created the news. "There's nothing wrong with creating a hero," he says. "Let's face it: Madison Avenue did it, everybody did it."

On that Tuesday, Dudek was back home in Quincy where he was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at his high school football team's banquet. The day before, the Plymouth State Sports Information Director had called to inform him that he was being considered for the cover of Sports Illustrated. "It was between me and Marvin Hagler," says Dudek, who speaks as if he still can't believe it today. Before he took the stage to give his speech at the banquet, the SID called again. "You got it," he told Dudek.

Reilly's story made the cover possible. His 1,600-word feature questioned the merits of every candidate being considered. Then Reilly introduced Dudek, a guy Plymouth State fans called Mr. Touchdown. "I knew people would get behind a kid that doesn't get publicity," says Reilly. "And when you told his story, it was just so rich. Carted off in an ambulance, not a very big guy but really tough, impossible to bring down ... I just thought, why not make a whole campaign of this?"

Reilly made Dudek someone every fan could appreciate, and sold readers on how Dudek had played through injuries and endured the kind of student-athlete experience that had become extinct at the Division I level. Concluded Reilly in the piece, "Come to think of it, maybe we've got it wrong. Maybe Dudek doesn't deserve the Heisman. Maybe the Heisman deserves Dudek."

As soon as the December 2, 1985 issue found its way into readers' mailboxes and on newsstands it created instant buzz.

"It was kind of like clams," says Reilly, "people either loved it or hated it, and if they hated it they hated me, they hated (Dudek), they hated all of us ... How could you do this to Bo Jackson? How could you do this to Chuck Long? He wouldn't make the scout team at Auburn ... But the people who loved it, loved everything about it. It reminded them of some small school kids they had watched."

Reilly had no problem that his story did not match the public consensus. He couldn't believe how Jackson had taken himself out of key games that year against Florida and Tennessee. Wrote Reilly, "In big games, Bo grabs more bench time than Sandra Day O'Connor."

In the voting, Jackson edged Long in what was the closest Heisman result at the time. The two shared more than 600 of the first place ballots; Dudek secured 12 and finished in ninth place, a few spots below Purdue's Jim Everett and a couple spots ahead of Oklahoma State sophomore Thurman Thomas. Everyone agrees that had it not been for the cover story, Dudek probably wouldn't have received a single first place vote, let alone 12.

Not long after the Heisman presentation, Dudek was waiting to appear on Good Morning America when Jackson, flanked by his entourage, walked up to introduce himself. "Anybody who ever asks, I tell them that Bo Jackson was a class act," says Dudek. "Just a class act."

After the 1985 college season Dudek was invited to play in the Japan Bowl and attend the NFL Combine. He spent a season in Denver, where he participated in the team's Life After Football program and worked for a Coors distributorship. Thus began a career in the adult beverage business that has lasted more than 20 years. Today, Dudek manages the northern New England market for Southern Wine & Spirits. When that's not keeping him busy he coaches the running backs at Pinkerton Academy in Derry, N.H., and serves on the selection committee of the Gagliardi Trophy, given each year to the best Division III football player in the country.

Much of Dudek's life can be considered a success story. Of course, he acknowledges appearing on that cover 25 years ago didn't hurt.

Adds Mulvoy, "I always felt the role of Sports Illustrated was not to focus on the obvious but to have a bit more fun and find that isolated individual. Joe Dudek was the Face in the Crowd who made the cover."

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