Eric Dickerson didn’t look all that special, not to the man in the hat.
The Los Angeles Rams rookie, who’s approaching the 30th anniversary of breaking the NFL’s single-season rushing record, had a rather inauspicious debut.
It came in Irvine during a joint practice with the Dallas Cowboys in the summer of 1983. Only rookies participated and the Cowboys brought 80 of them, dwarfing the Rams’ squad of 25. Dickerson was nervous as it was, having been a Texas kid who played his college ball at Southern Methodist in the heart of Cowboys territory.
He had a bone to pick with the Cowboys, too, because word got to him via Rams coaches that Dallas would have passed on him in the draft. The coaches said the Cowboys didn’t like Dickerson because they didn’t think he was fast enough, his upright running style made him vulnerable to big hits and that he wouldn’t last in the NFL.
“When I heard that I was like, ‘Oh, no they didn’t!’ ” Dickerson recalled. “And every time I played them I wanted to give it to them. Every time I was like, ‘Oh, I ain’t gonna last? OK.’”
Back to that rookie scrimmage. The coaches had a chat on the field beforehand, the Rams’ John Robinson and the Cowboys’ Tom Landry — he of the ever-present fedora — going over final details. That’s when the legendary Dallas coach uttered the words Robinson won’t forget.
“I’m not sure about your tailback,” Landry had said. “I’m not sure about what kind of runner he really is.”
Robinson brushed it off for the moment. He had no doubts about Dickerson. He said it took him about two days to figure out his star rookie was bound for greatness.
But even Robinson felt a flicker of doubt when he watched Dickerson step into the huddle that day. The wide-eyed running back was so nervous, his mind went blank. He had forgotten all the plays. He started hyperventilating and had to bow out for a few plays.
Recalled Robinson with a chuckle: “I thought to myself, ‘Uh oh! Maybe Landry was right!’”
Dickerson remembers the moment.
“Man, I was scared to death,” he said.
The nerves didn’t last. Dickerson took some deep breaths and went over the plays on the sideline with assistant coach Bruce Snyder. He then jogged back onto the field, lined up and took a handoff.
“I think he might have had his eyes closed,” Robinson said. “He hit that line going 100 mph. It was still one of the most impressive runs I ever remember him making. There was a big hole, and he roared through that hole and he went right in the direction of Landry, who was standing back behind the defense. I don’t think he was intentionally going for Landry, but he damn near knocked him down.”
The Cowboys coach had to jump out of the way, hanging on to his hat as he moved faster than a then-58-year-old man was accustomed to moving.
Dickerson was plenty fast enough.
“After practice, Landry came back to me and said, ‘You know, I was impressed with your guy. Maybe he’s gonna be pretty good,’ ” Robinson said.
Yes, pretty good. Dickerson went on to become one of the greatest backs in NFL history, setting the rookie rushing record with 1,808 yards in ’83 before rumbling for a record 2,105 the next season, a mark that still stands.
Rams tackle Jackie Slater, who along with Dickerson now has a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, marvels still at those feats of athletic brilliance three decades ago.
“I know Eric would be the first one to tell you that he couldn’t have done it without us, and we appreciate that,” Slater said. “There’s no doubt about it there was a lot of collaborative effort on the part of the offensive line, the tight ends, the receivers, everybody. But let’s just face it, Eric was the one running with the football, the one making the plays. Eric was a very special guy.”
Although the Rams traded him after four spectacular seasons, Dickerson remains an L.A. guy. He lives in Calabasas, and is hosting the Hall of Fame Golf Invitational on July 24 at Moorpark Country Club. He’ll be joined there by former NFL stars such as Marcus Allen, Tim Brown, Jerome Bettis and Lawrence Taylor.
And then there’s the 30th anniversary of the rushing record. Slater, Robinson and Dickerson think the rookie record will hold up longer than the all-time rushing mark because you only get one chance to be a first-year player. Seven players have run for 2,000 yards or more, with Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson in 2012 falling nine yards shy of eclipsing Dickerson’s record.
“It could fall,” Dickerson said of the rushing record. “It takes just one guy in the right offense with the right guys, and off to the races you go. But I still believe the guy who’s going to break that record is not in the league yet. My little 2-year-old son, I don’t know if he’ll love playing football, but it would be the greatest day of my life if he played that position and broke his dad’s record. That would be the icing on the cake for me.”
That bit of fantasy football would be Dickerson’s career coming full circle in a big way, something that would hearken back to that day in Irvine when he introduced himself to the Cowboys.
After all, his son’s name is Dallis.