The quarterback bounced gamely to his feet, took a step or two
and then thought better of it. Paul Justin, a reserve passer for
the Indianapolis Colts, sank to the turf and reappraised his
situation: On the play just completed he had dropped back to
pass when Buffalo Bills linebacker Bryce Paup came crashing into
him so hard that Justin now had to wonder if the horseshoes on
his helmet had been loosened. After being helped up and led to
the sideline, Justin took the rest of the day off.
Following that Nov. 5 game, all Justin could recall of Paup's
sack was the sudden appearance of "white light." Members of
Colts management made no complaint to the league office; they
thought Paup, who had beaten the block of tight end Ken Dilger,
had made a hell of a play. Still, the NFL fined Paup $12,000 for
It turns out the fine wasn't just a slap at Paup, a six-year
veteran who prides himself on his tough but clean play. It was
an insult to the dozen or so retirees who gather most afternoons
at the Truck Haven Cafe in Jefferson, Iowa (10 miles from Paup's
hometown of Scranton)--a group whose dental work could
collectively be referred to as The Bridges of Greene County.
"People in Iowa know sports as well as we know anything, and
that was a clean hit," former newspaper editor Dudley Strawn
said recently. "Bryce will knock the tar out of you, but he
won't cheap-shot you. He embodies the values of this area."
While a few of Strawn's cronies rolled their eyes during this
oration, no one interrupted him. The annual flesh bazaar known
as the NFL's free-agent signing period was in its first week,
making it a fitting time to pay tribute to Paup, the Greene
County native who stands as one of the most inspired signings in
the league's brief history of unfettered free agency. Luring
Paup from the Green Bay Packers in March 1995 proved to be the
biggest reason that the Bills won 11 games and returned to the
playoffs last season after a one-year hiatus.
March 4, 1996
Along with his league-leading 17 1/2 sacks for Buffalo, Paup
forced three fumbles, intercepted two passes and was named the
NFL's Defensive Player of the Year. As Deion Sanders, who won
that award in 1994, might say of his successor, it's time to
give Paup his props.
Paup would never use that sort of hip expression. Even before he
began sporting a flattop haircut, which makes him look like a
walking helipad, he was one of the squarest guys you could find.
Paup is a God-fearing, teetotaling, epithet-eschewing family man
who married his high school sweetheart, whom he first espied at
a church retreat in Jefferson.
Of course he didn't barge right up and start laying his rap on
Denise Dunlop, the fabulous babe at the church lock-in. Bryce
has always been one to proceed more cautiously than that. Having
learned that Denise, a senior at Jefferson High, was not going
steady with anyone, he sent an emissary bearing a message to
her. Eleven years later, Paup still gets tongue-tied recalling
his communique: "I said, well, you know, just, uh, I'd be
The next weekend, smooth operator Bryce was cruising Jefferson
in his jacked-up 1975 Camaro when he pulled alongside a car in
which Denise was a passenger. Marshaling all his courage, he
stepped off the cliff: There was a dance the following weekend;
would she care to go with him? She would. The fact that Paup's
dancing owed more to Fred Flintstone than Fred Astaire did not
prevent them from having a splendid time. "He was quiet, real
sensitive and caring," remembers Denise. They were married in
the summer of 1990.
His reputation as a sensitive, caring man was what drove Paup to
get his first flattop last year. "I wanted to look meaner," says
the 6'5", 247-pound Paup. "Everybody thought I was just a nice
guy who played hard, and I wanted to change that image."
Green Bay had plucked him out of Division I-AA Northern Iowa in
the sixth round of the 1990 draft. He made the Packers in large
part because of his versatility: He could play both inside and
outside linebacker; against a run-and-shoot team he could also
play as a down lineman, at end. "A real unselfish player," is
how Green Bay assistant coach Bob Valesente recalls Paup. "He'd
do anything we asked."
However, the same selflessness and versatility that made him so
valuable also prevented him from mastering one position. In his
only start of the 1991 season, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers,
Paup lined up at inside linebacker and racked up an amazing 4.5
sacks. It was equally amazing that the Packers did not make him
a regular starter until '94. Even then, in his first Pro Bowl
year, Paup started at four positions. When he became an
unrestricted free agent after that season, the Bills offered him
a three-year, $7.6 million contract. In what he has since termed
a "miscalculation," Green Bay general manager Ron Wolf made no
attempt to keep Paup in Titletown.
A few weeks ago, as Paup sat nursing a grapefruit juice in a
Buffalo sports bar, the Packers' lack of confidence in him was
one of the few subjects that seemed to quicken his pulse. "They
didn't think I was that good," he says. What about his 32 1/2
total sacks from 1991 to '94? "They thought I was feeding off
Reggie"--that is, taking advantage of the frequent double-team
blocks opponents used to contain Green Bay defensive end Reggie
White. Even if he was living off White, Paup reasons, so what:
"Someone's got to finish the play."
He makes no effort to conceal his bitterness toward Packers
management. "For some reason they thought I was a guy who'll
give you a hundred percent but isn't a very good athlete--a
try-hard guy," he says. Which is, of course, precisely what Paup
has been all his life. The youngest of three boys growing up on
the family farm in Iowa, he always brought an intensity to the
task at hand, whether it was cleaning beans, pulling weeds,
digging ditches or taking potshots at his brothers with a BB gun.
No one ever described Scranton High as a football factory. There
were 19 people in Paup's graduating class in 1986; only 19 boys
in the entire school went out for football his senior year. Many
of them worked out in the Paups' disused chicken house, which
Bryce, having bought a set of weights and welded together his
own lifting bench, had converted into a weight room. As a
senior, Paup was a sculpted 6'4", 200 pounds. He was also
playing in obscurity. His coach's letters to Iowa and Iowa
State--the latter school just 50 miles due east of Scranton on
Route 30--were politely rejected.
That fall Denise was a freshman at Northern Iowa, and Terry
Allen, now the Panthers' football coach, was an assistant. One
night Denise and a friend approached Allen and another coach at
a pizza joint and told them that they ought to consider
recruiting Bryce. Oh, boy, here we go, Allen thought. "We've got
a game next weekend, tell him to come on up," he said. Paup
showed up, and the coaches liked what they saw. They asked him
to send some game tapes. "The tape Bryce sent had been shot out
of the back of a guy's truck," recalls Allen. "But there was
Bryce, about a football taller than anyone else. He kept making
plays. We offered him a full ride."
Coming from a small high school, Paup felt he had much to prove
at Northern Iowa, where he became a third-team All-America his
senior year. He had a similar feeling four years later when he
reported to the Packers as a rookie, and again last summer, in
his first training camp with the Bills. Buffalo management had
decided not to re-sign 34-year-old linebacker Darryl Talley, who
was much beloved by his teammates and Bills fans. In fact,
during last May's minicamp, running back Thurman Thomas and
defensive end Bruce Smith each wore one of Talley's practice
jerseys. "I thought, Oh my gosh, what have I gotten myself
into?" recalls Paup.
But what he'd gotten himself into was an optimal situation. In
the off-season Buffalo coach Marv Levy had hired former Denver
Broncos coach Wade Phillips to be his defensive coordinator.
Phillips installed a hyperaggressive 3-4 scheme that the players
loved. While the Packers had moved Paup around like a chess
piece, Phillips had a very specific job in mind for him: Paup
was going to line up over the tight end and rush the quarterback
Opposing offenses had to pick their poison; they couldn't
double-team both Smith and Paup. "All of a sudden our defense
was three notches better," says Bills receiver and special teams
commando Steve Tasker. "Our defensive backfield was playing like
it had never played before. We were making interceptions,
knocking down passes, getting sacks all over the place."
In Buffalo's two wins over Indianapolis last fall, Paup had six
sacks combined. "We were trying to block him with a tight end,"
says Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh. "We quickly realized that's
not the way to block Bryce Paup."
He is well respected by his peers, if not well known. Harbaugh
made those comments at this year's Pro Bowl, where, off the
field, Paup had little interaction with his fellow players.
While other guys went in search of tee times and the Honolulu
nightlife, Paup retreated into the bosom of his family--Denise
and their two sons, Alex, 4, and Nathan, 1 1/2--preferring to pass
the afternoon with them at places like Sea Life.
Other than spending a lot of time discussing pass-rush technique
with veteran defensive end Jim Jeffcoat, Paup is only casual
friends with most of his Buffalo teammates, fast friends with
none. There's a reason for that. As a rookie, he became close to
Lester Archambeau, a defensive lineman out of Stanford who had
been drafted by the Packers one round after Paup. They roomed
together and stayed up late fretting over their chances of
making the team. For three years they were best friends. Says
Paup, "He was the only guy I ever did anything with, and he got
traded [to the Atlanta Falcons before the 1993 season]. Since
then, I haven't really gotten close to a teammate because I
don't want the same thing to happen."
Paup stays in touch with Archambeau, who observes that Paup's
success has not gone to his big, flat head. "I knew him coming
in, I know him now," Archambeau says. "His personality has
stayed the same."
One of the things that bonded the two players--aside from the
fact that their wives got along well--was the strong religious
faith they shared. This season, when Archambeau told Paup about
some difficulties he was having in Atlanta, Paup mailed him a
book of affirmations. "Other times, when I talked to him about
some problems," says Archambeau, "he'd say, 'Check out these
verses in Proverbs' or 'Read this from the Book of Mark. It
might give you some strength.'"
Sitting at the kitchen table of their farmhouse in Scranton
recently, Paup's parents, Harriett and Byron, repeatedly
attributed their son's success to the Almighty. "It's the good
Lord that got him where he is," said Harriett.
"He's had many blessings," Byron agreed. The elder Paups have
relied on their strong faith to help cope with their sadness
over Bryce's 34-year-old sister, Michelle, who was born
brain-damaged and who is now terminally ill with cancer.
Byron rose from the table and pulled on a pair of gray
coveralls. Daylight was waning, but there was just enough time
to show a visitor the fanning mill and the high-clearance
sprayer--the machines with which he makes his living and on which
Bryce worked as a kid. The fanning mill, or bean cleaner, is
more than 30 feet long, 12 feet high and is run by a dozen
electric motors. It looks like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on
steroids. There's even a sewing machine at one end of it. "Bryce
would sew the bags of beans closed, then throw them to his
brother Brad," Byron explained. "Those are 50-pound bags we're
A few moments later he said, "Bryce always said he wanted to be
a farmer when he grew up, but we think he might have changed his
The night before, as an honoree at a banquet hosted by the
Greater Buffalo Partnership, Bryce, resplendent in a tuxedo, had
given a brief acceptance speech before a crowd of 1,000 people.
He had come a long way from the farm.
Or had he? During his speech he first thanked the Lord and then
his family, expressing his gratitude to Denise for bearing with
him throughout the long season. As he spoke, she whispered a
secret to another person in the audience: "His tux is rented."
When the banquet was over, the Paups tried to leave quietly
through a back door, but Bryce was intercepted by autograph
seekers. He signed for a few minutes and then apologized to the
group that remained. "I'm sorry," he said. "It's late, and we've
got to get the babysitter home."
Flattop or not, he hadn't seemed the slightest bit mean.