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."