Work in Sports
T.D. Scores the Trophy
As a freshman running back at the University of Pittsburgh, Tony Dorsett almost quit school before taking a single handoff. Painfully shy, Dorsett struggled to make friends, and he wasn't enjoying the businesslike approach of Pitt's preseason practices. "I was ready to pack it up," Dorsett says now.
It got to the point where he called his mother, Myrtle, in nearby Aliquippa and told her he was coming home. But Myrtle wouldn't hear it. She and the Pitt coaches told him to hang in there, that everything would get better with time. Tony listened and ended up staying. "I'm very happy that I did," he says.
Obviously. A few weeks later, he highstepped into one of the most prolific careers in college football history-one that would culminate with the 1976 Heisman Trophy. Growing up, Dorsett was determined to avoid a life in the steel mills where his father worked so hard that soot would cover his face and make him almost unrecognizable, even to Tony. He turned to football and became a star at Hopewell High. Penn State, Colorado and Ohio State pined for his services, but nobody pined like Johnny Majors, who was hired in 1973 to right a Pitt football program that hadn't had a winning season in 10 years. Majors's top assistant, current Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill, "moved in with me, he was at our house so much," Dorsett says.
The persistence quickly proved worthwhile. Dorsett led the nation in rushing with 1,586 yards as a skinny, 155-pound freshman, helping Pitt to a 6-4-1 record and a 1973 Fiesta Bowl berth. By his senior year, Dorsett was an elusive, intelligent runner with three 1,000-yard seasons on his resume, 40 more pounds of muscle, and 17 Pitt teammates who were also returning starters. He and USC back Ricky Bell were the strong preseason Heisman favorites.
Dorsett's campaign began with a trip to Notre Dame, where the Irish coaches had let the grass grow in an effort to slow the guy who burned them for 303 yards a year before. "They didn't let that grass grow long enough," Dorsett says. He darted 61 yards on his first run of the season and tacked on 120 more by the end of the 31-10 Pitt win. The Hawk, a nickname based on Dorsett's dark eyes, had taken flight.
Bell, meanwhile, was matching him stride for stride. "If Tony Dorsett is going to win the Heisman," he said a few days before Pitt was to play Syracuse, "he's going to have to beat me." Famous last words. Dorsett responded with 241 yards in the Panthers' victory over the Orangemen, eclipsing the NCAA career rushing record along the way (one of 15 NCAA marks he shattered at Pitt).
As injuries befell Bell, a notably less-introverted Dorsett piled on the yardage between glad-handing with President Gerald Ford and riding an elephant to promote a Pittsburgh circus. The sudden celeb was riding even higher after an elephantine 224 yards-173 in the second half-in his regular-season finale against arch-rival Penn State. That made him the first college back to run for more than 6,000 career yards. And he had led the Panthers, 1-10 the season before he arrived, to their first undefeated record in 58 years.
Dorsett finished the season with 1,948 yards-yet another NCAA record-and 23 touchdowns. He won the Heisman in a landslide, with more than 80% of voters placing him first on their ballots. "He's like a man possessed," Majors said at the Heisman ceremony. "He goes after something with such an intense attitude toward work. He would have achieved all of this without that intensity, but he might not have set so many records or won [the Heisman] by so wide a margin."
After a 202-yard farewell in Pitt's Sugar Bowl pounding of Georgia that clinched the national title, Dorsett moved on to NFL stardom with the Cowboys and Broncos. Now the owner of an advertising company, the college and pro football hall of famer remembers everything from his Heisman run.
"That was a great time in my life," says Dorsett, 46, who displays the trophy in the living room of his Dallas home. "What a senior year, a script made for Hollywood."
A script that almost ended in the first scene.
-- Brad Young