His crack nightmare over, Jeff Dubay's back in the game

  • Article by: KENT YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 19, 2013 - 7:09 AM

After a spectacular fall from grace, radio personality Jeff Dubay knows he’s been granted a second chance with a 1500 ESPN gig – and he’s grateful for it.

Jeff Dubay is in his room, in bed, when he hears the police outside. He hears guns being cocked. “We’ll take him down,” a voice says. As his door is being kicked in, Dubay thinks, “It’s all going to happen again. I’m going to be in the news again ...”

Then he wakes up.

When Dubay relates this recurring nightmare, he shakes his head, as if the motion will eject the trauma of the past few years from his brain. But after wiping his brow, he smiles.

By degrees, his nightmare is receding in the rear view mirror of the bus he takes to work every day. Dubay is back on the radio, this time at 1500 ESPN, co-hosting a morning show with Judd Zulgad. He is back talking sports, back to his old time slot, back to ranting and raving at 100 miles per hour about Minnesota sports in his signature style, work he says he was born to do.

Dubay was one year into a crack cocaine addiction and a failed shot at rehab when he was arrested in October 2008 for possession of the drug. He lost his job co-hosting a popular KFAN sports talk show, a program that had a loyal following on the metro’s first all-sports talk station, with Paul Allen.

Then he lost his home, his cabin, his boat, and almost his life.

“It doesn’t matter where you start or what you have; crack will take it all,” said Dubay, 45. But he’s been sober for nearly two years, last using in March 2011, and is back in the sports talk radio picture, though sometimes he can’t believe it.

“Sometimes I actually have to stop myself and ask, ‘How real is this?’ ” he said.

The dark times

Before his return, he’d often dream he was back on the radio, back in his life, only to wake up disappointed. “It’d be, ‘Oh, God, it wasn’t real,’ ” he said.

Dubay’s addiction was born in the wake of his broken marriage, and that addiction withstood three shots at traditional rehab. He ultimately decided a 12-step program wouldn’t work for him. “I think the key to not ‘using’ is getting to a point where, simply put, your desire to not use is greater than your desire to use,” he said. “And if it does, it is dwarfed by my desire not to use.

“There is nothing mystic about my recovery. What made me ready to quit was that it sucked, and it had sucked for a year and a half.”

Getting to quitting took a long time, even after his arrest, the terror of that night in jail that still sticks with him, the loss of just about everything he had. And through all that, he dealt with some things that precipitated his addiction. Dubay’s wife left him for one of his brothers, and the dynamic that created in his family eventually forced Dubay to cut contact with everyone but his sister.

“I can’t believe how the cloud lifted for me,” he said. “There is so much stress out of my life. It’s what I have to do to take care of me.”

Ultimately, his recovery began when the outgoing Dubay turned inward. He withdrew to his room, basically, for months in 2011 to avoid temptation. Gradually he rejoined the world, and approached Dan Seeman, vice president/market manager for Hubbard Radio.

“I was six months sober; I was clean,” Dubay said, but he wasn’t ready for radio. He was nervous, sweating, hardly able to put a sentence together.

“Emotionally, when you use, you shut off everything,” Dubay said. “Then you stop using and everything comes rushing back. Emotionally you’re overwhelmed.”

Seeman, who worked with Dubay at KFAN, suggested he start the road back by telling his story. Last July, Dubay talked on-air with WCCO’s Chad Hartman. As the extensive interview ended, Dubay threw out his e-mail address to anyone who might need help. When he left the building, he looked at his phone and saw 300 e-mails, almost all from people he didn’t know, all supportive.

After that, there was a short audition on K-TWIN, then another meeting with Seeman and 1500 ESPN program director Brad Lane about the station’s morning show, which was auditioning for Zulgad’s on-air partner and needed to boost ratings.

This time Dubay seemed ready: “I said, ‘This is my job. And if it’s not, then it’s time for me to become a garbage man.’ ”

Getting the job

Dubay was given a one-week tryout. On the first day he talked much too quickly, as if he were trying to stuff years of pent-up opinions into one show. Seeman actually turned it off.

But Dubay got better. “By the end of the week, Jeff was back,” Seeman said.

And so a deal was struck. Dubay got a one-year contract with protections for the station built in. The station, with low ratings in the 9-to-noon time slot dominated in local sports talk by Allen, took a risk to get a known commodity.

“He understands this is his second chance, probably his only chance,” Seeman said.

Every day, Dubay’s alarm goes off at 5 a.m. Trying to regain his financial footing, he has been staying with a succession of friends. He catches a bus downtown, then hops on another to the station, arriving by 7 a.m.

“He has as much or more passion than I do,” Zulgad said. “That is vital. When you talk sports three, four hours a day, you can’t fake it.”

Zulgad usually guides the broadcast, but he allows Dubay to rant. Recently, Dubay basically wrote off the entire nation of Canada for the way it roots against U.S. hockey.

“He’s an underdog story,” Zulgad said. “He has a talent, by being an everyman, to translate that onto the air. And that’s not easy. He doesn’t have that off-switch, that filter, and people love that.”

The fun returns

Dubay will still stutter as he’s about to make an emotional point. His voice still speeds up and rises in pitch as that point is made.

“I was basically led to believe what the station needed was a host with personality,” Dubay said. “They needed a big, dumb rube idiot to come in and maybe stir it up a little. At some point, folks want a stupid one-liner. Enter Dubay.”

Said Seeman: “No way you go through what he went through, the bottom he hit, and not be different. But I don’t think his radio presence has changed a lot. He still has lots of opinions, still talks fast. He’s Jeff Dubay.”

Dubay says the support has been overwhelming. Allen, also the Vikings’ play-by-play announcer, sent a text before Dubay took to the air for the first time after signing his deal. “I’m happy he has resurrected his career,” Allen said. “And I’m hopeful he’ll be able to handle prosperity well.”

Allen and Dubay — “PA and Dubay” — were among the most popular on-air duos in the Cities and have gone their separate ways since Dubay’s much-publicized troubles. Allen had to reconfigure his show, which has remained strong as KFAN moved from AM to FM.

Dubay’s problems drove him in a different social direction. That direction is still shaky. Dubay, who hopes to have an apartment by March, is filing for bankruptcy and has tax issues to clear up. But he says he can see a happy ending.

“I get embarrassed when people make it seem like I’ve accomplished something great,” he said. “All I did was make a mess I’m trying to clean up. But I’m going to work at a radio station like I used to. This is fun. It’s just fun. I’m getting to do what I want to do.”

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