The Indianapolis Colts' equipment staff keeps a three-ring notebook filled with pages of details about players' uniforms. Everything from the length of inseams to the thickness of neck rolls is recorded. The page on outside linebacker Duane Bickett is caked with white correction fluid. No other Colt is as finicky about his gear as Bickett. "He's a nightmare," says Dave Hicks, a part-time Indianapolis equipment assistant.
This is an article from the Nov. 28, 1988 issue
On game day Bickett's locker is stocked with so much paraphernalia that it resembles a sporting-goods store. Most of his teammates ask for one pair of pants, but Bickett requests as many as three, with waists ranging from 30" to 34" and inseams from short to long, so he can wear the size that fits his mood. Most of the linemen specify tight-fitting jerseys, but Bickett's has to be tight on the body and loose in the shoulders, and the sleeves must be altered so they end within two inches of the small number 50's up near the shoulders. "Duane wants his biceps to show," says Hicks.
The equipment staff also makes sure that Bickett has his special three pairs of sweat socks from which to choose. Believe it or not, Bickett will wear a sock that has a distinguishing mark only on his right foot. Doing so, he contends, makes him less susceptible to injury. When it comes to shoes, he wants four types available in his size, 13.
Three hours before kickoff, Bickett can be found at his locker, trying on one pair of pants after another. If none fits just right, he storms into the equipment room to demand a new pair from Jon Scott, the equipment manager. Bickett complains about his neck roll—adjust it to the right, Jon; no, back to the left; ahhhh, right again—and he whines about his helmet, which is lined with an air-filled rubber bladder. Most players have theirs pumped up before the game. Bickett sometimes needs an extra blast of air at halftime.
Finally, just minutes before pregame warmups, Bickett stares at himself in a full-length mirror. "I check my stuff," he says. "If I look O.K., I'm ready to go."
Ever since he entered the NFL in 1985, Bickett has been dressed for success. At 25, he is one of the standout players at his position, worthy of mention with such stars as Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks of the New York Giants, Andre Tippett of the New England Patriots and Wilber Marshall of the Washington Redskins. In fact, some scouts rate the 6'5", 243-pound Bickett the most complete outside linebacker in the NFL. They base their opinion on Bickett's ability to stop the run, play pass defense and blitz the quarterback. He has no weakness for the opposition to exploit.
"Duane's so big and strong he's more like a defensive lineman than a linebacker," says New York Jets quarterback Ken O'Brien. "You've got to put a tackle or a guard, some big guy, in his way because Duane comes at you with a full head of steam."
Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula says, "When you line up against the Colts, the first thing you ask is, 'Where's Duane Bickett?' "
On running plays, Bickett's powerful hands and long arms (his sleeve length is 37½") help give him the leverage to throw blockers from his path. Quick feet and excellent balance allow him to stay with tight ends step-for-step on pass coverage. When he rushes the passer from the right side, his best move is the "right-hand grab" in which he grabs the outside shoulder of the blocker with his right hand, then sweeps his left hand through the blocker's ribcage area and pushes him away, clearing a path to the quarterback.
As daunting as his physical attributes are, scouts agree that Bickett's most important trait is his intelligence. He has an accounting degree from USC where he maintained a 3.67 average and breezed through calculus and statistics. His unusual awareness of what's happening on the field allows him to remember every step he takes in a game. "Bickett makes fewer mistakes than any other outside linebacker," says one scout. "He's so smart, nobody's going to fool him. He'll play a long time in the NFL because he has never relied solely on physical skills. He has learned to play the position faster than anybody."
Back in 1985, Indianapolis fans had their doubts when the Colts made Bickett their first pick, and the fifth overall, in the draft. The Colts had suffered through seven straight losing seasons, and, given the team's notoriously unproductive offense, many fans wondered how first-year coach Rod Dowhower could fail to select one of that year's highly touted trio of wide receivers: Jerry Rice, Al Toon and Eddie Brown.
"[Colts owner] Bob Irsay didn't want us to take Duane," says Dowhower, who was replaced by Ron Meyer in December '86 and is now the Atlanta Falcons' offensive coordinator. "I reminded him that when I became coach, we agreed I'd have control over the draft. I believed Duane could contribute more downs and make a greater number of big plays than a wide receiver. We had to play good defense because there were so many good quarterbacks in our division [the AFC East]."
Dowhower was proved right. With a defense that allowed the fewest points (238) in the NFL last year, the Colts won their first division title in a decade. For the past three seasons Bickett has led his team in sacks. In 1987 he paced the Colts in tackles with 113; the year before, he finished second to inside linebacker Cliff Odom with 144. Bickett was chosen Indy's MVP those two years, and he was a starter in the '88 Pro Bowl, the first Colt defensive player to be selected for the game since defensive linemen John Dutton and Mike Barnes in '78.
"Duane's on full blast all the time," says Colts inside linebacker Barry Krause. "Very few guys dominate a play from start to finish the way he does. I've seen him crash down on two or three blockers and still get to the ballcarrier for a diving shoestring tackle. In the huddle I'll say, 'Nice play.' He'll say, 'Thank you,' but he sounds so embarrassed. To Duane, playing hard is nothing special; it's expected. When he makes a mistake, he'll come to the huddle yelling, 'That was stupid! I can't ever let that happen again!' Then he'll collect himself and walk back to the fine."
Bickett is a perfectionist. He insists, for example, that Tom Zupancic, the Indianapolis strength coach, stay late so that Bickett can lift weights. And when injured, Bickett pesters the trainer, Hunter Smith, for special treatment. "Duane expects me to drop the other 44 players to concentrate solely on him, and I kind of do that," says Hunter. "He's such an intense person. Duane expects everybody to be in the same program he's in, from the equipment men to the other 10 guys on defense."
Bickett will push himself even in the off-season. One of his favorite workout sites is the Scholl Canyon firebreak, which zigzags for several miles along a ridge in the Verdugo Mountains north of Glendale, Calif. On a summer's day the only other creatures on the winding dirt trail are lizards and snakes. Bickett runs three times a week, beginning in June. Sweat pours down his face. His cheeks blaze a bright red. "The more I push, the better I'll be," he says.
When he was growing up in Glendale, Bickett and his pals hiked along the firebreak. In the seventh grade, Bickett turned Scholl Canyon into an obstacle course. Running the firebreak, he figured, would toughen him up for Pop Warner football and the Wilson Junior High cross-country team. "I love it up there," says Bickett. "It's so secluded. As I run farther back into the foothills, the only sound I hear is my breathing. I prefer to work out alone. I can run until I throw up."
Silence isn't a priority in Indianapolis. In the living room of Bickett's two-bedroom condo are two four-foot-high speakers. The heavy-duty woofers and tweeters work overtime, sending out the thumpings of bass guitars and the wails of synthesizers that accompany such songs as Girlfriend in a Coma, Death of a Disco Dancer, Paint a Vulgar Picture and Barbarism Begins at Home.
This stuff is called "new music," and Bickett is a big fan of The Smiths, Oingo Boingo, New Order, Depeche Mode and The Smithereens. His tastes are so out of sync with the Top 40-saturated radio stations in Indianapolis that, to keep up with his favorite groups, he relies on an L.A. friend to send him tapes. "Stand back from those speakers!" Bickett screams over, say, 120 decibels worth of guitars. "You need to get the full effect of my system. Isn't it sweet?"
Bickett is the kind of man who can dress in a $1,000 suit and $700 ostrich-skin shoes while opening beer bottles with his teeth. "I have a hard edge," he says. "I'm a linebacker." He loves to ride motorcycles, quad racers and dune buggies. Waterskiing on Morse Reservoir outside of Indianapolis gives him "a rush"; jet-skiing on the Colorado River is "sweet."
He's quick to mimic characters from his two favorite movies, Scarface and Raising Arizona; for no apparent reason, he'll do Al Pacino right in the middle of a dinner conversation. He claims to have seen Scarface almost 50 times and Raising Arizona 25. After frequent exposure to Bickett's Pacino impression, the Colts' equipment staff wrote the actor. Pacino sent back an autographed Scarface poster, which hangs in the training room.
Shielded by this off-the-wall behavior is the shy loner Bickett. He'll curl up for hours on his couch reading tales of knights, dragons and sorcerers—things like The Lord of the Rings trilogy. "Bold heroes," he says. "Good versus evil. Underdogs struggling to come out on top. Physical prowess prevails. What a wonderful escape."
He often eats dinner by himself during the season, stopping by Russ's Lounge twice a week for an $8.95 sirloin steak. Bickett hates the bar scene. "I'm not a carouser," he says. "I've never met a girl I've liked in a bar. I don't have many friends in Indy. Outside of the team, I don't really know anybody here my own age."
His friends remain the gang from Glendale, some of whom he has known since elementary school. Six years ago Bickett took Mary Mudie to her Glendale High prom. Now she is a TWA flight attendant and wears around her neck the first AFC Defensive Player of the Week pin Bickett was given by the Colts. "In Indianapolis people say, 'Oh, Duane Bickett. The Colts' linebacker,' " says Bickett. "I'm seldom anything more than that. In Glendale I'm just Duane—first and last."
Bickett works as a volunteer counselor at the Glendale YMCA youth camp every spring, funds two scholarships for graduates of Glendale High—$500 each to a girl and boy who maintained at least a 3.0 average and excelled in two sports—and has given some $33,000 to Noble Center, Inc., an agency that assists retarded citizens in Indianapolis (at the rate of $500 per interception and $100 a tackle for every tackle over 30). The second of four boys, he's also a dutiful son. His parents, Walt and Gay, moved to Sydney, Australia, in January 1985, when his father was named managing director of Auscott, a cotton producing concern. Bickett talks to his parents once a week.
"One time, when I really needed to talk, I called at 4 a.m., Australian time," he says. "My Mom said, 'Do you know what time it is? I won't wake your father.' She then proceeded to talk to me for an hour."
Bickett journeys Down Under every February. In addition to seeing Mom and Dad, he visits his older brother Don, 27, who lives south of Sydney in Wollongong. Don is a 6'6" starting forward for the Illawara Hawks, an Australian pro basketball team.
Only those who are close to Bickett know he often questions his football ability. He can't quite fathom the $4.5 million, four-year contract extension he signed before this season. He'll earn $1 million this year, which will make him the second-highest-paid defensive player in the league, behind Marshall. Even after appearing in the Pro Bowl, Bickett won't give himself a break.
"I don't think of myself as a great player," he says. "I'm surprised other people in the league consider me to be that good. When I signed my original contract, I had incentives put in for All-AFC and All-NFL, but I never thought I'd ever see any of that money. And I never ever thought I'd make the Pro Bowl. I remember my reaction when Andre Tippett walked onto the field at Aloha Stadium for our first Pro Bowl practice. I thought, Jeez, he looks like a great linebacker. Hey, he even looks better than me in a uniform."
Perhaps Bickett the perfectionist will someday appreciate Bickett the man he sees in the mirror on game days. "I used to think money motivated me," he says. "But I have a new contract, and I'm still not happy. I want to be looked upon as a good player—as a great player—and I'll do whatever it takes. I'll probably never think I'm good enough or achieve all of my goals. You know, long after I've retired, I'll probably still laugh whenever somebody refers to me as All-Pro."