Bill Dudley, the last Steelers back to lead the NFL in rushing, has died after a short illness at his home in Lynchburg, Va. He was 88.
A halfback, Dudley was the Steelers' No. 1 pick in the 1942 NFL Draft, and he led the league in rushing that season. After a stint in the military during World War II, where he served as a B-25 and B-29 pilot in the Pacific, Dudley returned to the NFL.
He played in four games at the end of the 1945 season, and then he again led the NFL in rushing for the Steelers in 1946. In an unprecedented display of versatility, Dudley also led the NFL in 1946 in interceptions and punting while being voted the league's MVP.
Dudley played for the Detroit Lions from 1947-49 and the Washington Redskins in 1950-51 and 1953. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1966, as part of the fourth class to be enshrined in Canton, Ohio.
After earning All America honors at the University of Virginia, Dudley, who earned the nickname "Bullet" for his successes on the gridiron, helped the Steelers to a 7-4 record in 1942 – the best season in their history to that point – and finished with 696 rushing yards to lead the league.
In 1946, he led the league in rushing (604 yards), interceptions (10) and punt returns and was named NFL Most Valuable Player.
Dudley lived since 1951 in Lynchburg, where was in the insurance business and also served four terms in the Virginia House of Delegates.
Ironically, Dudley was considered too small for football until he was a 110-pound junior at Bluefield's Graham High School. As a high school senior, Dudley won fame as the "Bluefield Bullet" and led his team to a winning record. Although not possessing great speed, Dudley was quick and elusive, and was adept at maneuvering behind his blockers.
Dudley got only one college scholarship offer – to the University of Virginia – and by 1941 he led the Cavaliers to an 8-1 record. A consensus All-America selection, Dudley graduated in 1942 with World War II already underway.
"I was originally going to go into the Naval Air Corps," Dudley once said about that time in his life. "I was sworn in the Naval Air Corps in late May or early June of 1942. But when they started checking my papers, they found out I had to have my parents' consent, because I wasn't 21.
"So in the meantime, I went out to play in the College All-Star game in Chicago, and I signed a professional football contract. I played with the Steelers mainly for the money. They signed me for $5,000, because I was the No. 1 draft choice."
Dudley said he was unfamiliar with the Steelers, Pittsburgh's professional football team, but he made a quick impression as a rookie. Having injured both ankles in preseason college all-star games against the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles, Dudley took a handoff on his first professional play and raced 55 yards for a touchdown.
"We had a lot of fun," Dudley once said. "Pittsburgh in 1942 was probably one of the most fun years I ever had. I didn't know anything about Pittsburgh. All the steel mills were in full blast. You couldn't see the sun for the smoke. Probably we'd work out from one to three o'clock in the afternoon, and it was just overcast all morning long."
Running out of the single wing, Dudley led the league with 696 yards, averaged 4.3 per carry, and scored five touchdowns on the ground. He also completed 35 of 94 passes for 438 yards and two more touchdowns, averaged 32 yards on 18 punts, returned 20 punts for 271 yards (14.0 average) and 11 kickoffs for 298 yards (27.0 average) with another touchdowns.
Said Dudley about that season, "I was Rookie of the Year, and All-League, and I was just beat out for MVP, coming in second to Don Hutson."
Dudley had enlisted in the Army Air Corps in September 1942, but the high number of recruits resulted in a three-month delay, which allowed him to finish his rookie season.
After the war, Dudley returned to Pittsburgh and played the last four games of the 1945 season. Against the Chicago Cardinals at Forbes Field, Dudley ran for two touchdowns and kicked two extra points in a 23-0 victory, Pittsburgh's second win in a 2-8 season.
Playing tailback and safety in 1946, Dudley scored 48 points and led the league in three different categories: rushing, with 604 yards (4.1 average); 10 interceptions, which he returned for 242 yards; and 27 punt returns that he returned for 385 yards, a 14.0 average.
For this performance, Dudley outstanding season, Bill was named All-Pro as well as the NFL's Most Valuable Player.
A visitation for the family is planned for Feb. 7 at Diuguid Funeral Home in Lynchburg. Dudley will be laid to rest in a service at 11 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 8 at the Holy Cross Catholic Church in Lynchburg.