You know these guys. Brothers-in-arms now, they have been in the limelight individually for ages. Tony Dorsett, 32, from Aliquippa, Pa., on his way to the second-highest career rushing total in NFL history, the feisty, troubled rabbit always just a step ahead of the hounds. Herschel Walker, the god from the piney woods of Georgia, savior of the state university football team, near-savior of the USFL, the greatest—or is it most suspect?—running back in the history of the game. Can it be he is only 24? Have we been reading about Ol' Hersch since he was in high school (3,167 yards and 45 touchdowns in his senior year alone)? Indeed we have.
And now these two remarkably different yet oddly compatible men are together on America's Team. They would appear to have the potential to be the most prodigious running tandem in the history of the game, but it almost certainly is not meant to be. The Cowboys are basically a tailback I-formation team with room for only one tailback at a time, and coach Tom Landry is resisting the temptation to play them at the same time (see box, page 82), explaining, to the consternation of those who would prefer to consider them as all-around football players, "They're runners, not blockers."
Lately, however, Dorsett has not even been that. Earlier this season he was running as well or better than he ever had, but he injured his ankle, then his knee, and missed three games and limped through six others. Through Sunday's game with the Raiders he had 450 yards, probably not enough to help him reach 1,000, something he has done every season since he came into the league in 1977, except the strike year of '82. Because of the injuries to Dorsett, and because of Landry's philosophy, Dorsett and Walker—he also has an ankle injury—haven't lined up together very much.
Age is the troubling factor now for Dorsett. His time is running out, and with Walker instantly establishing himself as a force in the NFL both as a runner (he has 522 yards on 114 carries) and as a pass receiver (49 catches for 563 yards), it is becoming clear that Walker is something quite different, and ultimately far more important, than Dorsett's running mate. He is Dorsett's heir apparent. "When Tony graduates, so to speak," says the Cowboys' offensive coordinator Paul Hackett, "it's Herschel."
In college Dorsett and Walker each led his team to an undefeated season and the national championship. Each is a Heisman Trophy winner ( Dorsett in 1976 and Walker in '82). Their professional rushing numbers are stunning—11,282 yards in nine NFL seasons (fifth on the alltime list and just 70 yards behind fourth-place John Riggins) for Dorsett; 5,562 yards in three USFL seasons for Walker.
Playing for the USFL's New Jersey Generals last year, Walker rushed for 2,411 yards, more than anyone ever has anywhere, in any league. He also had an astonishing streak of 11 consecutive games rushing for 100 yards or more. Last season Dorsett gained 1,307 yards. Their combined total of 3,718 yards is more than any NFL team has gained rushing in a season.
Sure, sure, this is just playing with stats. But throw in receiving yardage (Walker had 155 yards in the Washington game alone) and deception yardage (openings created for other Dallas runners and receivers when Dorsett or Walker is out there) and all the plays the Cowboys haven't even designed yet for the two of them, and somehow it doesn't seem fair....
"I want a dog," says Tony Dorsett.
He settles painfully into his Mercedes 500 SEL outside the Cowboys Center and dials a number on his cellular phone. Busy. He hangs up and grimaces.
Dorsett is hurt, physically and mentally. His left ankle was nearly ripped off in the season opener against the Giants. He suffered a partially torn ligament in his left knee against Atlanta, and now he is worried about his future. He has never been badly hurt in his entire football career. No surgery, no knee problems. At 5'11" and 185 pounds he is of an endangered species, an exotic sprite who survives in the fissures between mountains. His streak of 93 consecutive starts came to an end on Sept. 29. And here it is the Wednesday before the Redskins game and he can barely jog.