Here's what Curtis Dickey has seen in his life: for his first 18 years there was dirt poverty, as he grew up with his five brothers in the poor, black section of Bryan, Texas. His father died when he was 19. His mother "worked all along." He was an introverted youngster, whose shyness was made more acute by a slight speech impediment, but he was big and strong and fast and smart at football, and there was no defiance in his eyes. So it was inevitable that one day he would be in great demand by college football recruiters. They offered Dickey all the things recruiters offer big and strong and fast and compliant high school running backs, especially the ones rich in all those prized qualities. Dickey was considered the No. 1 high school prospect in the country in 1976. But he was a hometown boy, and his hometown had treated him well, so he turned away all the recruiters from far-off, glamorous schools. He wasn't even curious enough to accept invitations to visit such places as USC, or perhaps he didn't feel secure about venturing outside of Bryan.
Dickey enrolled at Texas A&M, the Hometown U. five miles from where he had grown up. No sooner had he enrolled than he became the star at a school so crazy about football that 26,000 of the 31,000 students buy season tickets. In his freshman year only 100 of those students were, like Dickey, black, and a fair number of them were athletes on scholarship, a situation that did little to alleviate Dickey's social insularity. But that didn't matter too much, because his life was centered around football anyhow—except for those few times when he joined the track team as a sprinter. He was a natural at that, too; he won the NCAA indoor sprint title this year and last and finished second in the 100 at the 1978 outdoor championships. He was working toward a diploma in physical education—though he will leave A&M next spring a few credit hours shy of earning his degree, not an unusual occurrence among pressed-for-time college football players—and he was well liked and he had nice clothes and a nice car and a little gold necklace that said SUPERSTAR. And a couple of close friends, other black football players. All he had to do to keep all those good things was to do what he was told, which he did very well.
So after 18 years of a boyhood narrowed by poverty and after nearly four years of a young adulthood sheltered in the college football system, Dickey became the second-best career rusher in Southwest Conference history (3,658 yards). Only Texas' Earl Campbell, to whom Dickey is often likened, had more (4,443). And Dickey accomplished this despite carrying the ball considerably fewer times than Campbell did. His number of rushes has been curtailed by persistent injuries, though he often played when hurt, which pleased his coaches and demonstrated once more how much character he has.
In a few months Dickey may be training to sprint in the Olympics. Then again, he may not. In April he will be drafted by the NFL; and he'll be picked early—probably first among the runners—because he is big and strong and fast and smart about football and has character. And it figures that Dickey will get along fine in the world of pro football, where there will always be someone to give him the direction he takes so well. He will make a lot of money and contribute to the success of a pro franchise.
November 19, 1979
But then, but then, Dickey might get injured, maybe slightly a lot of times or severely one time. That would make people lose interest in directing him. He'd find himself in the real world for the first time since his football talent was spotted. He'd find himself pedaling fast, maybe not even in a straight line, because self-direction would be fairly new to him. If he is as naturally street-smart as he is football-smart, everything would work out all right. But if he isn't....
Merrill Green, Dickey's high school coach, has watched him as long and as closely as anyone. "When he was a sophomore—this is how brilliant we were—we didn't put Curtis on the varsity at first because we didn't think he wanted to play," says Green, who at one time or another also coached coaches Barry Switzer of Oklahoma, Fred Akers of Texas and Tom Wilson, Dickey's mentor at A&M. "He was so introverted we thought he was indifferent. He didn't seem to care. He certainly didn't jump out at you. But then one night he gained more than 300 yards in a junior varsity game, which kind of woke us up.
"Soon we realized that not only could he run with a natural ability, but also that he had a natural sense for football and was very smart about plays and things. And all the time he was here he did everything we asked him. Everything. Sometimes when you have that super an athlete, you have a tiger by the tail attitude-wise. But Curtis did all we asked him and more, almost to a fault. He seemed to miss some of the outside world. I wouldn't say he was socially backward but I think his awareness of the outside world could have been developed more. If he only knew how great he really is, there's no telling what he could become."
Dickey is much less introverted today than he used to be, people say, and in fact doesn't really seem shy. The quietness he affects because of his stutter tends to mislead, to make him seem more timid than he is. He is quick to laugh—a high-pitched cackle that appears incongruous coming from his muscular 6'1", 205-pound body—and he's relaxed around people. He was elected one of A&M's four captains by his teammates. Wilson, his coach, sees leadership qualities in him. "As a captain, I have to be a leader," says Dickey. "In case the team be dyin', I have to go around, hit them on the head, be jokin' with them."
Unexpectedly, the Aggies have been dying quite a lot this year, and it has been a disappointing season for Dickey as well. He was considered Heisman material before the season started, but injuries have all but eliminated him as a candidate. Texas A&M was considered a threat for the Southwest Conference title, but the Aggies are 4-4 so far, with Arkansas and Texas remaining on the schedule. They have not been playing poorly—they clobbered Penn State 27-14 in their best showing so far—but untimely mistakes have cost them dearly: a one-point loss to undefeated and 11th-ranked Brigham Young when an A&M punt was blocked in the last minute and BYU took advantage of the break to score a touchdown and a two-point conversion; another one-point loss, to Texas Tech, when a blocked punt led to a field goal; and a tough defeat at the hands of then unbeaten and sixth-ranked Houston on a touchdown with 15 seconds remaining.
The A&M offense is designed around Dickey, its tailback. When he took over midway through the 1978 season, Wilson immediately junked the Aggies' wishbone in favor of the I formation to take advantage of Dickey's running. And Dickey has taken advantage of the I, rushing for 808 yards in 161 carries this year despite his injuries. The pro scouts remain very hot for him, Heisman or no, infirmities or no.
"Curtis is the kind of player who makes your eyes light up every time he touches the football," says George Haffner, the A&M offensive coordinator. Haffner coached Tony Dorsett at Pitt, so he knows whereof he speaks. "He has the same type of speed or better than Dorsett has. Curtis isn't as evasive as Tony, but he's in a class by himself in his explosiveness. And when the pro scouts ask about Curtis—which is often—I tell them he's got stuff inside of him, too. I think he's a winner."
"I don't have any doubt Dickey will be drafted in the first round," says Gil Brandt, vice-president of personnel development for the NFL Cowboys. "I feel he will be the first back taken—and that includes [Billy] Sims and the bunch. You don't find big, strong running backs as smart as Dickey every day of the week. There are no negatives...outside of the fact that he may not play when he's slightly injured." Here Brandt lowers his voice ominously, as if the general subject is somehow unspeakable.
"That's the one question pro scouts ask most about him," says Wilson. "It's evident they are concerned about it. But even with his injuries, Curtis has managed to play well. He has proven this year that he can play with a little pain."
The question of a little pain is not a little question. This season alone, a little pain to Dickey has meant: a bruised shoulder before the season even began, which caused him to miss two weeks of practice; a lower back bruise in the Aggies' opener, the result of a butting tackle, which slowed him for the next game at Baylor; a dislocated thumb against Memphis State, which limited him to five carries against Texas Tech the following week; a twisted back sustained in a wrestling class in the week before the Rice game; and another bash to the back in A&M's otherwise easy 47-14 win over SMU the next week, which caused him to spend most of the game on the sidelines. In all, Dickey has missed seven quarters of action and played at less than full effectiveness in a lot of others. The consensus is, however, that he gets injured no more than any hard-running back. Still....
There is a locker-room scene in the movie North Dallas Forty in which a coach accuses a flanker of lacking character, because he is reluctant to take a shot to numb the pain of a pulled hamstring—which would enable him to play. "You can't make it in this league if you don't know the difference between pain and injury!" the coach screams at the player. Dickey didn't particularly care for the movie. Yet he didn't doubt the truth of the situation—that pro football has a narrow definition of injury.
"It happens to everybody," says Dickey, sounding a little bit nervous and a little bit defensive. "Even the pros have injuries, you know. It just happens. They're unpredictable." It is suggested to him that he has had more than his share. "Well, maybe when you're a cannonball like me, it happens more. I try to go around them, but I can't always."
Injuries aren't the only thing Dickey thinks about when he weighs his future. There are the Olympics. Dickey is the fastest man in college football, having run 60 yards in 6.15 seconds, which is what Haffner refers to when he says there is no one in Dickey's class when it comes to explosiveness. His best 100-meter time is 10.11, which he attained in finishing second to Clancy Edwards in the NCAA outdoor finals. That clocking is about one-tenth of a second off gold-medal time, and Dickey's track coaches are confident he has that tenth in him. They say that he has never trained as a sprinter, that track has always taken a backseat to football, that each year he goes directly from spring football practice into the middle of the track season, that he has always been a sprinter with a football player's muscles. In the spring of 1978, they point out with incredulity, Dickey played a full scrimmage on a Friday, gaining over 100 yards, and on Saturday won the 100-meter dash in the Texas Relays. This coming spring Dickey hopes to be able to devote his full attention to track, because his college football career will have ended.
"Being in football shape and being in track shape are two different things," he says. "Last spring I got some pulled muscles from trying to get in track shape too fast. Those other sprinters, they run track all year round. Ain't no way I'll beat them. I remember last year when I ran the 100-yard dash I was tired at the finish—dead tired, breathing hard. Those other guys acted as if they'd never run. I know I could get in that kind of shape if I had to. I feel like with time to train I could hang in there with the best of them.
"I really would like to try for the Olympics," he adds softly and about as passionately as he seems to get about anything. "It's one of those once-in-a-lifetime things. I look forward to it." He stops and thinks for a second, as if he had just convinced himself to go for it. "Yeah," he says with quiet conviction, nodding his head. "Yeah."
Dickey opens the fortune cookie on the table of the restaurant where he has just finished dinner. It is a Japanese steak house in Bryan, and Dickey has never been there before. The fortune cookie says, "You will always get what you want through your charm and personality." Dickey smiles. He crumples the tiny ribbon of paper in his big hands and puts it in an ashtray, but then retrieves it and sticks it in his shirt pocket. "I better hold on to this," he says with a smile.
One hopes for Dickey's—and America's—sake that the fortune cookie's prophecy comes true. It would be nice if he could charm whatever pro team that drafts him into letting him give the Olympics his best shot. It would mean delaying all contract-signing and reporting to football practice late and not in running-back shape; it would also mean risking a hamstring or some other injury. Dickey will represent a major financial investment for a pro team, and if it is a losing team—a strong possibility because he will be selected so early in the draft—he may mean a lot more to it than his salary.
When he is asked if the Olympics are important enough to him that he would take a stand over them, would announce to his pro coaches that he intends to try to make the Olympic team with or without their approval, Dickey hesitates. He just doesn't know, he says. He's never thought about it. The thought of doing what he wants to do, against the wishes of his coaches, is foreign to him. But imagine this scenario, which is not all that far-fetched: Dickey gels drafted and it is made clear to him the team values him more as a healthy running back than as a gold medalist. Dickey proves his character to the team by doing what it wants him to do. But he gets injured in his first-season and never develops into the rugged rusher he's expected lo become. Whatever he does from that day on he will do without the memory of that "once-in-a-lifetime thing," representing his country, his hometown—which means so much lo him—in the Olympics.
"The NFL is very image-conscious," says Brandt. "I really don't think any team would risk bad publicity by refusing Curtis the chance to run in the Olympics."
True, but it is unlikely that the matter will ever become the subject of public debate. If his team doesn't want Dickey to run, it would be suggested quietly to him that he lose interest in the Olympics. And Dickey takes direction well.
"I think anybody who's got a talent like Curtis does should make the most of it," says Wilson. "I'd like lo see him run in the Olympics. Anyone who's seen him run would like to see him do it."
Wilson is asked: If you were the coach of, say, the Cowboys and had just drafted Dickey, would you allow him to run in the Olympics? He laughs. "Probably not," he replies. "That's a different thing altogether."
At this moment, more than Dickey's body is vulnerable. So is his future. He has never really had to determine it for himself; that has been done for him by men who have been fond of him and meant him well, but who had neither the time nor the background lo fully prepare Dickey to make the decisions he has ahead of him. There will be similar men in the pros, but the stakes will be very much higher than ever before. The real world will be another step closer.