By Teddy Allen
Written for the LSWA
The temperature was somewhere around frying-pan hot on this August afternoon, the second of Louisiana Tech’s two-a-day football practices, the season still a couple of torturous weeks away, a promised break if you could make it through all the monotony and the steam and the chaos.
It was about this time when someone told Matt Dunigan, a freshman from Dallas, a 5-9 lightning-in-his-arm quarterback — he’ll tell you he’s 5-10-and-a half, which none of his coaches or teammates or friends ever remembers him being but he plays like he’s 6-4 so who cares — that he might want to dial it back a bit.
Dunigan was running the scout team on the lower of Tech’s two practice fields. Five feet up a gradual rise was the “Upper Field” where the No. 1 offense practiced. The “Lower Field” was where the No. 1 defense had its way with the scout team, made up mostly of freshmen like Dunigan, who came to Tech with the reputation of a rifle arm, quick feet, and the determination of an army of ants.
Nobody on Tech’s defense knew that though, so Dunigan was already bleeding, again, and equipment managers were busy making up new pads and taping them onto the small but muscular and determined hustler as best they could.
“We’re going to need you down the road,” a friend said between plays. “You can’t go 100 percent every play, not down here. You’ll get killed.”
“Can’t do it,” Dunigan said. You could almost see his face through the dirt and the heat waves, if you looked hard enough.
“This is scout team. Why are you going at it so hard? You’ve…”
The future Canadian Football League and Louisiana Tech Athletics Hall of Famer nodded toward the No. 1 offense, 50 yards away, Up, on the Promised Land.
“’Cause I gotta get on that Upper Field.”
He didn’t say he wanted to get on the Upper Field. “I’ve got to,” he said.
So he huddled again, looked at the play a graduate assistant had drawn up on stock paper, yelled for his fellow scrubs to give the defense a “good look,” and took another snap, one of the last one’s he’d ever take on the Lower Field.
“Matty” got to the top field. And from there, he kept going up.
Dunigan went on to be the only QB in the history of the Canadian Football League to lead four different organizations to the Grey Cup; Dunigan played on five Grey Cup teams and won the Cup twice.
And now he’s heading into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in Natchitoches, set to be enshrined Saturday, June 8, culminating the three-day 2019 Induction Celebration (check LaSportsHall.com for details).
His remarkable run in Canada was rooted by everyday “Kill The Guy With The Ball” games in his boyhood backyards in Ohio and in Dallas, then came a record-setting career at Tech. He played for the Bulldogs from 1980-82 when the program, today one of only two in the NCAA to win five consecutive bowl games, began making its way to Division I. In 1982, he was Southland Conference Offensive Player of the Year, the Louisiana Sports Writers Association Offensive Player of the Year, and All-American as Tech finished 10-3.
“He brought us back to the level Tech hadn’t been at in a while,” said Billy Brewer, the Ole Miss Hall of Famer who passed away last May and was Tech’s head coach all three years that Dunigan started.
Dunigan did all this with a mix of enthusiasm, sheer joy, determination, and will. He played football with the frantic urgency of a guy late for a plane or a hot date. It was as if he were in a hurry to finish this game so he could shower and eat a sandwich, then get his uniform back on and play the next one.
“Only way I knew how to play,” said Dunigan.
He’s a guy who wouldn’t take slow for an answer. It was that competitive streak and rifle arm that took him and his teams to the top of some mountains.
“Who’s the little buff dude?” said wide receiver David Williams when Dunigan, who’d been traded from Grey Cup-champion Edmonton (a seven-for-one trade), strolled into the BC Lions locker room for the first time. “Somebody told me he was our quarterback. Then I saw him throw the ball. Dang. Lightning in the little dude’s arm.”
Williams will go into the CFL Hall this summer.
“I’m not in there,” Williams said, “without him. Matt threw me like 50 touchdowns in 67 games we played together. And that’s not counting playoffs. It’s a dream come true for a receiver to play with a guy like that who can make every single throw on the field.”
“Boy, he could chunk that apple,” said E.J. Lewis, the longtime Tech assistant who, with a chew of tobacco and spit cup, recruited Dunigan out of Lake Highlands.
“If Matt winked at you in the huddle, he was going to throw the ball to you whether you were open or not,” said teammate Karl Terrebonne, an All-SLC receiver who had just three catches for 45 yards in the 1982 I-AA quarterfinal win over South Carolina State, but each one was on third down and “I was never really open,” Terrebonne said. “Matt just threw the ball in between everybody. Going back to the huddle he’d just smile.”
“He’s throwing 30- and 40-yard corner routes on a line,” said Leland Padgett, another all-league receiver for Tech in the early-’80s. “We could do what we did because of this guy.”
“It was a joy to coach him,” said Larry Dauterive, Tech’s quarterback coach and offensive coordinator during Dunigan’s years. “It was a pleasure to be a part of, the way he controlled the game. I told him to just trust his arm, throw it where you want to — and he’d throw people open.”
Longtime NFL scout C.O. Brocato was at a lot of Tech practices during Dunigan’s Bulldog days and told Dauterive that his quarterback’s arm was stronger than any other quarterback’s arm in the country, but that he wouldn’t be drafted because of his height. Six of those quarterbacks were taken in the first round of the 1983 NFL Draft, the most in the league’s history: John Elway, Dan Marino, Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason, and Ken O’Brien. Big boys.
Not Dunigan. But he took with him to the CFL a few other intangibles that helped him play big and play tall.
“He’s so tough,” Dauterive said. “He was an undersized linebacker playing quarterback.”
“That’s what I remember most about him,” Terrebonne said.
“He’s probably the best quarterback I ever played with,” said CFL Hall of Fame offensive lineman Chris Walby, who played three seasons with Dunigan in Winnipeg. “But he was definitely the toughest SOB I ever played with. He’d do whatever it takes to get that extra yard.”
“He broke his collarbone in a playoff game in ’91 on a good (Toronto) Argonauts team,” said Rod Smith, host of CFL on TSN, the network Dunigan’s been with as an analyst since 1999. “It didn’t look like he’d be able to play. The doctors assured him he couldn’t hurt it any worse; he could play if he could handle the pain.”
Dunigan told the doctors they’d have to cut his arm off to keep him from playing. In minus-19 degrees weather in Winnipeg, Dunigan threw touchdown passes of 48 and 36 yards and the Argos beat Calgary, 36-21 for the CFL title.
“I think that defined who he was as a player,” Smith said. “With raw determination through incredible pain he found a way to get it done. He’s done bigger things and had great individual accomplishments, but this was the ultimate team accomplishment too. It’s not the game with his greatest numbers, but it’s the one game that defines him.”
In 1993, Dunigan and Winnipeg beat Edmonton by a combined 80-plus points in two regular season games—then lost the Grey Cup to the Eskimos by 10 with Dunigan out with an Achilles injury.
“When he went down we were just good,” Williams said. “We weren’t great anymore.”
When the two teams next met during the 1994 season, a healthy Dunigan hung 713 passing yards on them. “Against the defending champs,” said Dunigan’s QB coach and offensive coordinator at Winnipeg, Mike Kelly. “It was an exhibition on how to play quarterback.”
“We called off the dogs or he could have thrown for 1,000,” Williams said.
To play that way takes confidence, something Dunigan never lacked because of his respect for both competition and preparation.
“First one in the meeting room,” Dauterive said, “and the last one to leave.”
“I called him the peacock,” Walby says. “He’d strut into the locker room on game day and we’re thinking, ‘Matty’s in the zone. We’ll win today.’ ”
“He demands you be on time, look sharp, keep notes; he likes everyone to be prepared,” said Smith. “The day he doesn’t come into the studio strutting like a peacock, that’s when I’ll worry. That would be really, really disappointing.”
“Our production meetings were like games,” said sportscaster Dave Randorf, former host for 12 years of CFL on TSN. “Matty’s locked in. I learned so much football from that guy.”
“Preparation breeds confidence; his teammates knew Matty was prepared and the team elevated itself because of his swagger,” said Kelly, whose middle daughter, Lindsey Rose, is the goddaughter of Matt and his wife and college sweetheart, Kathy. “That swagger put tremendous doubt in the minds of our opponents. They’re not sure if they can win the game if Matt’s got the ball in his hands. No matter who he played with, that was part of the package. He’ll always be a winner.”
“Once his playing career was over, he brought us viewers from coast to coast,” said Randorf, “not only because of his sharing his knowledge of the game, but it’s also the immense excitement and passion he has for the CFL and all the people around it. He has that Southern twang, then throw charm in the mix…people just gravitate toward him.
“He has a big personality, but he doesn’t take up the room,” Randorf said. “He’s got time for everybody. I’ve seen it time and time again. He’s a Hall of Fame quarterback on the field; everybody knows that. But he’s also a Hall of Fame person.”