By Trey Williams
East Tennessee State football coach Mike Cavan had a sweet tooth for speed in the 1990s, and linebacker Derek Fudge filled cavities in a defense more quickly than a dentist can take your money.
Fudge, a speedy 6-foot-1, 230-pounder, was an All-Southern Conference linebacker. He tallied 21 tackles behind the line of scrimmage as a sophomore in 1996 when the Buccaneers went 10-3 and advanced to the FCS quarterfinals.
Fudge was a defensive force at Bay High in Panama City and had a partial offer from his beloved Florida State Seminoles. But the late Steve McGill, an ETSU assistant at the time, was combing northwestern Florida late in the process when he discovered Fudge.
“Coach Cavan had Coach McGill kind of scouring the panhandle,” said Fudge, who has taught at Science Hill since 2010 and runs Fudge Fitness, a successful training venture he began in 2010. “They put a tape on and went nuts. They offered me a full ride and my jersey number and flew me to the Tri-Cities – and the rest is history.”
In ’96, Fudge played on a fast defense that included linebackers Mario Hankerson and Terrieic Robbins, and defensive linemen such as James Russell and Curtis Eason.
“We were picked as the best linebackers in the Southern Conference, I think, for three years in a row,” Fudge said. Appalalachian State had Dexter Coakley at least one of those years, and he went on to the Dallas Cowboys.
Defensive coordinator Eric Schumann, a former defensive back for Bear Bryant at Alabama in the 1970s, tailored his scheme to his personnel. And he didn’t necessarily bog down his thoroughbreds with Xs and Os.
“Schuman was a damn genius,” Fudge said. “He let us play football, a different style of football. Not being disrespectful, but he said, ‘You know what, these guys are this good, let ‘em play.’ …
“It looked like James Russell was playing against high school kids. That’s how it looked, because I played behind him. He’d come back to the huddle, he’s laughing. He’s not breathing hard, he’s laughing in a game. That’s how talented he was.”
One of the highlights of the 1996 season was ending a 15-game losing streak with a 31-10 defeat of No. 4 Appalachian State in the Minidome.
“All of my family came up from Florida and Georgia,” Fudge said. “And App had Dexter Coakley at the time. Me and him were going head to head for the most tackles in the conference.”
Five weeks later, ETSU hosted No. 1 Marshall, which was led by Randy Moss, in what was essentially the Southern Conference championship game. Marshall prevailed in a sold-out Minidome, 34-10.
Moss, a Florida State transfer, had six catches for 155 yards. It was 10-3 at the half, but Moss and quarterback Eric Kresser, a Florida transfer, got on the same page.
“We had a guy, Bron Witten, from California that covered Moss,” Fudge said. “He got hurt. He was covering him pretty well. But he sprained his ankle in the second quarter, and after that it was lights out.”
ETSU defeated Villanova at home in the playoffs, but was no match for Montana on a slick field in Missoula in the quarterfinals. The Bucs, it appeared, would’ve enjoyed the same home-field advantage on the Minidome’s fast track.
“We would’ve beaten them in the dome,” Fudge said. “Yeah, they know that too. They know that.”
Fudge was in the New Orleans Saints camp his rookie year, but an injury sealed his fate. He ended up playing Arena League until 2003. It was exasperating in a sense after all he’d done, but Fudge said his performance in a lopsided loss at Edgerrin James-led Miami in 1998 was what got pro scouts’ attention.
“That Miami game when they had Edgerrin James was what got me on the map,” Fudge said. “Scouts basically said if he can run down Edgerrin James, we’ll give him a look in the NFL. … I think I had 10 tackles that game. Edgerrin James actually separated my shoulder tackling him.”
Fudge began training athletes after some input from former ETSU teammate Anthony Stringfield.
“String is my mentor,” Fudge said. “He probably started after his Arena career around 2000. … I’m a big Florida State fan and he calls one day and he has Bobby Bowden and Jimbo Fisher in his living room. They just signed EJ Manuel at Florida State that year. He was one of his clients.”
Fudge still loves the Seminoles. He recently contacted former ETSU teammate/NFL cornerback Donnie Abraham about getting something signed by Derrick Brooks.
“I’m trying to get Donnie to send me a signed jersey from Derrick Brooks that I can hang up in my man cave,” Fudge said. “Donnie and Derrick played together at Tampa Bay.”
Fudge has trained athletes from a variety of sports. He worked with ETSU running back Jacob Saylors, who signed this past spring with the Cincinnati Bengals. Saylors working with Fudge.
“I sure do miss it,” he said Monday morning.
Fudge has also worked with the likes of Jaylan Adams, Patrick Good, Maci Masters, Brylee Mesusan, Malik McGue, Austin Lewis and Will Adams.
“I enjoy doing it,” Fudge said. “Even when I was playing at ETSU, I was doing it. I would take a kid and go in his backyard and I would train him.”
Stringfield isn’t surprised to see Fudge’s business stick.
“Fudge was a dominant player at the linebacker position,” Stringfield said. “His play was consistent and he was a great team player. I’m happy to see him training and pushing young athletes in the right direction.”
Brandon Walker left ETSU following the ’99 season as the Bucs’ career rushing leader.
“On my recruiting visit Derek Fudge was my host for the weekend,” Walker said. “ He showed me, Cullen Crane and Todd Wells around campus and, of course, the night life of Johnson City. Me and my boys arrived on campus and were at the registrar office getting things together for the school year. We see Fudge walking by us and of course we spoke to him. Needless to say he didn’t recognize us at all. But I’m glad things have changed over years.
“I know whenever we see each other now he will recognize me. He was a great teammate and player on the field. His presence on the field was always felt, and now definitely in the community. I love what he is doing for the kids at Fudge Fitness.”
It was more than a full ride and a No. 33 jersey that brought Fudge to Johnson City from the Gulf of Mexico. He liked everything from the sweet tea and turkey sandwich at Poor Richard’s Deli, to the tastier beverages on the other side of Walnut Street at Tu La-Fe.
“I had a rough life in Florida. Johnson City reminded me of where I was in Florida, but there were mountains instead of beaches. Johnson City reminded me of Panama City. What brought me here was the mountains, the beauty of the fall, the snow. And at ETSU, everything just connected with Cavan and the players.