The defense must make Vince Lombardi turn over in his grave, and the Packer sweep doesn't bowl anyone over anymore, but in Green Bay they're getting ready to break out THE PACK IS BACK bumper stickers again. The reason? Simple. In this Age of Airball the Packers have the jazziest passing game in the NFC. Green Bay finished the strike-shortened '82 season with the best record (5-3-1) among NFC Central teams, and after Sunday's 27—24 win over the Los Angeles Rams, the Packers are 2-1 and flying high again.
In James Lofton, John Jefferson and Paul Coffman, Green Bay has the best trio of receivers in the NFC. But the unlikely hero of the Pack's air attack is Lynn Dickey, a 33-year-old, immobile, oft-injured but strong-armed quarterback. Dickey didn't play a full season as a starter until 1980, his 10th year in the NFL, but now he's leading the league in passing. Through Sunday's game he had completed 63 of 87 passes—72.4%—for 911 yards and nine touchdowns. Dickey is also the career leader among quarterbacks in the category of gruesome injuries and ailments, and despite his brilliant start this season, 1983 has proved no exception in that regard.
Dickey's ills this year began when he got a headache on the Thursday before Green Bay's opener against Houston. No problem. Pain is Dickey's constant companion, the lapdog given to him at the start of his pro career. Without doubt, Dickey has been spindled, torn, battered, injected, cut, sutured, rehabbed, written off and resurrected more times than any other man still playing the game. His injuries have left him with a reputation as one tough hombre, a genuine stoic, a man who would battle Godzilla—and win—to stay at the job he loves.
The headache kept getting worse. On Friday, Dickey had to leave practice and go home because of the pain. Nobody doubted that this was real pain. Dickey, after all, had played part of the 1979 season with an 18-inch steel rod holding his lower left leg together and never complained. Nor did anyone assume that the cause of this headache, which couldn't be traced to fever or trauma, would be simple to pin down. "Lynn never has anything you can handle real easily," says Domenic Gentile, a Packer trainer for 22 years. "In the training room now, if a player comes in and has an injury we can't do anything about, we call it an L.D., a Lynn Dickey."
There was talk that Dickey might have to sit out the Houston game, which also would have been no surprise. In his NFL career he has missed 53 games because of injury. It wasn't always like this. Indeed, Dickey's early years back in Osawatomie, Kans. (pop. 4,500) were tranquil and relatively pain-free. "Lynn spent his time throwing things and playing games," says his father, Carl, a retired railroadman for the Missouri-Pacific. "He didn't know what an injury was." Dickey didn't miss a game in high school, and at Kansas State he was unavailable just once, because of bruised ribs. His notions of physical hardship and limitation came from observing his older brother Larry, who was crippled by polio at age six.
Things began to change for Dickey when he arrived at the 1971 Senior Bowl. Fired up by all the gawking pro scouts, Dickey threw too hard too fast in the game after not warming up sufficiently, and his arm got sore. "I could almost hear the scouts mumbling," says Dickey, a slow-talking, self-effacing type. "I'd been told I'd be a first-round pick, but I figured I was dropping a few notches."
He figured right. He wasn't drafted until the third round, by Houston, which had already taken Quarterback Dan Pastorini in the first round. Dickey rode the bench behind Pastorini that first year, but in 1972 he figured he had a shot at the starting job. Then came a preseason game against St. Louis at the Astrodome.
With his receivers covered, Dickey tried to scramble but was grabbed from behind by a Cardinal defender, who rode him to the artificial turf piggyback style. Dickey's left knee struck the ground with such force that it jammed his left hipbone out of its socket, breaking off a piece of the socket bone and tearing ligaments in the process.
The Oilers' doctor snapped Dickey's hip back into its socket, and Dickey felt so relieved he tried to stand up so he could go back to the huddle. The doctor kept him down. Indeed, the injury was so severe that it didn't even resemble a sports injury; it was like the kind of joint damage associated with a high-speed, head-on auto collision, a "dashboard injury," as it's called in emergency rooms.
The next day Dickey was flown to Boston to undergo surgery by a hip specialist. The broken piece of socket bone was reattached with two screws. "I think it was the worst nerve injury I've ever seen," says Dr. Robert Fain, the Houston team physician who became associated with the Oilers at the time of Dickey's rehabilitation. Dickey had to get injections in his back for several weeks to give him nerve blocks for the unremitting pain. He remembers getting a shot of morphine one night and passing out, then waking up and crying himself back to sleep. One morning he had no feeling in his left leg. A doctor came in his room with a pin and an ink marker and began jabbing Dickey in the leg, making marks where he had no feeling. The doctor said that he would return in an hour and that, if the numbness hadn't subsided he would be forced to reopen the 13-inch incision on Dickey's hip. Dickey asked if he could get his leg out of traction for a while. The doctor removed it from traction and left, and Dickey started beating fiercely on his leg. Eventually some feeling came back, and Dickey was able to avoid another session with the knife. The pain was still severe a month later when Dickey left the Boston hospital to begin learning to walk again.
Dickey is 6'4" and normally weighs between 200 and 210 pounds. But when he returned to Houston, he weighed just 170. "It was scary," Pastorini recalls. "He was skin and bones. Plus he was on pain drugs and was sort of out of it. You wondered if he'd hurt his hip or his brain."
Dickey fought through the fog and, with the help of Oiler Quarterback Coach King Hill, began his comeback. He went from a wheelchair to crutches to a cane, and then around New Year's 1973 he walked unassisted. When he finally shuffled around a football field a short while later, he called home immediately. "Guess what?" he said to his parents. "I just jogged."
Dickey made the Oilers' roster again the next fall, astonishing everyone. But he could never supplant Pastorini, and after the '75 season he was traded to Green Bay. He started for the Packers in '76, but in the 10th game he separated his right—throwing—shoulder and underwent surgery in which a screw was implanted in the joint. The operation itself was routine, but the incision became infected. Dickey recovered during the offseason and was doing well the next year until Ram Defensive Tackle Larry Brooks crashed into him on the last play of a game on Nov. 13.
Brooks's hit shattered the tibia and fibula in Dickey's left leg, and as Dickey lay on the sod, his left ankle pointed in at a 90-degree angle. Doctors operated, screwing a metal plate to the broken bones to secure them while they knitted. After several months the plate was removed, and Dickey tried to run again. He worked up to a mile a day, but the pain in his leg never slackened. There was nonunion of the bones. In effect, the leg was still broken.
Dickey had to undergo yet another operation, one in which a metal rod was hammered like a railroad spike down through an opening just below his knee and into his tibia. The rod strengthened the bone, but it left Dickey with such acute tendinitis in his knee that he could barely jog.
"I remember seeing him when he was in a lot of pain sitting alone in the whirlpool," says Gentile. "He'd be tapping the sides with his fingers, and you could tell he was thinking about quitting."
Dickey went so far as to interview for a job as a sporting-goods sales rep, but he quickly dropped the idea. After missing all but a few plays of 33 consecutive games, he hobbled back into the Packers' starting lineup in November of 1979.
In 1980 the rod was removed from Dickey's leg—it was his seventh operation—and the tendinitis in his knee cleared up. Since then Dickey's injuries have been less severe, if not less painful. In 1980 he had tendinitis in his right shoulder, which at times prevented him from throwing in practice; in 1981 he missed three games after getting speared in the back; this summer his back acted up, and then came that headache the week of the Houston game.
Dickey doesn't talk about his pains much. A couple of years ago he told a reporter, "If no one ever talked to me, it wouldn't bother me a bit." He likes to spend his free time with his family—wife Sherry and three daughters, ages nine, seven and three. When he goes out with the boys, he'll sit back and swap tales, referring to himself occasionally as "this pitiful specimen."
"I don't know how important it is to like the people you work with," says Lofton. "But we all like Lynn."
And not just for his courage and calm. "He's got this intensity on the field," says Packer Tackle Greg Koch. "I remember a game against the 49ers when he got sacked and he was screaming at the offensive line all the way to the sideline. All of a sudden I heard a helmet go whizzing over my head. Lynn had thrown it at all of us. Most quarterbacks couldn't get away with that, but Lynn can. We live and die with him."
By kickoff time of the opener against the Oilers, Dickey felt like he was going to die of his headache. He hadn't practiced on Saturday, and Sunday morning he had told his roommate, Kicker Jan Stenerud, that it felt like "ball peen hammers are pounding behind my temples." Stenerud was worried. "Lynn is the toughest guy I know," he says. "But he looked like death."
During pregame warm-ups Dickey just jogged, grimacing with every step. Though his head was killing him, he decided to play. Before the game got under way, however, he told his receivers and backs to listen closely to him on the field, particularly on audibles, because he would not be able to yell. Doing so hurt too much.
At the end of the first quarter, despite continually grabbing his head in pain, Dickey was 10 for 10 for 90 yards and a touchdown. By late in the second quarter he had completed 18 passes in a row, tying him with Denver's Steve DeBerg for second place in NFL history for consecutive pass completions. The record is 20, by Cincinnati's Ken Anderson. Dickey's 19th pass fell incomplete, however, as did his 20th. Both probably would have been completed if the receivers had heard Dickey's faint audibles or been able to read his lips.
Dickey finished the day with 27 completions in 31 attempts for 333 yards and five touchdowns, the last figure tying a Packer record. The Packers edged Houston 41-38 in overtime, but Dickey wasn't around at the finish. After his last pass, a 74-yard TD throw to Lofton late in the fourth quarter, he staggered to the sideline, told backup Quarterback David Whitehurst "I don't feel good," and lay down. An ambulance cart took him to the Astrodome dressing room.
Dickey spent that Monday in a Green Bay hospital taking tests to find out what was wrong with him. The headache turned out to be the result of a spinal injection he had been given the week before for his bad back. Spinal fluid had been leaking from the puncture into the tissues surrounding the spine. What Dickey had done was play a brilliant football game while suffering from a post-spinal-puncture headache, which can be horribly painful. Dickey, of course, had feared something worse. "With my luck," he said, "I figured they'd find a baseball in my head."
The headache is gone now. On Sunday against the Rams, Dickey had a hot hand in the early going, completing 13 of his 19 first-half passes for 161 yards as he moved Green Bay to a 17-3 lead. L.A. eventually got rolling against the Packers' patchwork defense, however, and by the fourth quarter the Rams had gone ahead 24-17. The Packers tied the score on a four-yard run by Eddie Lee Ivery early in the final period after Dickey had marched them 65 yards, 59 of them on 4 for 4 passing. The Rams had a chance to regain the lead in the final minutes when Kicker Chuck Nelson lined up for a chip shot field-goal try but the Packers' 6'5" Tight End Gary Lewis leaped high to block it. L.A. subsequently forced Green Bay to punt but on the following play Ram rookie Running Back Eric Dicker-son's fumble was recovered at Los Angeles' 19-yard line with 33 seconds left to play. Stenerud then drilled a 36-yard field goal to win it for Green Bay.
For Dickey, the question of pain remains, as it always will. Gentile says Dickey will have to lift weights the rest of his life to compensate for his injuries. Packer Coach Bart Starr says Dickey is a throwback to the old days, when players lived by a tougher code. "We don't want anybody to play injured," says Starr. "But play hurt, yes, you have to."
Dickey, who keeps his souvenir surgical rod and screws in a hardware drawer in his house, says he has kept playing for several reasons. Part of it, of course, is for his brother. "Larry loves sports, and I was always his arms and legs," says Dickey. And part of it is for the glory and the cash. But most of it is just because it feels right.
And the pain?
"You've just got to roll with it," he says. "After a while, who cares?"