Soroco’s Dudas has gone from hell over Hanoi to Soroco football sideline
November 10, 2017
OAK CREEK — Dick Dudas tells a story about the time his squadron was tasked with running interference for a raid of B-52 bombers along the coast of North Vietnam in 1968.
"A dog meat mission," he said.
Now, at 72, Dudas is in his third year as head coach for the Soroco High School football program, and while he doesn't always tell stories about his two and a half tours flying F-4 Phantom II fighter-bombers in Vietnam, he does always tell stories about growing up as a sports fanatic, about playing baseball at Ohio State University, and even, about the season he spent on the Buckeyes' freshman basketball team.
There are a lot of stories about Ohio State, actually, about the game last Saturday, or the one coming up, but this story is about a mission over North Vietnam, helping pave the way for the United States' heavy bombers, a dog meat mission.
"The B-52s were starting to drop a lot of bombs up north, and they were very vulnerable to" surface to air missiles (SAMs), Dudas said. "They couldn't maneuver. So what we did, we'd go to an intermediate altitude, 20,000 feet, and lay a chaff corridor to confuse the radar on the ground."
It wasn't an easy mission, especially over Hanoi, the North Vietnamese capital and the most heavily defended city in the world in that era, but it was necessary.
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Chaff consists of thin strips of aluminum and is dropped to confuse the ground-based radar that directed the Vietnamese SAM batteries. It was essential in helping those bombers get through.
Dudas' flight pulled into formation in the designated corridor, flying together, but not too close because given what they were heading into, someone was likely to get hit and the worst-case scenario was one damaged aircraft careening into another.
They dropped small chaff-loaded bomblets, which then popped in midair, filling the sky with aluminum.
"Each plane had six," Dudas said. "We dropped one every 10 seconds."
Simple enough, but there was a catch. They had to fly straight and level as they unloaded their cargo, for all 60 seconds.
The North Vietnamese manning the anti-aircraft defenses below knew that, and they knew what was coming behind the chaff-laying F4s.
They unleashed hell.
That's one of Dudas's stories.
At the top in Soroco
Dudas has a story about how he, at 69 years old, became the head coach of a high school football team for the first time.
He was drawn to Colorado from Vermont in 2008 by family, the desire of him and his wife, Michele, to be close to where her daughters were living and to be nearby as her granddaughters grew up.
A spot opened up on the Soroco football coaching staff, and Dudas sought it out.
He served as an assistant for five years, first under David Bruner, then, in 2014, under athletic director Josef Keller, who filled in as an emergency replacement head coach after Bruner resigned, and no one else applied.
Keller logged one year on the job before moving out of the state, and once again the team was without a coach. Kelly Carlson, then the Soroco athletic director, had just one applicant, and he called Dudas in to help with the interview.
Things didn't go well.
"The guy who applied didn't have a clue. Nice guy but had never played football before. He'd played some rugby," Carlson said. "In the meantime, everything Dick said resonated."
At some point, an idea struck Carlson, and after the interviewee left, he turned to Dudas and offered him the job.
"I thought, 'Well, I like to coach but I can't see the paperwork,'" Dudas said. "Kelly said they'd be willing to do the paperwork, and the rest is history."
Soroco's certainly been writing history this season.
The team went 4-4 in Dudas's first season, then improved to 6-4 last year, making the playoffs for the first time since the team dropped to 8-man football in 2008.
This season didn't necessarily look like anything dramatically more special through the nine regular season games. The Rams lost three games and were third in the Northwest League.
That changed in a hurry Saturday, when the Rams, seeded No. 14 in the 16-team state playoff, went on the road to upset No. 3 Merino, 42-32, in the first round.
Now Soroco will play again at 1 p.m. Saturday in the state quarterfinals and on the road against No. 11 Mancos.
Last weekend's win was Soroco's first in the football playoffs in 50 years, since 1967.
In those days, football was one of the furthest things from Dudas's mind and Oak Creek, Colorado, wasn't even a place he knew existed as was flying a fighter jet over unfriendly skies a world away.
At the bat
Often, when he gets to telling one story, Dudas starts telling another.
He joined the military because a draft notice arrived in his mailbox the summer after he graduated from Ohio State in 1966.
"Four-letter words," he said of his initial reaction.
That should have sent him to the Army, but he ended up spending 20 years in the Air Force.
There's a story there, of course, one that involves some extra psychological testing and the disappearance of a fellow draftee through a mysterious door after the man had shown up for the Army's initial physical examination wearing a Nazi helmet.
Dudas remembers the baseball better, however.
Soon after leaving that physical exam, he met an Air Force recruiter, and he was smitten. Suddenly, it was a race to get everything processed through the Air Force before he officially had to join the Army. He won that race by a day, and he was off for a second round of physical exams, this one for his new branch.
That testing involved the dilation of his eyes, which proved a problem several hours later, when Dudas had his Air Force recruiter drop him off to play a game with his summer baseball league team on a bright and sunny day.
"I couldn't see anything. and I'm playing shortstop," he said. "I was really concerned about getting hit in the head."
Baseball's his true passion and hitting's his favorite part. He hit 0.552 as a senior at high school in Wadsworth, Ohio, just west of Akron. He had a shot at the majors once, too. He was scouted by the Pittsburgh Pirates, “but Uncle Sam cut that short,” he said.
He went on to play in various adult leagues until he was 55.
That afternoon in Ohio, blinded by the light, he struck out three times.
Then the sun set.
"All of the sudden, I was like an eagle," he said with a laugh.
Next time up, he smashed a pitch over the fence for a home run.
"The pitcher just looked at me and must have thought, 'You're terrible. How did you do that?'" Dudas said.
Not long after that game, he began learning to fly and soon he was shipping out for Vietnam.
The quiet coach
Dudas may have grown up a baseball player and he may have spent his career flying fighter jets, but today, he's all in on Soroco football.
He stands in marked contrast to the stereotypical "old-school" football coach. He doesn't scream. He doesn't argue. He'll discipline, sending his best players to run laps even in practice this week.
Still, usually when Dudas makes a point to make, he doesn't yell. He talks, often softly, and is positive as often as possible.
"An 'atta-boy’ goes a long way," he said.
He came to Soroco with almost no coaching experience. He used to coach youth football teams when he was in college. He coached his squadron's flag football team in the Air Force but never got involved when in Ohio, nor later when he was a part of the Vermont Air National Guard.
He watches tape carefully and is quick to pick up on a tiny tell in the way an opposing offensive lineman sets his hands, giving away whether a run or a pass is on tap.
He drills fundamentals into his athletes, basics like footwork and ball handling, but he leaves many of the actual game details, including play calling, to his assistants.
"He doesn't bring your typical high school coaching mentality," Carlson said. "He brings a staff mentality where he oversees and empowers other people."
After a game, he walks slowly across the field to join his players, waiting on a knee in the end zone, and he delivers a time-tested message.
"Have fun this weekend. Make good decisions," he said to his team after Saturday's playoff win. "Stay on your grades."
Somehow, it works, and a man into his eighth decade on the planet has connected with athletes in their second.
He came on as head coach at a good time, with good athletes waiting in the wings. None may be better than junior running back Jace Logan, leading the state in rushing yards gained, 2,598, and in rushing touchdowns, 35.
"In one sense, it's a great group of players," said Carlson, whose son Schuyler Carlson is one of the team's leaders on the offensive and defensive lines.
"In another sense, this group of players wasn't anything in middle school or early in high school," Carlson said. "Dick's really had a lot to do with this."
Dudas worries regularly about how to handle a horse such as Logan. He leans on him heavily at times, with 38 carries last week, but is always eager, desperate even, to find other ways to move the ball, to use Logan as often as a decoy as he does as a running back.
He thinks about such things deep into the night, too, after the game is over and the team is home, calling others to discuss stats or just to chat about the game well past midnight.
He didn't coach football until he was 69 years old but in short order it’s grown to mean so much to him.
"It's because I care for the kids," he said. "I hurt with them when we lose and celebrate with them when we win."
Saturday, he'll lead his Rams against Mancos, giving the team its first chance to advance to the state semifinals since 1967.
That means a lot, Dudas said.
It'll also be Veterans Day.
That means a lot, too.
Flying straight and level for 60 whole seconds in a war zone is what nightmares are made of.
Dudas tells the story.
"That's an eternity when people are shooting at you," he said.
There were other tough missions. He was once was assigned to escort an AC-130 gunship, a slow-moving but high-powered plane designed to linger on target and rain down fire on the enemy.
The sun had set, and Dudas's job was to patrol over the combat zone while he watched out for the flash from enemy muzzles. Then, when he saw one, he was to dive down to attack. It all required keeping his jet as slow as possible, right on the edge of a stall.
It was a dangerous life. Two of the four men from his living quarters at his airbase in Thailand didn't survive their tours.
For Dudas, the thickest it ever got was the day he was tasked with dropping chaff in front of the B-52s.
The North Vietnamese unloaded into the sky to try to disrupt the mission and Dudas, and his squadron couldn't do anything to evade the fire.
Soviet-built S-75 surface-to-air missiles, nearly as long as a school bus and and packing a 440-pound warhead, hurtled toward the American planes. It was later estimated 140 missiles had been launched at the flight.
Shells from anti-aircraft guns, 85mm and 100mm, exploded, dancing between the planes and leaving dark, sooty clouds in their wake.
"Courage is not the absence of fear," Dudas said. "It's performance in spite of fear. If you weren't scared over there, there was something wrong with you."
The flyers were supposed to visit with intelligence officers for a debriefing as soon as they landed, but, desperate to unwind, they marched to the base's bar instead and let the intelligence officers come and find them.
"It was just wild," Dudas said. "But, we didn't get a scratch that day."
Dudas was telling another story later, about how he met his wife, Michele. They'd flirted way back in high school but gone their separate ways only to meet again at a school reunion. Dudas only decided to actually call her after stumbling upon her card while cleaning out a desk.
"God smiled upon me," he said.
He paused for a second to think, maybe about making that call, or maybe about flying through hell and landing without a scratch, or maybe about playing baseball in college and having had a shot at the majors, or maybe about become a high school football coach for the first time at 69 years old and leading a team to its first playoff win in 50 years, or maybe about his family, his home and his happiness, or maybe even just about the upcoming Ohio State football recruiting class.
Perhaps it was all of those things.
"Actually," he started, "God's smiled upon me a bunch."