Boise State football players and friends from more than 35 years ago poured into a Hyde Park restaurant and bar last week to see one hard-to-miss man.
Duane Dlouhy was a 6-foot-5 tight end in his playing days, responsible for one of the biggest moments in school history. Laughing with former Broncos, making his way from one group to the next and flashing his trademark smile, it would be impossible to guess why they had gathered.
Dlouhy, now 56, has stage IV colorectal cancer; doctors made the diagnosis in August. The joyous get-together was a product of the positivity he says is vital to winning the biggest fight of his life.
“When I first heard, I was like, ‘So tell me how many people survive this kind of cancer instead of telling me how many people don’t survive,’ ” Dlouhy said.
Beating cancer, against long odds, would not be the first time Dlouhy has risen to the occasion when the situation seemed dire.
Before Ian Johnson’s stunning two-point conversion beat Oklahoma in overtime on New Year’s Day 2007 in the Fiesta Bowl, Dlouhy made the most clutch play in Boise State football history.
Facing Eastern Kentucky in the NCAA Division I-AA national championship game on Dec. 20, 1980, in Sacramento, Calif., the Broncos trailed 29-24 and faced a fourth-and-10 at the Colonels’ 14-yard line with 20 seconds left on the clock.
Dlouhy, then a junior and the team’s second-leading receiver in the regular season, was left alone in the end zone as quarterback Joe Aliotti stepped back to pass, hoping for a miracle on live national television. He hit Dlouhy for the winning touchdown with 12 seconds to play, claiming the title in dramatic fashion.
The play, and the game, put Boise State on the college football map.
“I had a beer with a guy recently, 69 years old, doesn’t know Duane, but when we talked about that team, first thing he mentioned was that catch,” said Larry Alder, a sophomore defensive back in 1980 whose locker was next to Dlouhy’s. “Thank God for that play.”
In his four seasons at Boise State, Dlouhy had 58 regular season receptions for 743 yards and was an All-American honorable mention as a senior in 1981. He played for the Broncos’ basketball team after his college football career ended, and after failing to make the roster with the NFL’s Washington Redskins and the USFL’s Arizona Wranglers, he coached tight ends at Boise State from 1983-86.
“He was a big target, what you want in a tight end — I mean, he played basketball, too, so you can tell he was a heck of an athlete,” Alder said.
Dlouhy — a Coeur d’Alene High graduate who lives in Post Falls with his wife of 34 years, Debbie — suffered a massive rectal bleed during a 2015 Memorial Day weekend on Lake Coeur d’Alene. It took more than a year before the cancer diagnosis was made.
Multiple tests, X-rays, blood work and a colonoscopy failed to determine why he had been suffering stomach pain and abnormal bleeding, family and friends said. The family tried multiple diets, but nothing worked — until another blood test was done as part of a life insurance exam.
Finding the cancer earlier likely would have made treatment easier, and now Dlouhy has taken on multiple rounds of chemotherapy and made three visits to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. The last was 24 days long, November into December, when he had his colon and rectum removed.
“You hear that it’s stage IV, that there’s a 20 percent chance of living, and after, everything is just noise,” Debbie Dlouhy said. “But at every step, he’s been beating the odds.”
Initially, doctors thought the cancer would be inoperable, but the early chemotherapy worked well. The cancer remains aggressive, and since it went undiagnosed for some time, it has spread to his lungs and a lymph node. The goal now is to keep the cancer from spreading further and hope for remission.
Debbie, a lung cancer survivor, said the intangibles surrounding her husband’s life have been key, from the outpouring of support to the positivity with which they’ve approached the battle.
Sometimes, it’s something as small as what clothes to wear.
At one of his chemotherapy treatments, Duane, Debbie and their daughter, Drue, all wore something pink by accident. Since then, they coordinate “dressing for cancer,” Debbie said.
Soon after after Duane’s diagnosis, when the solution obviously meant more than a diet change, he and Debbie went for pizza with friends. They were about to leave the house when she noticed him dressed in sweats and a hat.
“He said, ‘I’m sick,’ and I was like, ‘No, you’ve never shown up to things like that,’ ” Debbie said. “We were going to fight it any way we can and never be defeated.”
PUTTING ON A BRAVE FACE
Dlouhy’s major surgery has left him needing a colostomy bag for the rest of his life, and an infection that resulted from the surgery means a nurse shows up at his home every other day for three hours of treatment. Friends and family admit the infection has been more difficult than he lets on. It’s also delayed his next round of chemo.
“All these people coming here to see him, he needed this. It’s great to see him so happy,” said another daughter, Demi, about last week’s gathering in Hyde Park.
Said Duane: “We’ve always had each others’ backs. ... When you have a bunch of guys that are willing to stand behind each other, that’s when the good stuff happens, the miracles happen, the ordinary guy makes the extraordinary play.”
Alder said because Dlouhy was so reliable as a college football player, and now as a person, it’s a no-brainer to help a father and his family in need. A GoFundMe page set up for his medical costs has raised more than $30,500, far beyond the goal of $20,000.
“It hit hard, hearing ‘cancer,’ ” Alder said. “I know what kind of drive the guy has, and if anyone can beat it, it’s him.”
Setbacks haven’t stopped Dlouhy from moving forward. Sitting isn’t easy, so he works from his home as the director of construction for Pita Pit, usually lying on his stomach in bed, laptop on the edge.
“What it’s done for me, it’s brought the rawness out in our relationship,” said his son, Dustin, a former standout football player at Montana. “I see how hard he’s fighting this, and it really makes me look back and appreciate everything he’s done for me. All the inspiration and motivation he gave me, he’s showing it.”
Duane hopes to make even bigger strides when he walks Demi down the aisle at her July 1 wedding in Boise. And last week’s gathering of former Broncos will not be the last.
“We’ve already started talking about it, getting out the sticks,” Dlouhy said. “That’s the next solace for me ... getting together with the boys and getting some golfing in.”
How to help
Duane Dlouhy’s family and friends have set up a GoFundMe account to help pay for his medical bills. You can donate at gofundme.com/dlouhystrong.