A moment in the Yale football team’s very first drive of the season has come to stand out eight weeks later: on a fourth-and-goal, a recognizable figure took to the field. Quarterback Kurt Rawlings’ 20, in the pistol formation, outrightly handed off the ball to this player, who proceeded to bulldoze his way into the end zone.
Running back Zane Dudek ’21 had returned.
As the Bulldogs prepare to take on the Tigers this Saturday afternoon in New Jersey, they will be playing for a chance to stay in the fight for the coveted Ivy League crown. For some of the players set to suit up in a few days, the notion of playing in a consequential game nine weeks into the season will come with it an aura of unfamiliarity. But for Dudek, it will be anything but foreign.
After beginning his rookie season two years ago as the Blue and White’s third-string halfback, the Kittanning, Pennsylvania native rose in the ranks as the season progressed both because of his own dynamism and injuries to other backs. In just his first three games as a Bulldog, Dudek was averaging more than 10 yards per attempt and had tallied five touchdowns. Seven games, 773 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns later, Dudek finalized one of the greatest seasons a back had ever had for Yale — leading the league in every rushing and scoring category. It was only fitting that, in the final game of the season, a late touchdown plunge from Dudek sealed Yale’s first outright Ivy title in nearly four decades. In the ensuing offseason, it would be safe to assume that no Eli in recent memory was more highly anticipated than Dudek entering his sophomore season. Yet, in a crushing blow to Dudek and the Bulldog squad, a sprain to the big toe joint kept Dudek effectively sidelined for most of 2018.
Entering this most recent season, there was understandable uncertainty as to what kind of season one could expect to see from Dudek. Eight games into the season, he has certainly lived up to the tentative yet hopeful expectations.
“The injury hurt a lot more for the fact that I felt like I was letting the team down by not being able to be out there with them and help them,” Dudek said. “All of that season was me trying as hard as I could in the trainer’s room to try and play through it for as many weeks as I possibly could. It took a toll on me mentally, because I had never had an injury like that to keep me out for a season. I struggled with that immensely, but luckily I had my trainer to help me out. All offseason was just working back with my toe and getting stronger to be able to help the team again and let them trust me again. It was a long process that was very hard, but I got through it and here we are now.”
As a senior at Armstrong High School, Dudek rushed for a single-season record of 2,955 yards in only 11 games, tallying a record 254 points — the most prolific season of any running back in Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League history. He finished his high school career with 6,977 yards and a gargantuan 102 touchdowns.
No one, except for maybe Dudek himself, could have foreseen the incredible impact that the Pennsylvania native would have in just his first collegiate season. He utilized his blistering speed but also demonstrated herculean strength in bulling through defenders. The accolades piled up for Dudek as he helped the Bulldogs to the Ivy title and a big win over Harvard.
Dudek’s year was recognized as the best offensive season ever by a first-year running back, with Dudek leading the Ancient Eight in every rushing and scoring category. In 10 games, the speedster amassed 15 touchdowns and 1,133 yards on the ground. He was named the Ivy League Rookie of the Year and a finalist for the FCS Rookie of the Year.
The hype was real at the outset of Dudek’s sophomore year, as the prolific rusher looked to replicate his historic success from the prior season. He proceeded to pick up right where he left off in the first game of the 2018 season, tearing Holy Cross to shreds to the tune of 217 yards. Yet turf toe slowly began to hamper Dudek’s production, a frustrating development for one of Yale’s focal players. He managed just three scores on the season and was held to minimal yards in last year’s tragic 45–27 defeat to Harvard at Fenway Park.
This season has seen Dudek persevere and get his feet back under him, as the elusive back has shown flashes of his previous brilliance. His strength was on full display against Penn, as the Quakers had no answer for Dudek in the red zone. He scored three touchdowns in that contest, a crucial contribution to secure the Yale win. However, his most recent game against Brown might have been a career-defining one. After failing to rush for over 100 yards in 12 straight games, Dudek exploded for 216 yards against the Bears, just a mere yard short of his career high. His breakneck speed was once again clear for all to see, a huge lift for the junior and the entire Bulldog roster. Dudek also passed a career-rushing mark of 2,000 yards, becoming just the 12th Bulldog to do so. With his confidence restored, Dudek will look to help Yale take a share of the Ivy crown at the end of this season.
“Zane is one of the most competitive guys I’ve ever met and he is willing to do whatever it takes to win, which I and the team admire,” defensive back Malcolm Dixon ’20 said. “He’s a leader on our team and is a guy we can count on in tough situations.”
Dudek and the rest of the Elis take the field this weekend against Princeton at 1 p.m. in New Jersey.
Jared Fel | firstname.lastname@example.org
Eamonn Smith | email@example.com