Running is so natural to me. When I was running track, people used to ask me, 'When are you gonna start running hard?' The wind hits me in the face, and I feel so smooooooth.... Man, I love to run!
On Eric Dickerson's first day in a Los Angeles Rams uniform, at a preseason minicamp in the spring of 1983, head coach John Robinson sensed for the first time the singular gift of the man around whom he sought to build his offense.
Of course, Robinson had known of Dickerson for years, since he had first seen his filmed exploits as a star running back at Sealy High in Sealy, Texas (pop. 4,418), which is about 50 miles due west of Houston. At the time Robinson was the head football coach at the University of Southern California and was recruiting Dickerson to play there. "He was a sensational high school player," Robinson says. "One of two or three great players in the country that year." In fact, Robinson dropped by to see Dickerson during his senior year at Sealy, meeting him in the office of Ralph Harris, the football coach and athletic director. Dickerson made the meeting as brief as any Robinson had that year.
"I really like USC, Coach, but it's a little too far away for me," Dickerson said. "I'm gonna go to Oklahoma."
"Well, good luck," Robinson said. "I'm sorry we can't get you. You're a good one."
Small talk aside, that was basically that. Robinson had no idea that a man so big—Dickerson was 6'3", 202 pounds at the time—could carry himself with such swift, soundless grace. Oh, they all knew he was fast. The year before, as a 17-year-old junior with little schooling in track, he had won the state championship in the 100-yard dash in 9.4. Because he was so big, they all perceived him as a power runner, a bone-jarring hoss who used his speed and power to crash through lines for daylight. That was how Bruce Snyder, now the Rams' running back coach, assessed Dickerson when he was coaching at Utah State and Dickerson was playing for Southern Methodist (he had decided not to go to Oklahoma after all) against Brigham Young in the 1980 Holiday Bowl.
"He looked big and physical," Snyder says. "And the first impression was that he was not very fast or nimble-footed."
So when he showed up at that first minicamp with the Rams, Robinson and Snyder were expecting this hoss. And that was why, when they discovered what they really had, Dickerson so awed them. Deceived by Dickerson's grace, Robinson kept yelling at him as he sent him through holes in the line. "Run faster, Eric! Run faster!" And, "Hit the holes faster! You gotta go quick!" Frustrated, Dickerson finally turned to Robinson and said, "Coach, I'm runnin' as fast as I can. Let's run together across this field. You'll find out how fast I'm runnin'."
"He made no noise when he ran," Robinson says.
"You couldn't hear anything," Snyder agrees. "You can usually hear a runner's pads; they'll flop around a little bit. And you'll hear feet on the ground. And with a big man, you'll get more sound vocally, a kind of breathing and grunting."
There was none of that with Dickerson. "He was so smooth," Robinson said. "That's the thing that surprised me. If you were blind, he could run right by you, and I don't think you'd know he was there unless you felt the wind. He's unique in that way. He is an extremely powerful runner, but he's so graceful it's really deceiving. He's the smoothest runner I've ever seen."
At age 24, after only two seasons of professional football, Dickerson has become the most productive runner in the National Football League and, barring injuries, is on his way to becoming the greatest ground-gainer in the game's history. Last Dec. 9—in the 15th game of the season and to a sustained ovation from 49,092 folks in Anaheim Stadium—Dickerson slashed around the left side of Houston's line for nine yards. That carry gave him 2,007 yards for the season, four more than O.J. Simpson's single-season rushing record set during a 14-game schedule in 1973. A week later he added 98 more yards against San Francisco, giving him 2,105 yards and a new NFL record to shoot at in 1985.
"I feel I can do better this year than I did last," says Dickerson. "I think I'm with the right team with the right scheme and with the right coach and the right offensive line—at the right time."
Indeed, there appears a touch of fate in the emergence of Dickerson as the league's premier running back. When Robinson went to the Rams from USC in 1983, he quickly installed the one-back offense that glorified the run and (made a tradition of the tailback—the same offense, essentially, that had showcased Ricky Bell, Charles White and Marcus Allen at USC. After the Rams acquired the No. 2 pick in the '83 draft, Robinson grabbed Dickerson. The Rams had traded Wendell Tyler, making Dickerson the unquestioned centerpiece of the show, and buttressed the offensive line by obtaining tight end David Hill from the Detroit Lions.
Robinson considered a one-back attack when he drafted Dickerson, but it was the acquisition of Hill that sealed things. "A great blocker," says Robinson.
If Dickerson had a team, a scheme, a coach and a line suited perfectly to his gifts, the shifting strategy of the times was clearly in his favor, too. In his rookie year, with defensive alignments set to stop the pass, running the football became the thing to do. And no one did it quite like Dickerson.
"We wanted to see if Eric could handle the pressure of carrying the football," Robinson says. So they gave the ball to him and found out. No rookie running back has ever had such a year: 1,808 yards in 390 carries, an average of 4.6 yards, with 18 touchdowns. Only Jim Brown, Earl Campbell, Walter Payton and Simpson (twice) ever rushed for more yardage in a season. In '84 he carried 379 times, had an average gain of 5.6 yards and ran for 14 touchdowns.
Dickerson is faster than any of the great tailbacks Robinson coached at USC, the coach says, but speed alone does not a great runner make. "I think you can be an average speed guy and be a great runner," says Robinson. "Courage and vision are the things. It all starts with the eyes. The great runner has to see and be able to communicate whatever he sees to his feet—to see something and get his body to move toward it or away from it. Eric sees things differently. And I think all great runners are tough guys. Payton, Simpson, Brown, Allen—they always take such a beating. The running back has to have as much courage as any person playing any sport. I've never seen Eric intimidated."
Whatever the underlying gifts that make him what he is, Dickerson first began expressing them on the playing fields of Sealy. Corn and soybeans were major staples on the farms, but Sealy mattresses made it nationally famous. To Dickerson it was a humdrum place.
"Things were so boring," he says. "For a guy 17, 18 years old, there was nothing to do in Sealy. To have a good time, we used to go down to the 7-Eleven. I mean, that was it. Or you'd go to the bowling alley. Or you'd go out and ride around and say, 'God, this is boring!' The day before a game, everybody would go to Tom's Dairy Bar. It was like a big deal. That was it." More than once, Dickerson was heard to say, "If I ever get out of this hick town, I'm never coming back!"
But he did go back, as he still does today, because the town is a refuge from the life of celebrity and glitter that he leads in L.A. When Dickerson isn't chasing around the banquet circuit and accepting awards, he is at his agents' L.A. office counting his money or hanging out at his Orange County town house, which stands above a bleak canyon ruled by rattlesnakes and coyotes but provides the privacy he covets. Or he is dashing about in one of his three cars: a gray, '83 Porsche, a red '84 Porsche and a gray '85 Mercedes-Benz. He's in love with a girl from Atlanta, but he's also a bachelor and intends to stay that way.
"I love being single," he says. "I can come and go as I please and stay out as late as I want to."
There's still a lot of the small-town kid in Dickerson, and he has not yet learned how to deflect and deal with the pressures of the media circus. Early in July, with stories breaking regularly in the Los Angeles papers about his unhappiness with his current four-year, $2.2 million deal, he fled back to Texas. "I've been on the run so much, doing this and that," he says. "I thought I was gonna have a nervous breakdown. I had to go home and relax. I was too tense. I know when I have to go home because I start getting headaches. Tension. Anything will worry me. I may not get a check for the light bill off in time and I just get to worrying. I'm a worrywart."
But in Sealy he can spend time with his family, particularly his "mother," Viola Dickerson, who is actually his great-great aunt. She raised him from the day she brought him home from the Sealy Hospital, where he was born on Sept. 2, 1960. She finally adopted him in 1963.
Viola, without doubt, has been the single most important influence in Dickerson's life. Though knowing very little about football—"I like baseball," she says—Viola is the reason why Dickerson ended up at SMU instead of Oklahoma, which he preferred. And it was she who prevailed upon him to sign with the Rams instead of the Los Angeles Express of the United States Football League.
At age 80, she is a shy, kindly and churchgoing woman who still misses the small, two-bedroom frame house where she lived with her late husband, Kary, who laid tracks for the Santa Fe Railway. Last year Dickerson built her a spacious, two-story, centrally air-conditioned house. "I just miss all the memories, so many sweet memories with my husband. I was just as happy as I could be in that old house," she says. "It was an old companion. We had a wonderful life there. I remember Christmas and New Year's. They'd all come to my house for dinner, all my nieces and nephews and cousins. It had two bedrooms. I built Eric a room on it, on the side, in later years. He was so long and tall, he had to have a king-size bed. He had a double bed, but it was too small, like being in a casket. What I miss most about that house is I liked to raise my windows to let the good fresh air come in. These stay closed up because of the air conditioning."
Viola grew up on a farm outside Sealy, the sixth of seven children of a sharecropper. She dreamed of going to college and becoming a schoolteacher. "I finished the high school for black children in the 11th grade—that was as high as you could go those days—but my dad wouldn't send me to college. So I went to the 11th grade for two more years. He always told me, 'If I educate anybody, it's gonna be one of the boys, not the girls.' He said, 'If they get a husband, they're not gonna make any money for you.' I was sure disappointed."
Instead, she milked cows and plowed, walking behind the mules, picked cotton for a dollar per 100 pounds, washed clothes and darned socks and eventually started cooking for the town doctor, at $2.50 a week. Eventually, she says, "I got him up to $12.50 a week."
All her brothers and sisters married and raised families, but Viola remained childless. "It just wasn't intended for me," she says. "But I had a hand in raising a bunch of them." After one of her older sisters, Willie Bee Gentry, died in childbirth, Viola helped raise one of her daughters, Johnnie Mae. And when Johnnie Mae grew up and had a daughter, Helen, Viola helped out by taking her in at 16 months and raising her, too. It was Helen, at age 16, who gave birth to the fattest baby in Sealy and turned him over to Viola for adoption.
That, of course, was Eric. To this day, after growing up in the same house with her, Dickerson still calls his natural mother "Helen" and sees her only as a sibling. "We argue just like brother and sister," he says. Eric hardly knows his father, who lives in Houston. "To me, he's just like any other guy," Dickerson says. "I mean, no one special." Helen eventually married a landscaper Robert Johnson, and they have four kids of their own. They all live right next door to Viola. Now and then, Johnnie Mae comes by to visit from Houston. "It's one big family now," Viola says.
Eric's adoptive father, Kary, was a steadying force in his life. "Eric was never a minute's trouble," Viola says. "He did all the things the other boys did. Slip off and go huntin' and fishin' and swimmin' and scare me to death. He played everything in school. Basketball, track, football. In football, when they all made a pile on him, I was so scared he wouldn't be able to get up. Lots of times I jumped up and started down on the field, and my husband would say, 'He'll be all right!' "
Eric adored Kary. Two heart attacks had forced him to retire from the Santa Fe in 1956, but he attended all the football games at Sealy, despite the pains in his chest. "I was so afraid he would have a heart attack," Dickerson says. "Mama used to warn him, 'You stop goin' to these games. You'll die in these stands one day watching Eric play football.' " He died at home in 1977, in Dickerson's junior year in high school, and Eric still grieves. "He was a good man," Dickerson says. "I never saw him get mad. He was so understanding."
By then Dickerson was on his way to becoming the most electrifying high school football player in Texas, but he didn't have an easy time of it at Sealy. He intensely disliked coach Harris, a harsh and inflexible disciplinarian who imposed strict hair and dress codes on his players, banning Afros and cornrows and jewelry. He worked the players so late at times that they had to turn on the lights. He berated them as "losers" when they were defeated, kicked chairs and once tore down a blackboard.
Harris, the tight-end coach at the University of Texas today, confesses to excess. "I was a stern disciplinarian," he says. "I demanded what I thought it took to become a champion. I'm old-fashioned. We eliminated the individual. That's where I was out of line. I went to the total team concept, but I went overboard. I tried to take away the youngster's individuality, which he deserves to have. I overdid it. I was very young and had a lot to learn."
Dickerson rebelled at Harris's methods. "Me and Ralph just didn't get along," he says. "I couldn't stand him sometimes. He rode us too hard. He was always talking about we were a bunch of losers. I couldn't stand that."
In fact, Dickerson and some other black players quit the team as freshmen. Dickerson returned to play as a sophomore, but he and Harris butted heads through that year and the next. The situation came to a head in Dickerson's junior year when he lost his temper in a basketball game and fought an opponent. Acting in his role as athletic director, Harris suspended Eric from participation in all sports. It was only after Dickerson underwent strenuous predawn workouts—Harris called them "sunrise services"—that he was permitted to run track that spring and play football his senior year.
By Dickerson's final season, he and Harris had come to a truce of sorts. "I think I learned that people who are exceptional don't fit the traditional mold," Harris says. "To force them into that is unfair to them. Eric was inelastic and so was I."
Sealy High went 15-0 in Dickerson's senior year. The team crowned its season by defeating Wylie High of suburban Dallas, the defending champion, 42-20 for the state Class AA title as Dickerson scored four touchdowns and rushed for 296 yards, a state title game record that still stands. In those 15 wins, Dickerson gained 2,642 yards, scored 37 TDs and earned praise as the best high school running back in the nation. But whatever he did for himself hardly compared to what he did for the town.
For the championship game, in far-off Waco, the townspeople chartered 13 buses. Tom Golson, the superintendent of schools, said the joke around town was, "Last one out of Sealy turn out the lights."
"What Eric accomplished for Sealy, Texas was he brought the races closer together over the long run," Golson says. "More people got to know each other, so there were better feelings all around." Of course, he also brought the college scouts closer together, too. "There were 13 or 14 at every game," Golson says. Coaches came to town from all the big schools around the country looking for bowl insurance. The recruiting got so intense that Eric hid at friends' houses.
"Oh, Lord, them folks would just drive you crazy," Viola says. "They'd be here morning, noon and night. Some would be in the house and others would be standing at the end of the road waiting for them to leave. Those folks gave me high blood pressure. I'm still taking medicine for it."
Barry Switzer, the Oklahoma coach, came to the house twice, but Viola was not taken by him. "All he talks about is football and Billy Sims," Viola told Eric. But that is where Dickerson wanted to go. "They were always on television," he says. "They just seemed so glamorous." Viola urged him toward SMU because she liked coach Ron Meyer—he talked a lot about family and education—and Dallas was only 200 miles away. "I want you to stay in Texas so I get a chance to see you play," she told him.
So off he went to Dallas. Despite platooning with Craig James for four years, Dickerson gained 4,450 yards to break Earl Campbell's Southwest Conference rushing record. After finishing third in the Heisman Trophy voting, he found himself torn again, this time between the Rams and the Express. And once again he turned to Viola, calling her one day from Southern California to explain the decision facing him.
"Let me think it over," she told him. "Call me in the morning." The next day she had her answer. "Go with the NFL," she said. "They've been around longer than that other league."
That was all the push that Dickerson needed. After signing with the Rams, he quickly developed a reputation among his fellow players for being tight with a buck. To be sure, he has always been mindful of money and his worth to the Rams, which, after his '84 season, he figured to be considerably more than the $350,000 they were due to pay him in 1985.
In April he fired his Colorado-based agent, Jack Mills, and hired the former WBC heavyweight champion, Ken Norton, and Norton's business manager, Jack Rodri. "Jack Mills was too far from me," Dickerson says. "He's there in Boulder. I don't know what's going on out in Boulder. I can't see my money. I don't know what he's doing with it sometimes." Dickerson lives only an hour's ride from his new agents' offices in downtown Los Angeles. And on the eve of training camp, Dickerson announced that he was holding out until the Rams extended his contract.
In any case, tales of Eric's parsimony have been greatly exaggerated. In his rookie year, Dickerson bought Viola a red Cadillac for her 79th birthday. On her 80th birthday he gave her a $10,500 mink coat. Then came the new house on the old wedge of land in Sealy. He and former Rams quarterback Vince Ferragamo gave the offensive linemen fancy Rolex watches in 1983, and last year Dickerson presented each of his linemen with a gold ring bearing the historic numeral 2105. "There is no better offensive line than mine," Dickerson says. And none more appreciative of a back's success.
One of Dickerson's closest friends, in fact, is none other than David Hill, the great blocker that Robinson acquired to make the one-back attack work. "Eric makes it easy for us," Hill said. "He hits the line quick and that's the best thing that can happen for an offensive lineman. There are times when I'd miss a block—you know, one of those matador blocks where you have the cape and say 'Ole!' and the guy is by you—and Eric just put a move on him or ran so fast that the guy never touched him. Everything happens so much quicker. With another back, you feel you have to hold a block longer. With Eric, you have to make your block quicker." And so they complement each other perfectly.
"It's hard to find daylight," Dickerson says. "But it's great when you find it. Man, I love to run!"