By Leighton Ginn
On a fall afternoon, Jay Dobyns talks about his college football career and his undercover work with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms as if there was no difference in both jobs.
The way Dobyns sees it, both job comes down to a willingness to put yourself in danger for the common good.
But outsiders looking in might have trouble seeing the commonality of the two job because of the degrees of danger Dobyns faced.
At the University of Arizona in the mid-80s, Dobyns was a possession receiver who routinely went over the middle to catch big third-down passes to keep drives alive, despite being laid out in front of bone-crushing linebackers.
All Sports Tucson.com listed Dobyns as the No. 1 offensive player in its list titled, “Top 10 badasses in Arizona Wildcats football in Pac 10/12 era.”
Former Arizona coach Larry Smith said of Dobyns in a 1984 Arizona Daily Star article, “every Saturday a kid who barely weighs 170 pounds dripping wet goes over the middle for us. I know this Jay is a tough, reckless, S.O.B. After games, he looks like he’s been run over by a train. I personally think he enjoys taking the defenses’ best shot just so he can get up and laugh at them.”
Dobyns’ attitude served him well when he entered the next phase of his life after his playing career. And the danger he faced was amped up.
For 27 years, Dobyns went after this country’s most violent criminals while working for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). For two years, Dobyns infiltrated the Hells Angels’ motorcycle gang. His work became the material for his 2009 New York Times bestselling book, “No Angel.”
“I think my career as a receiver and my career as an undercover agent are identical. There’s really no difference,” Dobyns said. “You have the fear in place, and then what is your reaction to it. Are you courageous? Are you not courageous? Will you go over the middle, focus on the football and make the catch? Will you go face-to-face with a murderer or a rapist or someone you know who is capable of killing you? It’s the same but different.”
While going up the middle, Dobyns could suffer a concussion from a high hit, or injure his knees on low hits. And during Dobyns’ days, he would face the likes of All-American linebackers like Mike Singletary at Baylor and Ron Rivera of Cal.
That was where the jeopardy ends.
After Dobyns’ work was revealed after his two-years with the Hells Angels, he’s faced death threats to himself and some unspeakable threats to his wife and two kids. There were contracts out on his life from the Hells Angels and the Aryan Brotherhood to name a few.
At one point, Dobyns’ home was burned down while his family were there. Luckily, Dobyns’ family escaped with just inhalation injuries.
For Dobyns, he was always willing to do what was best for the common good.
“It’s more of a willingness. I think for me, that was what I was best at. I don’t know if I was ever that good of a receiver or if I ever was that good of an undercover operator. But I was willing. I was willing to try,” Dobyns said. “I had one prayer as an undercover operator. It was, ‘God, please put me in the path of the most vile, despicable, violent predator that you can find out there and let me see if there’s something I can do about that. Let me see if I can make an impact.’ It goes back to willingness. I don’t know if I was going to be successful, I didn’t even know if I would be good at it. But I was willing to try.”
“I had one prayer as an undercover operator. It was, ‘God, please put me in the path of the most vile, despicable, violent predator that you can find out there and let me see if there’s something I can do about that. Let me see if I can make an impact.’” — Jay Dobyns
Dobyns grew up in Tucson, Ariz., and became a star receiver at Sahuaro High School. Although Dobyns was a thin receiver that lacked breakaway speed, he had sure hands and was willing to go over the middle. In the modern game, he would essentially be a 170-pound tight end, but taking similarly devastating hits.
At first, Dobyns passed on his hometown Arizona to sign with Arkansas after a sales pitch from coach Lou Holtz.
“I fell in love with Lou Holtz for all the right reasons,” Dobyns said. “I got out there and realized that I wouldn’t be successful or thrive in a run-based offense. So I ended up coming back to Arizona, which had a more dynamic pass offense. You had a dynamic, open mentality on the West Coast than you did in the (Southwest) Conference at that time.”
The Wildcats team was full of talent, including future NFL stars, like the Denver Broncos’ Vance Johnson and Ricky Hundley, as well as Chuck Cecil.
Arizona was a team on probation from earlier transgression, but the Wildcats reached some of the program’s largest highs while Dobyns played. Among the milestones was a victory over Notre Dame in South Bend, the start of an undefeated streak against rival Arizona State that spanned nine years, beating John Elway’s Stanford team, No. 3 UCLA and earning a No. 3 national ranking, which was the best in Arizona’s history at the time. In Dobyns’ final two years, he was an All-Pac-10 honorable mention receiver.
“It was a blessing for me to come back home and play for coach Smith and play for my hometown fans,” Dobyns said.
After graduating, Dobyns went to the NFL combines, where he worked out with Jerry Rice and Andre Reed. It only took 10 minutes for Dobyns to realize he wasn’t ready for that level.
Dobyns did play a season for the USFL’s Arizona Outlaws with Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams and former UCLA quarterback and coach Rick Neuheisel.
Dobyns also had a workout with the Chicago Bears, but coach Mike Ditka said he was 10 years too late.
When Dobyns accepted his career was over, he needed to thing about what to do next.
One thing that influenced Dobyns was the hit television series, “Miami Vice,” where he decided to try a life undercover.
“I thought, ‘man, I might not be a good enough football player to play in the league, but I could be Sonny Crockett,’” Dobyns said about actor Don Johnson’s character in “Miami Vice.” “’I can wear silk suits and drive around South Beach in a Lamborghini. I can do that. I can be that guy.’”
Four days into the job, Dobyns was shot in the back, and the bullet went through his lungs and out through his chest.
Dobyns survived the near death experience more invigorated to work for ATF and would become an undercover cop.
Dobyns would work 27 years for the ATF, and his undercover work would draw comparisons to Joseph D. Pistone, the real life agent the movie “Donnie Brasco” is based on.
But his work was never as glamorous as what was portrayed on “Miami Vice.”
“The silk suits in reality are cutoff camos, a wife beater and flip flops,” Dobyns said. “The Lamborghini is a 1982 Malibu with the doors frozen closed for my government car. And South Beach was a trailer park. My drug kingpins were guys sitting at a bar that didn’t have two nickels to rub together to buy their next beer.
“So the glamour and sexiness that’s portrayed of the undercover profession by Hollywood and television is very much unlike the truth.”
To go undercover, Dobyns also did an overhaul of his personal appearance. While playing for Arizona, he had floppy blonde hair and looked like a surfer.
“I think my image on the team and in the community was the cold milk and Oreos guy,” Dobyns said. “I so wanted to be Nick Nolte in “North Dallas Forty.” I wanted to have the long, blonde hair and I was the possession, control receiver and I loved that. I loved the Fred Biletnikoff, Steve Largent world that sacrificed themselves and gave of themselves for the greater good.
“That look was too soft for the world I entered. It was too sissy. You are dealing with really hard, violent men who have their PhD’s in intimidation. So I had to stop being cute, and get dirty and nasty so I could keep up and be accepted.”
“You are dealing with really hard, violent men who have their PhD’s in intimidation. So I had to stop being cute, and get dirty and nasty so I could keep up and be accepted.” — Jay Dobyns
While Dobyns’ work with the Hells Angels was the highest profile he worked on, there were other cases of note during Dobyns’ career.
On a fall afternoon, Dobyns recounts another case in his career for the television series “Deep Undercover.” Dobyns and his partner was busting a suspect who was purchasing enough C4 explosives to blow up three Las Vegas casinos. Dobyns points out the C4 was in the room as the other agents busted in to arrest the suspect.
The case was in the wake of the Timothy McVeigh bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995.
Today, Dobyns life has slowed down. He coaches high school football and follows his son, who is playing college football.
With Dobyns’ success in the ATF and his best-selling book, he’s frequently doing public speaking and media interviews. Recently, he did an in-depth interview with Pac-12 Network’s Mike Yam for his iTunes podcast “Give Me A Sense.”
But Dobyns’ life still has a hint of danger. During his interview with Yam, Dobyns said he still lives in the house that burned down. Dobyns also pointed out with Yam that he doesn’t have the kind of witness protection that criminals like former mob underboss Sammy “The Bull” Gravano has.
“There’s active contracts out there that are still floating around in the criminal sphere,” Dobyns said. “But who wants to fill it? I don’t hide, I don’t go into situations I shouldn’t be in. I don’t want a problem. I’ll avoid a problem. I’ll walk away from a problem, I’ll run away from a problem to avoid it.
“Don’t corner me, because if you corner me, we’re going to have a problem. You know what, if you hurt me, we’re all going to get hurt. You want to come get me, we’re all going to the hospital. That’s my mentality. But I don’t want that. To be honest, I think they’ve become bored with me.”