Sept. 26, 2011
This is the fifth of eight feature stories on the 2011 Louisiana Tech Athletics Hall of Fame Class which will be enshrined in a ceremony on Saturday, October 1 at 1 p.m., in the Waggonner Room of Thomas Assembly Center. All are invited.
by Teddy Allen
Football was always simple for Matt Dunigan.
At Louisiana Tech and through 14 seasons in the Canadian Football League, football was never more than a step or two away from playing "Kill The Guy With The Ball" in his back yard as a boy in Ohio and as a teen in Texas.
It was never about the stage. It was always about the game.
The only problem was that Dunigan became a quarterback. He WAS the guy with the ball.
Never saw him play? Imagine a bumper car stuck in high gear. Dunigan was 5-11, 195 pounds, and what wasn't arm was muscle, and if the game clock said time was left he kept getting up, more than a few times like a punch-drunk fighter.
"That's what I brought to the table, a `kill the guy with the ball' mentality and focus," said Dunigan, a Tech business administration graduate who'll be inducted into the University's Athletics Hall of Fame Oct. 1. "I wanted to be on the field, and I wanted to win. Gotta go in there guns a-blazin'."
He was a Dallas transplant from Cleveland Browns territory who ended up playing football in Louisiana when all his friends were staying in Texas. Tech's rookie head coach at the time was fired before Dunigan's freshman season was over. And his chance in pro football came not in the states but in Canada.
"But it all fit: Tech, the CFL, everything," Dunigan said. "Hey, we've got a legacy in Ruston now. Dane, our firstborn, went there. My younger brother Danny went there. Our daughter Madison's there now, a sophomore. It's in the family. We've brainwashed 'em."
The legacy started with E.J. Lewis, the Tech assistant coach who chewed tobacco without spitting, time and again, while all the time talking in the living room of Frank and Eve Dunigan, recruiting their quarterbacking son.
"'He ain't spittin'!"' Dunigan remembers thinking. `"For two hours!' The epitome of a hunting dog. He latched on to something he wanted. All along, he's the reason I came to Tech."
"His rifle arm and accuracy was the number one thing I saw, and number two was he's a competitor, and I mean in anything," said Lewis. "When he stuck his head in that huddle, he got their attention. And boy, he could chunk that apple. Matt Dunigan would have been good at anything."
"He brought us back to a level Tech hadn't been at in a while," said Billy Brewer, the Ole Miss Hall of Famer and head coach at Tech from 1980-82. "We started playing some big-time programs and competed because we could throw that thing around. I think against A&M (a 38-27 loss) we took 64 snaps, threw it 61 times and ran three draws. Matt Dunigan is one of the young men who did so much to get Tech headed in the direction it wanted to go. You talk about Tech's great tradition, and Dunigan's right there at the top of the list."
He left Tech as its all-time career leader in passing yards, total offense, passing touchdowns and completions. Leland Padgett and Karl Terrebonne, each an All-SLC receiver, caught a lot of those passes.
"When he came in we were so happy; the normal drop is seven steps and he was dropping 15, so fast the offensive line didn't have time to block," Padgett said. "Then he'd throw it like a dart 30 yards past the line of scrimmage. A cannon. He's throwing 30-and 40-yard corner routes on a line. We could do what we did because of this guy."
"The thing I remember most about Matt was his toughness," Terrebonne said. "And one of the things I liked most about him was he had a habit of looking at you during the snap count if he was going to throw you the ball, kind of like he's saying, `Get ready.'"
The road to Tech's Hall of Fame then veered north for Dunigan. He was an equipment guy's nightmare as he put on pad after pad - neck roll, soccer shin guards - anything to help him as he took hits and learned the CFL game. Gradually the pads came off. He got lighter. Started being the hitter and not the hittee. And his teams appeared in five Grey Cups and won two.
His 14 CFL seasons ended with a hit on Aug. 2, 1996. He got up, chased a fumble, got hit again. He'd been hit harder, he says, 100 times. But for the first time, he felt exposed.
"I didn't need six neurosurgeons to tell me it was over," he said. "I knew it was over."
But it wasn't. Not really. His relationships from football have given him a locker room with no walls. And in 2006, Dunigan was inducted into the CFL's Hall of Fame. Today he's a television panelist and color commentator for CFL games, a role similar to that of an "NFL on FOX" commentator's named Terry Bradshaw, the guy whose records he broke at Tech. He's also host of "Road Grill" on Canada Food Network; he's a griller, a barbecue guy.
"I've been in the country for 28 years but after two short years grilling on television, I'm getting pummeled with food questions, not football stuff," he said. "I should have been in this business all along!"
Tech and the CFL are glad he kept food and television on the back burner.
"There are very few QBs who can make a ball hiss 40 yards downfield," said John Lee, Dunigan's backup and road-games roomie at Tech. "Matt's on a short list. But aside from his athletic skills, what struck me most about Matt was how coachable and unselfish he was. He loved the game and he loved Tech. He tried to play every down his best, and he played to win every game for his teammates.
"If I were competing at any sport at our age today and could pick a teammate," Lee said, "it would be Matt Dunigan...and we would win!"
"He was the epitome of a great Tech quarterback as he took such pride in the team, school and the city," said Kathy Hudgins, a former Regal Blue and voice major at Tech who's been Kathy Dunigan for 27 years. "He literally gave his all every time he stepped onto the field, be it practice or the games themselves. The heart of a lion, but the toughness of a stubborn Bulldog."
There are more stories. Like meeting Kathy. Like the Gold '69 Skylark everyone made fun of and few rode in. Deer hunting in Claiborne Parish. Talking about pregame meal instead of calling a play in the huddle against A&M because he'd been knocked silly. Teammates named Junkin and Bankston, Coates and Dornier and Gideon. Slow dancing and Kidd Dorm and getting pep talks from then-Tech Director of Admissions Patsy Lewis on the way to his degree.
"She kept me going. There are so many...How can you thank all the people who've meant so much to you?" Dunigan said, already wondering how to efficiently audible his way through a three-minute induction speech. "I'm just humbled by the recognition, grateful to go in with this tremendous class and with the select few who are already in there. Tech is saying, `The way you played and carried yourself, we want you to be remembered.' That makes this pretty sweet."
"Ol' Matt's the All-American guy," Padgett said. "You love it when good things happen to good people."