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SUPER BOWL XXII : Why Did They Do What They Did to Dudek? : This Bronco Won One, Lost His Job

Times Staff Writer

Somewhere in this happy land, the sun is shining bright.

As a matter of fact, it’s right here but a lot of good that does Joe Dudek, who did so much one wild night to get his former Bronco teammates here and who now sits at home in icy Boston, an afterthought, or a non-thought.

He’s been waived again.

He didn’t feel right about asking for tickets.

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Where would the Broncos have been without him? Playing the American Conference championship game in Cleveland in another hail of dog biscuits, instead of in Mile High Stadium, is a good bet.

For on Monday night, Oct. 12, midway through the players’ strike, Dudek ran for 128 yards against a star-studded Raider defense, scored two touchdowns and led the non-union Broncos to a 30-14 rout of a Raider semi-replacement team that had been favored by 10 points.

Without that win, the Broncos would have finished behind Cleveland.

Without that victory, the Broncos might have gone nuts en masse. That was a week they’d like to forget in Bronco-land.

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Try this: The Broncos were 1-1-1. The regulars had been tied by the Packers. In the first strike game, their surrogates had been undressed by the Oilers, 40-10. A 270-pound Houston linebacker named Eugene Seale had returned an interception 73 yards for a touchdown, a play so improbable it made every highlight show in America.

The Raiders were 3-0. Howie Long, Bill Pickel and Jamie Kimmel had just crossed the picket line, and there were rumors that the entire squad was about to join them. A Raider victory was such a foregone conclusion that an ESPN announcer on Sunday night--24 hours before the game--announced that the Raiders and the San Francisco 49ers were tied atop the overall NFL standings at 4-0.

Four Broncos had crossed the line, but the return of John Elway and the rest, which owner Pat Bowlen and Dan Reeves was counting on, didn’t happen.

At an emotional midweek press conference, Reeves talked of retiring if he had to go through this again.

“You think Dan is sick now?” union representative Ricky Hunley said. “The Raider scabs are going to kill us.”

Bowlen called Pete Rozelle to ask that the reporting deadline be extended. Bowlen said that if his players returned too late to play, he’d pay them anyway. Still, they stayed away.

Bowlen said at midweek: “My greatest fear is that we’ll go out on the field and guess what! They’ll have more familiar faces than just Howie Long or Bill Pickel.”

He didn’t mean Tom Flores or Al Davis, either.

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No other Raiders crossed but their defense had Long, Pickel and nine other players with National Football League experience.

Lined up against them was Dudek, about to get his first pro carry.

Dudek had once been something of a famous name, himself, in Eastern College Athletic Conference, Division III circles anyway. At Plymouth (N.H.) State, he set National Collegiate Athletic Assn. records for career touchdowns and average per rush. Sports Illustrated even put him on the cover as its Heisman nominee, over a field than included eventual winner Bo Jackson.

But the glory days were over. Dudek had not been drafted. The Broncos signed him as a free agent, kept him on injured reserve his first season, and cut him in his second camp. He was said to be too small, too slow, not a good enough receiver and unsuited for special teams. Aside from that, his future was bright.

One thing he was about to prove he could do, he could pack the football. Anyone who saw him hurling his 180-pound body through the Raider line would remember it awhile.

The Broncos might have remembered it only a little while.

Dudek will remember it forever.

“It was really tough,” he said from his parents’ home in suburban Quincy, Mass. “Playing on the team the year before, I really didn’t want to go in with my friends on the picket line. I stayed out a week and I probably would have held out longer.

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“But the way it went, management made me some promises.”

What were they?

“It’s something I can’t really discuss. They weren’t all kept, let’s put it that way. But I’ve got to go back next year so I’m going to keep myself in good standing.

“The beauty of me waiting a week, by then the strike had been getting to the point where a lot of players had gone home. There were no more picket lines (during the week). I never saw one player from the regular team.

“The only pressure I felt was how I would perform. I’d been after a chance since I’d gotten there. Getting three plays in the second half isn’t exactly what a running back wants, to try to prove himself.

“And finally I had this one chance to be a starting running back and I was going to make the most of it. No way anyone was going to stop me that night.

“I knew I had a good offensive line in front of me but I knew what the likes of Howie Long and Bill Pickel could do to a good line. I was a little nervous, especially because I knew nothing about the team I was playing on. I knew they’d lost 40-10 or something like that the week before to Houston.

“I thought I showed what I could do. Obviously, I’ve still got to prove it to some people next year.”

When the strike ended, Dudek was kept on the 50-man squad, but never dressed again. A month later, he was waived, but told he’d be given another chance in camp next season.

“A tight end went down and they had to bring someone in,” Dudek said. “Coach Reeves told me I could play in the league, I’m just not big enough. I’ve been hearing that for two years.

“I hoped the Monday night game would change people’s minds but it seems like I’ve got to be 205 to play. . . . I was about 186 last year.

“So that’s what I’m going to do. I didn’t get a job when I got back here. I’m living at home. I’ve just been lifting weights. I’m really putting everything into this year.”

It might have been worse than it is. It takes three appearances to qualify for a playoff share, and Dudek dressed for only two games. The prospect of the Viking strikebreakers who’d gone 0-3 getting a full share was in all the papers, and Dudek was looking at nothing.

“I called the NFL,” he said. “From what they told me, because I was on the cab squad for four games in addition, I’ll get a half-share (at least $18,000, $27,000 if the Broncos win Sunday).

“It really was a relief. That was a big thing on my mind when they cut me. I talked to Coach Reeves and he said he’d do his best to bring me back but it never worked out.

“That really helps. It helps get through the pain. But again, it also hurts. I know I was an injury away from being on another Super Bowl team. So it’s been bittersweet for me.

“My situation is really tough. I didn’t really want to call anybody about tickets. Plus I just got back from a trip. My girlfriend and I went to Aruba and we spent a lot of money. So I think I’ll sit this one out.”

There are 8 million stories in the naked Bronco-land. Few of them hold a candle to his.

Humphrey Bogart told Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca,” they’d always have Paris.

Well, Joe Dudek will always have the Raiders.


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