Under the lights of the New Orleans Superdome in the early evening hours of Jan. 15, 1978 Tony (TD) Dorsett, No. 33, rushes for a record 303 yards, scores seven touchdowns and leads the Dallas Cowboys to a 49-3 rout of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XII. "It was just like another day against Notre Dame," the jubilant Dorsett gushes to Phyllis George after the game.
That is the fairy-tale ending to the story of Dorsett's first NFL season. In the preceding chapters Dorsett (now pronounced Dor-SETT) steals the NFL rushing title from O.J. Simpson and, of course, wins Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors. Is this, perhaps, expecting too much? Apparently not, or so it would seem from the amount of media attention Dorsett's getting. It didn't make any difference this summer if he broke a long run, a whiskey glass or curfew. If Tony Dorsett did it, it was news. Dorsett's transition from a Pittsburgh Panther to a Dallas Cowboy, from a Heisman Trophy winner to an untried NFL rookie, is being chronicled in the minutest detail—e.g., "At 7:21 a.m. Tony Dorsett spread a teaspoonful of sugar substitute over his Special K." The only thing Dorsett has failed to do in Dallas so far is replace the Cowboy cheerleaders in the hearts and minds of the city's fanatical football followers. But give him time.
In truth, Dorsett by himself would not have attracted all this attention. What has made him a media event is the fact that he is a Dallas Cowboy. When Simpson came into the NFL eight years ago, he, like most high draft picks, had the misfortune of joining a losing team. Buffalo had won just one game the previous season. But Dorsett signed on with a team that has made the playoffs 10 of the last 11 years, a team that is annually the favorite for the title in the NFC East.
What's more, Dorsett brings to Dallas the single ingredient the Cowboys have lacked in recent years: speed in the offensive back-field. The Cowboys have always had the fastest linebackers and the fastest linemen in football. Curiously, they have also always had some of the slowest backs in captivity. No more. At Pitt, Dorsett's speed, quickness and shiftiness made him the leading rusher in history. He was the first player ever to have four 1,000-yard seasons and the first to rush for more than 6,000 yards in his career. He won the Heisman and led the Panthers to the national championship. For Dallas, Dorsett could well mean victory in the Super Bowl.
September 18, 1977
Dorsett seems typecast for the hero's role. He is handsome and affable, quiet but articulate. At the Cowboy training camp in Thousand Oaks, Calif. he unhesitatingly sacrificed his spare time to a demanding press. In the humble manner of the storybook all-American boy, he lavished attention on the children who hounded him for autographs. At times, though, he seemed incapable of performing his assigned part as the Cowboys' shining knight. Indeed, there were moments when the Dorsett story looked like a downer—a tale of disappointment, of questionable dedication and durability.
Dorsett himself occasionally seemed depressed. Sitting at breakfast one morning in the fifth week of training camp, he suddenly and without prompting voiced his frustration. "I'm not accustomed to being second, third or fourth," he said. "Here I'm playing behind all the vets. It's disappointing. What can you do in training camp? You can't show anything on the practice field. You have to wait for the preseason." Pointedly, he massaged the bruised left knee that had limited his playing time in Dallas' opening exhibition and would make him a spectator for the second. Then he added disconsolately, "I haven't done anything to deserve to move up."
In fact, Dorsett did plenty to deserve to move down. His misadventures started shortly before training camp when he made headlines for the first time in his pro career Trouble was, he did his scrimmaging not on a football field but in a Dallas disco. Two charges of simple assault were filed against Dorsett, one by a bartender, the other by a barmaid. When Dorsett arrived in camp, one of his new teammates greeted him as "Ali Jr." On the second day of practice he was detected dogging it during a drill and had to run a penalty lap. The first night the players did not have meetings Dorsett missed curfew, offering the lame excuse of a traffic jam. He was roundly hoorahed by his fellow rookies for lack of originality, and Coach Tom Landry fined him $87.50—half the standard levy because the Cowboys' full squad still had not reported. "With his bankroll, he can afford it," said rookie Placekicker Leonard Allen.
Then, on the second carry of his first intersquad scrimmage against the San Diego Chargers, Dorsett hurt his knee. He is small by NFL standards—standing just a fraction over 5'10" and weighing only 188 pounds—and his durability was the sole concern of the Cowboys when they drafted him. For a moment the Cowboys and their prize rookie held their breaths. "A lot of pain shot up in my leg," said Dorsett. "I thought it was serious enough to take me to the table." The injury was not serious, but it limited Dorsett's practice and playing time for four weeks. After the scrimmage Landry noted cheerlessly, "Dorsett's going to be a great back...if he can stay healthy. You've got to stay healthy. That's what the NFL is all about."
Dorsett's life as a Texas millionaire got off to an agreeable start. Shortly after the draft he signed a five-year, $1.1 million contract package with the Cowboys, and while No. 1 draft choice Ricky Bell managed to pry $1.2 million from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dorsett is not complaining. As part of his contract, Dorsett received a stupendous bonus from the Cowboys—reportedly $600,000—and the payments have been spread out in such a way that he will still be receiving bonus money in 1996.
Anticipating the lucrative contract, Dorsett bought a dove-gray Continental with "TD" in ornate burgundy script near the handle of each door. Then he bought a motorcycle. "For gas economy," he says. "I've always been good with money," Dorsett told Mary Elson of the Dallas Times Herald. "No matter how much I've had, I've never gone out and thrown it around. And I'm not throwing it around now. But I'm getting so many things I've always wanted." He picked out an $80,000 house for his parents in Aliquippa, Pa. and rented a posh apartment for himself in Dallas. He also has talked about building a mansion with tennis courts, a swimming pool and a few horses on a couple of acres in Dallas. "I don't think I need anything else," he said.
But then came Thousand Oaks. Life at the Cowboy training camp had all the charm of basic training, and Dorsett did not receive any preferential treatment. He flew coach from Dallas to California, not first class, and at the Los Angeles airport he had to wait 45 minutes until the Cowboys had collected enough rookies to fill a bus for the hour trip to the training site at California Lutheran College. The Cowboys make room assignments for rookies on an alphabetical basis, and Dorsett shared a three-room suite with James Cross, Steve Deberg, Dennis Dedrick and Anthony Evans. Beds were chosen on a first-come, first-served basis, and Dorsett, the last to arrive, got the worst location—alone, in the front room, with all the traffic passing by. His room was bare except for a cot.
Like his teammates, Dorsett was awakened at seven each morning, went to a mandatory breakfast, practiced, went to a mandatory lunch, practiced, went to a mandatory dinner and, finally, attended meetings that lasted too late for him to do much of anything before the 11 p.m. curfew. Whatever free time he had each day was spent answering the same questions he had answered the day before. Invariably, Dorsett was the last Cowboy to arrive at the dining hall for lunch and dinner. Dorsett's trademark in camp was a hat. He had several: a Thousand Oaks All-Star baseball cap given him by Rudy Aguilar, a 12-year-old local boy whom Dorsett had befriended; a baby-blue Budweiser baseball cap he picked up on a visit to a local liquor, store; and his favorite, a yellow visor with a hawk stenciled on the bill. "Hawk" has been Dorsett's nickname since childhood. Originally it was "Hawkeye," for his big eyes.
On the practice field Dorsett always seemed to be suffering. No player likes two-a-days, but Dorsett, probably because he felt like a secure millionaire, was the only rookie who didn't bother to hide his feelings. "I've never been a gung-ho type," he said. "If I'm on the field I work hard, and if I get tired you know it because I complain." During laps at the end of practice Dorsett would grumble audibly. "I'm no marathon man," he muttered one day. His gait for these runs, all of which were done at a defensive lineman's pace, was a sort of stiff shuffle, as if the day's work had left him painfully sore.
At the weight-lifting sessions which usually followed the laps, Dorsett would moan, groan and roll his eyes. Over dinner the second day Dorsett said he had already lifted more weights as a Cowboy than he had in his entire life. "I'm too tired to do anything but drink liquids," he announced. "The only thing I can move is my eyes." When Aguilar told Dorsett, "You look tired, you look sore, you move so slow," TD smiled at the accuracy of the observation. "Well, you got to move slow," he said. "There's an energy crisis, you know."
Nor was Dorsett enamored of the isolation of the Cowboys' training site, which seemed 18 light-years—not 18 miles—removed from the delights of Malibu. "I didn't expect training camp to be this far out in the boonies," he said. "This is no-man's-land. That's the way it was in college, too, but there we spent only two weeks in camp. Here it's six." At the end of the first full week Landry gave the rookies a free day on Sunday. Dorsett planned to play beach bum at Zuma Beach with some of the other rookies, but he overslept and missed the bus. So he slept in all day instead.
Dorsett's mood brightened only when the landscape was dotted with females. Approaching a pretty girl on the sidelines one day, Dorsett asked, "Can I have your autograph?" Questioned about his serious demeanor throughout the trip to Dallas for the first preseason game, Dorsett replied, "I don't usually do a lot of smiling unless I see some beautiful young ladies." Had he seen any? "No. I wish I had. It might have been a little easier out there." If that is the case, the Cowboys would be wise to have their cheerleaders face the field—and not the stands—during the Dorsett years.
Dorsett's presence at Thousand Oaks was a daily media event on the scale of a Presidential press conference. Dallas officials arranged a mass interview session for Dorsett on his first camp day, hoping that they could eliminate the media blitz in one big swoop. But Dorsett proved so engaging, so quotable and seemed so at ease with the press that the requests for interviews doubled almost daily.
What did he think would be a successful season? "One thousand yards would be successful, but if I'm out there starting the opening game. I'm hoping to surpass 1,500 yards. O.J. and Walter Payton, they're going to have a little competition." Did he feel the barroom incident in Dallas had hurt his image? "In that incident I just had to protect myself. The people that know me know I'm a nice guy." Then he smiled before continuing, "Don't I look like a nice guy?" Was his contract filled with incentive clauses? "Incentive clauses are in every pro contract. Mine is no different." Clearly Dorsett was a man who had met—and mastered—the press before. When he had answered everything imaginable, Dorsett politely asked, "Is that all?"
After his first press conference, Dorsett had an EKG exam. His heart registered 100 beats per minute, a rate that reflected his nervous state. "I'm still a little shy in interviews," Dorsett said, "but football has helped me break out of my shell. I realized long ago that if I was going to continue to have success on the field, I'd have to be successful off the field, too. Otherwise people would say I was just dumb. If you're good with the press, they write good things about you." He paused for a moment. "Sometimes I sort of regret being who I am. I enjoy being who I am...but sometimes it hurts. I'm constantly watched, and I have to act. I can't be myself. Sometimes I wish I weren't Tony Dorsett."
Dorsett's every move on the practice field was covered in elaborate detail, as if the nation was waiting for him to perform a miracle during calisthenics or handoff drills. Still cameras clicked constantly. One day, after Dorsett had lifted his last weight, he leaned on the barbell, sweat pouring off his face, and told a photographer good-naturedly, "All right. I'm done posing." Joked Backfield Coach Dan Reeves, a good Cowboy running back in the late '60s, "I want to renegotiate. I just want the money they spend taking pictures of him."
Following TD's first play in a Cowboy practice, Dallas President-General Manager Tex Schramm flashed a pontifical smile. "Let the record show," he intoned, "that on Tony Dorsett's first play as a Cowboy, he blocked." Dorsett blocked on the next five plays, too, prompting a Dallas newspaperman to demand of Schramm, "How do you explain paying $1 million for a blocking back?" In the second workout that day Landry surveyed the other 66 players on the practice field and singled out Dorsett for his blocking technique—or lack of it. "DorSETT," Landry bellowed through a bullhorn from a distant scaffold, immediately settling the issue of the proper pronunciation of the rookie's name, "Get your head up. Look him right in the numbers."
When Quarterback Roger Staubach arrived, he professed a greater interest in Dorsett's hands than in his feet. "I'm anxious to see him catch the ball," he said. "The halfback is a key element in a passing game. Tony could really help us there, particularly with short passes on first down. It really helps your offense if you can get five yards on first down. One of my problems last year was that I didn't have enough confidence in throwing to my halfbacks."
Dorsett pleased Staubach and the coaching staff with his pass-catching ability and other unexpected football talents. In one scrimmage he suddenly pulled up and completed a long, perfectly thrown pass for a 63-yard gain. Assessing his new responsibilities, Dorsett said, "I blocked at Pitt, but in one week here I've done more blocking than I did in my whole career at Pitt. I never threw the ball in college, and did it only once in high school. I almost got the receiver killed. It was one of those straight-up jobs."
Still, it was Dorsett's running that turned the heads of the Cowboys' coaches. "I saw his ability when he was running routes against linebackers on the first day he worked out down in Dallas, about six weeks before training camp," said Reeves. "He was getting open without using fakes. He would just accelerate away from them. He was a blur against the linebackers. I had never seen anyone turn it on like that. I've never been on a team with or coached a back with Dorsett's speed—4.45 for the 40. That's flying."
There is an unmistakable style to Dorsett's running, a trademark grace that will make him distinctive among NFL backs. His motions are fluid, so fluid that it looks as though he could balance a bowl of soup on his head while moving with the ball. Reeves marveled at Dorsett's ability to cut at full speed. "Very few players have ever had the skill and balance to change direction without loss of speed—only O. J. Simpson, Gale Sayers and maybe one or two others, and even Sayers cut kind of jerky. Tony does it so smoothly." Like Simpson, Dorsett runs better to his right. And in the open field he still holds the ball out like the proverbial loaf of bread, a habit that turns Landry's face white. Dorsett's most dazzling move in camp was his routine 360-degree, full-speed-ahead spin. "I see a guy, and if I can spin on him, I spin," says Dorsett. "If you do it wrong, you get hit dead center in the back."
While Landry says he is not redesigning the Cowboy offense to fit Dorsett's talents, he doesn't intend to misuse TD the way O.J. was mishandled in his first few years at Buffalo; the Bills sort of ignored O.J. the runner and relied on their passing attack—with disastrous results. Landry simply believes that the plays in the Cowboy book will work for Dorsett. "If you have a top back, the theory is to give him the ball," says Landry. "I've built my offense around 1,000-yard runners before. I built it around Duane Thomas and Calvin Hill."
Dorsett's official Dallas debut in the exhibition opener against San Diego was almost another misadventure. He was nearly a no-show. Playing cards with friends at his apartment, he let the time slip away and left for the game much later than he had intended. Encountering the standard traffic jam around Texas Stadium, Dorsett began to think, "Oh, no. Here we go again." Panicking, he used side roads, cut across parking lots, did anything he could to get closer to the stadium. Then, turning over the wheel to one of his passengers, Dorsett ran the rest of the way. He entered through the band's gate and climbed down through the stands. Before a bewildered group of early-arriving fans who didn't realize they were witnessing TD Dorsett's premiere as a Cowboy, he sprinted the length of the playing field to the locker room. Playing it cool, he pulled up short, gathered his breath and sauntered in almost as if nothing were amiss. He was five minutes late. No one said a thing. And Landry did not fine him.
Moments before the opening kickoff the Cowboy scoreboard listed Dallas' three leading rushers for 1976:
Doug Dennison 542 yards
Robert Newhouse 450 yards
Scott Laidlaw 424 yards
Dorsett didn't enter the game until the start of the second half. By then the Cowboys already had a comfortable 21-0 lead, but the cheer that arose when he jogged onto the field made it clear that the crowd of 59,504 had not yet seen what it had come to see. Landry wasted no time appeasing the multitude. He had Quarterback Danny White run a "Toss 49 Fullback Lead," a maneuver that called for a pitchout to Dorsett going to the right. Number 33 took the ball on the run, and at first it appeared he would be unable to get around the corner. Then he accelerated. He outran the Charger defenders along the line and turned cleanly upfield. Angling defensive backs quickly ran him out of bounds, but Dorsett's spurt had gained eight yards. From the stands came whoops of appreciation. The Dallas Cowboys had an outside running game.
Down on the sidelines Cowboy Personnel Director Gil Brandt watched expressionlessly. The Dallas rookies are his charge. If they are successful, he is successful. If they fail, he fails. In Brandt's 18 years with Dallas, the Cowboys had never touted a college prospect as highly as they had Dorsett. Now, in just one run, his first run, Dorsett had demonstrated why he could be so valuable to the Cowboys, and everyone along the bench seemed excited. Safety Cliff Harris walked up to Brandt and kidded, "Well, you can smile now."
In Dallas' next series Dorsett took a swing pass and sped 15 yards, bringing the crowd to its feet again. Then, on a handoff to the right, he made his full spin, avoiding a befuddled Charger defender, and picked up 11 more yards. A few plays later White hit Drew Pearson with a short pass for a touchdown. With Dorsett in the backfield the Cowboys had moved 50 yards to a touchdown in 10 plays, their first sustained drive of 1977.
Now all the Cowboys were smiling. Dorsett sat out the next game, nursing his slight knee injury, played only briefly against Miami, and then started Dallas' fourth game against the Baltimore Colts. Playing less than three quarters, he led all rushers with 99 yards. Even Landry, who has tried to treat Dorsett like "any other rookie," was impressed. "Dorsett had a great game, no question about that," said the coach. "He has great acceleration. If he keeps playing like that, it would be difficult to keep him out of the lineup." In the Cowboys' last two exhibitions Dorsett carried a total of only 17 times, and gained just 43 yards. Still, for his five games he averaged 4.2 yards a carry, and his 187 yards topped all Dallas rushers by almost 50 yards.
Hello, Super Bowl.
"Beat Oakland" is the name of the game as the NFL's 28 teams open the 14-week regular season leading to the playoffs and Super Bowl XII. Turn the page for scouting reports as filed by Robert F. Jones, Joe Marshall, Ron Reid and Daphne Hurford.