Jason Duda had his dream job. For 13 years, he ran a Department of Corrections SWAT team, helping law enforcement groups serve warrants and arresting criminals on the run.
"I was a good guy, and I stopped bad people from doing bad things," he said. "I loved taking down bad guys. I was the guy dressed in black that used to kick in doors and arrest people."
Things were good for the tall, slender upstate New York boy. There wasn't anything else he would rather do.
Then it all changed.
While returning a prisoner to James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, he said he noticed two armed prisoners in a receiving area where they weren't supposed to be. Struggling to keep a 300-pound door open while protecting the returning prisoner, Duda said he wrenched his back.
"It screwed my spine up forever," he said.
He suffered herniated discs in his lower back and has spent the last decade enduring surgeries and rehabilitation.
"I didn't want to stop working. I had my date of retirement written down and everything. But finally my doctor told me I can't do this anymore," he said.
It wasn't easy walking away from a job he loved, Duda said. It's etched in his soul just as the SWAT tattoos on his arms or scars from bullet and knife wounds he readily endured on the job mark his body.
But with the support of his wife, Christy, whom he describes as his best friend, the Rehoboth resident has returned to one of his first passions – acting.
Upstate New York roots
Duda grew up in Syracuse where he played lacrosse and first caught the acting bug. His outgoing personality helped land him the lead role in "It Takes a Spy to Catch a Thief," which won best high school theatrical performance for New York.
He continued acting at Buffalo State College where he played Kenickie – main character Zuko's best buddy – in a production of "Grease." Duda also tapped into his keen sense of humor doing stand-up comedy while in Buffalo, thriving on the instant feedback from the audience, he said.
He dropped out of college after two years and went to work at Burlington Coat Factory. But it didn't take his co-workers long to realize Duda wasn't just another happy-go-lucky worker in the receiving department.
"I'm good at doing different voices," he said. One day, his boss heard him and asked him to imitate a popular commercial announcer.
That impromptu audition earned him the voice of Burlington Coat Factory for in-store and television ads throughout upstate New York.
Money talked, though, and he left the retail business for a stint in brick-and-block masonry when the construction industry was hot. With a new set of skills, he was determined to leave upstate New York and find a place to open his own business.
After a trip down the East Coast to southern Florida, he failed to find the right place to set up shop.
"I told my mom I didn't think it would work out," he said. "Then my aunt suggested I try Delaware, but I didn't know where Delaware was at the time. I thought it was in Mississippi."
He drove down the next weekend and was hooked.
"It was clean, modern. But what really sold me was I was at a stoplight, and someone pulled up and rolled down their window," he said. "I thought there was going to be some sort of problem. But they just wanted to let me know my brake light was out."
As if by fate, Duda found a masonry job right away. He soon segued into corrections and SWAT. He also found the time to pursue radio broadcasting on a local station. Duda used his own money and convinced some sponsors to help pay for air time for his show "Voice Yourself."
The show featured a call-in format where Duda and callers discussed topics such as racism, drug abuse and domestic violence.
"I enjoyed being on the radio," he said. "I wish I had pursued broadcasting when I was in college."
Pursuing community theater
Duda and Christy moved to Rehoboth Beach in 2010. Duda said they were looking for a community with friendly people, and they found it here.
"I'm living in a place where people know who they are and know how to enjoy life," he said.
Last summer, Duda returned to his acting roots in "The Summer of Our Discontent." Bethany Beach resident Bob Davis wrote the comedy about a rigid FBI agent who falls for an aging actress while investigating whether her chef intentionally poisoned some guests. Duda will reprise his role for performances in early May.
"The FBI agent starts out very serious in his investigation and ends up turning into an 'aw shucks' type of guy," Duda said.
The law enforcement aspect of the role was easy for Duda; now he's ready for something more.
"This is a big step for me because I gave up acting and did something else," he said. "I'd like to be on the big screen, do commercials or voice overs. This has been an excellent opportunity for me."