This is the first installment in our periodic series on the unlikeliest sports heroes in Tampa Bay history. Got a suggestion for the series? Hit us up on our Facebook page, via Twitter (@TBTimes_Sports) or by email at email@example.com.
SEFFNER — Free spirits come with feet. On this soupy Seffner morning, Darrell Ashley Dudney checks to see if any vigor still lurks in his right one.
The former Armwood High kicker plants one end of a mildly deflated ball in the tattered turf of Lyle Flagg Field. After stepping two paces backward and two to his left, he trots toward the ball, plants his left foot, rears back the right one and connects tarsal to cowhide with all the force he can muster.
It sails about 35 yards ― roughly 5 yards shy of the crossbar.
“Not bad for a flat ball,” he says.
Another attempt wobbles to the left. A third try, this one from about 30 yards, sails about a half-foot wide of the right upright.
But the fourth flutters, end over end, before splitting the uprights with room to spare. The trajectory parallels the most famous kick of his life ― and Hawks history ― delivered from nearly the same spot a decade before.
“Told ya,” he says.
Yep, Ash Dudney’s still got it. In a sense, he’ll always have it. For all his eclectic pursuits, all his efforts to detach himself from his high school years, all the physical transformations that come with age, the Tampa native remains typecast.
To legions of Hawks fans, this photographer, writer, musician, poet and dad remains the unlikely hero in one of the biggest games in Armwood lore.
“I jumped straight up, two fists in the air,” recalled Tanner Emmons, who held the ball for Dudney that chilly December night in 2010. “That was the most clutch kick I’ve ever seen in a high school football game.”
From grunge to glory
The ball Dudney’s booting on this sweltering morning? Same one he used for that 44-yard field goal with no time remaining in the Class 4A state semifinals against Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer. In one fell soccer-style swoop, the lanky senior propelled Armwood to a 22-20 victory and berth in the state title game.
“As soon as it went in,” offensive lineman Cameron Dees recalled, “I threw my helmet in the air as high as I could and started running around the field.”
On a team featuring no fewer than six players who competed for Power Five college programs, and at least three who signed with an NFL team, the guitar-toting grunge music zealot with the bleach-blond hair seemed least likely to consume the frame of that season’s snapshot moment.
“Unique,” Dees said in describing Dudney, whose dad used to give the two pals a ride to school. “He had the whole Pacific Northwest-Nirvana-Pearl Jam vibe going on.”
Dudney hadn’t previously been summoned for a decisive kick all year, because Armwood hadn’t needed one. The Hawks had won their previous 13 games by an average of 34.8 points. A 28-12 win against Punta Gorda Charlotte the previous week had been their closest call.
As a result, Dudney — who was raised in Temple Terrace and attended King for his first two high school seasons — spent his senior year punting, booting mostly meaningless extra points, and entertaining teammates with his musicianship and clever humor.
“He played a guitar in the locker room, which is kind of unusual to see,” then-Hawks coach Sean Callahan said.
He also wrote ― poems, stories, songs ― and indulged his fledgling passion for photography.
“He’d always make you think about things a little bit differently than you would,” recalled defensive end David Tinsley, one of Dudney’s closest friends on the team.
“He was big into drawing and music, so he had that creative aspect to him. Any time you had a conversation with him, you had to kind of see around corners, because he’d be setting you up with some type of punchline.”
The punchlines segued to bass lines. Unbeknownst to most teammates, Dudney was moonlighting that season as bass guitarist for a local band called The Tattered Saints. After one lopsided win, he raced to the locker room, changed clothes as fast as he could and high-tailed it to Ybor City for a gig.
“Somebody else had to sound-check for me and all that before I got there,” he said. “I had never taken shoulder pads off so quick in my life.”
He had them on the night he truly became a rock star.
Dwyer, the reigning state champion, had demolished Armwood in the 2009 playoffs and was teeming with future Power Five personnel. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett, the Indianapolis Colts’ starter last season, gave the Panthers a 20-19 lead with a 13-yard touchdown strike to Tommylee Lewis (a Saints receiver) with 19.6 seconds to go.
It was around that point that Dudney’s paternal grandfather, Darrell (for whom Ash was named), headed for the parking lot to beat traffic.
“He thought it was over,” Dudney said.
Jermaine “Juice” McKinney snagged the ensuing kickoff — a squib of sorts — at his own 33. On the first play from scrimmage, tailback Matt Jones, who bent a little on his deep route, snagged Josh Grady’s mildly underthrown ball and raced to the sideline for a 28-yard gain. On the second, receiver Alvin Bailey took a short Grady pass and scampered to the sideline for a 12-yard pickup.
Five seconds remained on the clock. A decade later, disparities arise as to what transpired next.
Callahan said there was no debate about attempting a field goal, but Emmons and Dudney remember assistant coaches having to convince him.
“Coach Cal was getting ready to run a Hail Mary, and some of our assistant coaches were saying, ‘No, you have to kick this, that’s our only option,’” Emmons said.
Based on Dudney’s season to that point, it seems reasonable Callahan might have needed coaxing. While serviceable on PATs, Dudney had converted only two of five field goals all year, his last conversion coming in a 17-0 win against Plant more than two months before.
Moreover, Hawks long-snapper Harvellio Buie had sailed two snaps over his head on punt attempts earlier in the game. Additionally, the placement of the ball ― on the left hash ― meant the right-footed Dudney would have to put a mild slice on the ball. The slightest hook would send it wide left.
“I don’t think it was so much about my ability to do stuff (that worried Callahan),” Dudney said. “It was the ability for the snap, hold and kick — all three — to go seamlessly correct.”
Regardless of what deliberations — if any — ensued among the coaches, Callahan said he felt good about his decision when he looked into his kicker’s light-blue eyes.
“When I went to Ash and I said, ‘You ready?’ he was like, just foaming at the mouth,” Callahan said. “He was so excited to have a kick like that.”
What played out over the next several seconds was equal parts storybook and textbook. Buie delivered a flawless snap, Emmons handled it cleanly, and Dudney smashed it flush, sending it high into the Seffner sky.
“I was just kind of tuned in,” Dudney said. “Everything was kind of just hyper-focused. I remember going out there, no nerves; it was just the noise-gets-quiet kind of thing. It can go only one of two ways. Go out there, swing your leg, keep your shoulders and hips straight.”
The kick would have been good from 50 yards. Jubilant Hawks players and assistants stormed the field. Jones, who’d go on to play for the Gators and in the NFL, openly sobbed. Two linemen hoisted Dudney on their shoulders.
“Helmets were flying in the air, which is always dangerous,” Emmons said. “People running in circles. You know, just extreme euphoria.”
But like all surreal snapshots, this one came with a negative.
Eight days later in Orlando, the Hawks — prohibitive favorites against four-loss Tallahassee Lincoln — succumbed to a series of miscues in a 17-14 loss in the state final. A last-second field goal, of all things, clinched the win for the Trojans. Dudney had a 46-yard field-goal try blocked and returned for a touchdown.
He still has the distance
That’s hardly the reason he never looked back upon graduating from Armwood. While Dudney embraced his moment of glory, he was careful not to bearhug it, unwilling to allow the apex of that kick’s trajectory to represent his life’s summit.
“It was pretty much about getting as far away from high school as quickly as possible,” said Dudney, whose blond locks have been replaced by a mostly shaven pate. “I decided not to go to college and kick, so sports was kind of an abrupt cut.”
He still resides locally with girlfriend Crystal and their 2-year-old son, River. Music and photography remain his other loves.
He has spent the past 10 years or so as lead guitarist and singer for The Dags, a foursome of friends and relatives that dabbles in rock, punk, blues and “a lot of rhythm,” Dudney said. A freelance photographer with his own web site, he does wilderness shots, food photos for restaurants, family portraits and the occasional wedding.
He has produced a hype video for Strawberry Crest’s wrestling team and some short documentaries. Two weekends ago in east Tampa, he was aiming his vintage lenses directly at the chaos along Fowler Avenue, as protests over the death of George Floyd segued to rioting and looting.
“As soon as I was old enough to hold a camera, that’s what I was doing,” said Dudney, now 27. “And whether it was my grandparents or parents taking me out to parks, it was always because I wanted to go take pictures.”
Yet nowhere on his website will you find any reference to his rarefied place in Hawks history. Dudney says the game ball, and a framed newspaper article, are his only material keepsakes from that night. From time to time, he enjoys dusting them off.
So long as the dust quickly settles.
“I have the mementos around, but it’s more of a personal thing for me than it is a public thing,” he said. “I never really wanted to hang on to that peak-in-high-school kind of thing.”