DOG Days

Dec. 04, 1989
Dec. 04, 1989

Table of Contents
Dec. 4, 1989

Miami-Notre Dame
Ralph Sampson
Eric Dickerson
Ray Leonard
Point After

DOG Days

Eric Dickerson could become the greatest runner in history—unless he quits the game in frustration first


This is an article from the Dec. 4, 1989 issue Original Layout

If there were such a thing as secondary alcohol inhalation, Eric Dickerson would be legally drunk by now. This is because a man with an orange hat, a Denver Bronco T-shirt and 3½ quarts of Coors on his breath is screaming love sonnets at him from a yard away late in a game at Denver's Mile High Stadium earlier this season. "Hey, Dickerson!" he barks over a chain link fence. "You didn't do squat today! Next time they ought to let your banker run with it!"

This is a critique Dickerson doesn't need. It's a freezing dusk, and Dickerson already knows the score: 13 carries, 35 yards and a 14-3 loss for his Indianapolis Colts. "Here's $20!" says the reviewer. "Maybe you'll play better next time!"

A month earlier, Los Angeles Ram fans at Anaheim Stadium, which Dickerson once called home, did an equally lousy imitation of the Welcome Wagon. They showered Monopoly money on him whenever he went into and out of the tunnel to the locker rooms. "They're cheap," says Dickerson, or Dick to his few friends. "If they had thrown real money, I'd have picked it up."

The disrespect is mutual. Often Dickerson has an itch to hop fences and do a Linda Blair to certain necks in the stands. "In San Francisco people spit on us going into the locker room," he says. "In Cleveland they throw batteries and bones. Why not just let them have loaded guns and shoot at us?"

Dick is not overly fond of the average NFL customer. "Most of the guys I see watching football are wanna-be athletes," he says. "It's always, 'Oh, I hurt my knee, or else I'd have been in there.' Right. I wonder what they'd feel like lying in a pile of guys, hearing a knee snap and the guy scream a scream like they'd never heard—and then have to line up for the next play with that scream on your mind."

More to the point, why should he love the fans when they've never loved him? For seven years Dickerson has been the best running back in the league, yet football fans have never cuddled up to him the way they did to O.J. Simpson, Walter Payton and Gale Sayers. Nor have they worshiped him the way they did Jim Brown and Earl Campbell. The criticism has never been harsher than this year, perhaps because the Colts are having a droopy season and because the hamstring he pulled on Sept. 24 shrink-wrapped his numbers for a while—he ranks only seventh in the rushing race—and sidelined him for a game. ESPN's Pete Axthelm recently called Dickerson "one of the most overrated players in the history of the sport." On NFL Live this year, Simpson said Bo Jackson was better. Dickerson has had few endorsement deals, to say nothing of hawking a Hertz with Arnie.

Here is a man who has 56 career 100-yard games, four rushing titles and the alltime record for yards in a season (2,105). Here is a blur who got to 10,000 yards in fewer games (91) than anybody else in history—seven fewer than Brown, 19 fewer than Simpson, 22 fewer than Payton. With 933 rushing yards this year after the Colts' 10-6 win over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday, he's about to become the first player ever to run for 1,000 yards in seven straight seasons. At 29, with 10,848 career yards, he has a chance to surpass Payton's alltime rushing mark of 16,726 yards.

Yet many fans don't know who he is. Maybe they can't see who he is, what with the extra-large shoulder pads, flak jacket, hip pads, neck roll and goggles. Even his pinup poster shows him being assembled in a laboratory, piece by piece, and features the tagline ROBOBACK. Maybe we're reluctant to trust a running back who is so sane he is afraid of pain. Dickerson has been known to find happiness on the sideline. "What are the out-of-bounds lines there for?" he says. But can a man who never missed a pro game because of injury until this season really be trying?

Maybe that's it exactly. O.J. wriggled past would-be tacklers with moves that would make a chiropractor grimace. Brown looked as if he were ready to run through the side of a bus. But Dickerson makes running with the football seem so painless, so seamless.

In the off-season before he set the season-yardage record while playing with the Rams in 1984, Dickerson rarely worked out. When L.A. coach John Robinson first saw Dickerson practice as a rookie, in '83, he kept yelling, "You've got to run faster, Eric," and, "You've got to run faster." Finally, Dickerson said, "Coach, come out and run with me. I'm running as fast as I can."

The memory still tickles Robinson. "He runs without making noise," says Robinson. How can a back be so fluid his pads don't even rattle?

Or maybe its just that football fans have the feeling that Dickerson has never loved to run as much as they thought he should love it.

They're right.


Ten hours after the Denver game, Dickerson endures another night course in American ceilings. Despite a two-hour flight to Los Angeles for an appearance the next night on The Arsenio Hall Show and a three-hour interview with a reporter, he cannot sleep. So he lies in his 10,000-square-foot Malibu mansion and frets. He paces around the house. His mind is a Betamax, replaying the game backward and forward. Visions of Broncos clomp through his head. Maybe I should've run outside there, should've cut it up inside there. It will be like this tomorrow night too. After some losses—like the one to the 49ers that opened the season—he barely sleeps for four nights. "I really want it [winning] bad, worse than a lot of people I play with," he says.

Dickerson is a black-belt worrier. One night he dreamed that he found an old friend, Harold Slaughter, sitting on the end of his bed. "Harold, what are you doing here?" says Dickerson. "You got killed."

"I got killed?"

"Yeah, you got killed in a car accident, and I couldn't make it to the funeral because we had to play. I'm so sorry."

"Oh, don't worry yourself, Dick. I know you would've come."

That dream ended, but death and Dickerson still do not get along. He worries about people trying to kill him. He keeps a gun by his bed and two slightly underfed rottweilers in his house. He worries about the day when the woman he calls his mom—she's actually his great-aunt Viola—will die, even though she's in the cream of health at 85. "I know I'll be depressed when it happens," says Dickerson. "I don't know what kind of person I'll be then."

He worries about getting hurt. He spends a couple of hours before every game steeling himself for the first hit. "For the first few plays, there's a lot of fear," he says. When he was with the Rams, he refused to run certain pass patterns because he thought they were splints waiting to happen. With the Colts, he won't run shovel-pass plays because it means he must have his head turned while running amid 280-pound linemen who are not hoping he has a nice day. "Nuh-uh," says Dickerson. "Not for me."

He worries so much that he gets headaches, which is one reason he's looking forward to turning in his washroom key. Viola is looking forward to it too. "Don't you think you've made enough money?" she asks him. "I don't want to see you a cripple."

Maybe it's the insomnia or the loss, but Dick is starting to see her point. "People think it should be an honor to run in the NFL," he says. "Hell, it's no honor. It's an honor to be alive. To have two legs that work, two eyes that work."

In fact, the only honor Dickerson wants from playing in the NFL is a paid-off home. He has $500,000 to go on the Malibu house. "If I get it paid off, oh, my days playing football will be over. I'm serious."

Excuse us, but what about Payton's record? What about the Super Bowl? What about your place in history? "I already have a place in history," he says. "The Payton record is no big deal to me. There's more to life than getting 16,000 yards. Viola doesn't care about the record. She'd love me if I mopped floors. I used to really worry that I might never make the Super Bowl. Now I don't. If I don't get to one, I don't get to one."

The weird thing is, he looks as if he means it.


Sixteen hours after the Denver game. Two days off in Los Angeles. Time to blow somebody away. Dickerson has got a Gary Cooper look on his face. There's a loaded six-gun in his holster and a quiver in his trigger finger. In a fly's sneeze, he whips out the pistol with his right hand, fans the hammer with his left and blows a hole the size of Hoss Cartwright's hat in his agent and housemate, Daryl Henry.

Henry is unfazed. He continues to talk on the phone, despite the ringing in his ears. The mock six-gun was a gift from a Hollywood stunt man. Dickerson has two, so he and whoever wants to play Liberty Valance can duel all they want. Dick doesn't like to lose at Gunsmoke or anything else. His nostrils flare anytime he loses at anything.

Whatever Dick has, it has to be the best. His Malibu "crib," as he calls it, has four fireplaces, a closet the size of most people's master bedrooms (he needs room for those 95 pairs of shoes), a Ferrari Testarossa (worth about $300,000), a Ford Bronco and a customized van he got for free. The van has a TV, VCR, CD player and two cassette decks. Dick's end of the deal is that he has to drive it.

To Dickerson, these are the wages of greatness. He wants to dress like the best, own the best, be the best. So don't try to tell him he isn't. On Jackson: "He's not in my caliber. He's a great back, but I have better moves than Bo." On Charles White, who replaced him on the Rams in '87 after the big trade that sent Dickerson to Indianapolis for a herd of players and draft choices, and who then won the rushing crown in that strike-shortened season: "I like Charlie, but that was a fluke." On the 5'10" Greg Bell, who replaced White: "A dwarf." On Brown, who once rated Dickerson as a five on a scale of one to five for talent but gave him a one for heart: "That's a joke. I've played hurt my whole career. Jim Brown played when guys were 170 pounds. Now they're 280, running 4.5 40s. Jim Brown ran about a 4.8 40. Jim Brown was great in his day, but his day is gone."

When Dickerson was not among the 10 highest-paid running backs in the league in '86, he bitched and moaned and finally insulted his way out of L.A. He called Rams vice-president John Shaw "an eel." He pulled himself out of a Monday night game with the Cleveland Browns, saying his leg muscles were tight. When the money loosened up the next week with the trade to Indianapolis, so did the muscles. The Colts gave him the fattest paycheck—$1.45 million per year—of any running back in the league. That deal expires at the end of next season, and word is the Colts are ready to offer $2 million a year to extend the contract, though Dickerson has put the talks off for now.

Dickerson became known to Joe Barcalounger as a cash-sucking ingrate, the man who would leave a good team for money, pure and green. "These fans don't understand," says Dickerson. "They call pro football a game. It isn't a game. Playing Scrabble, playing dice, those are games. You don't break your neck playing Scrabble."

Uh-oh. The nostrils flare.


Twenty-four hours after the Denver game, Dickerson is sitting on the hottest couch in television—Arsenio Hall's. Outside the studio building waits a white limousine large enough for tonight's roster of lovely escorts: Tia, Maria, Michelle, Kimberly and Theresa. Dick dates only Theresa, but the others come along because women always come along with Dickerson.

So how come Dickerson is so alone? How come after a big game or a bad game "there's no one for me to come home to"? How come it's still just Dick and Reese's Pieces for breakfast? "I make too much money to marry some woman right now," says Dickerson. "I don't want to make all this money and then have some judge give it to some woman. Why should she get it? She's never been in a trainer's room."

Dickerson says Viola once told him, "Eric, I'm the only woman you can trust. You can't trust any other women. They'll turn on you. You can't even trust your own sisters, 'cause they could get married and turn against you."

So Dick doesn't trust women. He believes his former girlfriend, Rea Ann Silva, got pregnant by him nearly three years ago on purpose. "She was just somebody looking for a meal ticket," Dickerson says. She bore him a daughter, Erica, and filed a paternity suit against him, as a result of which he's paying child support. He has seen Erica, who lives in Los Angeles, three times.

It's not just women. Dickerson doesn't trust people. One time a friend forged his name on an application for a car loan. When Dickerson found out, he canceled the loan. The friend called him and said, "I can't believe you did that. You've changed."

Dick doesn't trust reporters. "First I'm great, then I fumble, then I don't like to run inside," he says. "Half these guys have never put on a uniform."

Dick doesn't trust whites. Occasionally he gets even with amateur racists. One day he went into a Mercedes dealership wearing sweats. "Hey, how much is this one?" he said to the white salesman, who'd been ignoring him.

"Sixty thousand," said the salesman.

"Whooo-eee! These things are kind of expensive," said Dick.

"Yes," said the salesman as Dickerson walked away, "they are." At which point Dickerson called over a second salesman and said in a loud voice, "Give me one of these."

Dick doesn't trust fans. "Fans think I'm egotistical," he says. "They don't know me. I don't let them know me. I don't care if they know me. I love my mother and I love my family and a few friends. Nobody else counts."

But didn't his family lie to him too? After all, he says he was 12 or 13 before he found out that Viola was his great-aunt, not his mom; that her husband, Kary, was his great-uncle, not his dad; and that Helen was his mother, not his sister. "Yeah, but it never bothered me," he says. "Not once."

Nor did he ever pay much attention to his biological father. In fact, he rarely gave his father a second thought until one day in 1984 when Emmitt Thomas, a St. Louis Cardinals assistant coach, came up to Dickerson after the Cards had played the Rams, and said, "Is Richard Seals your father?"

Dickerson froze: "Yes, he is."

"I thought so," said Thomas. "I played against him in college. You run just like him."

Seals was a standout slotback and defensive back at Prairie View (Tex.) A & M from 1962 to '65. He ran a 4.4 40, played on teams that went 19-1 over two seasons and sprinted on the track team.

He fathered Eric at age 16, when Seals was in the 10th grade, but he couldn't bring himself to marry Helen. "I wasn't ready for that," he says. Today Seals owns a car-care center in Houston. He is married, has another child and reluctantly stays out of Dickerson's life. "It's not really the way I want it," says Seals, "but I think it's how Eric wants it. I don't want to jump in on Eric's glory."

Seals has seen Dickerson play as a pro four or five times, but has never let him know when he was at a game. "I just like to see him do well," he says.

Dick's reaction? "My father is dead."


Fifty-three hours after the Denver game, Dickerson is about to board a red-eye to Indianapolis. He will land at 5:18 a.m., sleep for two hours (not bad!) and be at practice by 9:00. "I feel like going in tomorrow and saying, 'I quit. I'm tired of it. I'm turning my stuff in,' " Dickerson says. "Sometimes I feel like I've burned out. Most of the fun is gone from the game. You've got to love football, and right now I sure don't love it.

"When we lose, everyone looks at me. 'How come, Eric?' I hate it. I feel like I have to do everything myself. I can't block for myself. I can't run every time. Maybe it's not so much my teammates that think that, but the fans do. They expect you to do it all."

Long pause.

"Sometimes I wish I'd never started playing, you know? I get 80 yards, and it's a bad day for me. Do you know how hard it is to get over 100 yards in a game or over 1,000 in a year? Or 1,200 or 1,400 every year? There's only one guy in our backfield [despite his injury and sitting out a game, Dickerson has three times as many carries this year as any other Colt back]. It's fourth-and-one. Who do you think they're going to hand it to? The galloping ghost?"

All this unhappy talk is either 1) a pose designed to inflate his next contract even further, 2) a new way to cope with losing, 3) a reaction to his first real injury since his freshman year in college, or 4) the real thing. One of Dickerson's friends, Lewis Coleman, thinks it's No. 4. "The first time I heard him talk about retiring was a couple of weeks ago," he says. "He never used to talk about 'after football' before."

Then again, it could be 5) a way to rile his coworkers. The Colts are 6-6, and Dickerson still gets that Gary Cooper look on his face every time he talks about them. "If we want to be 7-9 or 8-8, that's fine," he says, "but I don't want to be a part of that kind of team.

"I think about how unhappy I am. I know I am a very unhappy person. Sometimes people say, 'How can a guy take a gun and blow his own brains out?' Now I can see how someone can do it. Maybe this life wasn't for me, football."

With that, Dickerson drags his Louis Vuitton carryon full of troubles down the jetway and back into a life he would just as soon forget. It's funny. A guy can run 10,000 yards and it's still not far enough.

PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIEROff the field Dickerson is protected by his rottweilers and his guns.PHOTORICHARD MACKSONAs a Ram, Dickerson set the rushing record for a single season.PHOTOJOHN BIEVERAs a Colt, he hit the 10,000-yard mark faster than anyone ever had.PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHDickerson didn't get a warm welcome when he returned to Anaheim earlier this year.PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERViola, whom Dickerson calls mom, told him never to trust women.PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERWhether in his Indianapolis "crib" (above) or the Malibu one, Dick can't sleep after defeat.