About half his life ago, when he was 11 years old, Texas A & I tailback Johnny Bailey received as a Christmas gift a Dallas Cowboy uniform with Tony Dorsett's number 33 on it. Wearing that outfit, Bailey would hustle off to a playground near Houston's Cuney Homes, the inner-city housing project where he lived with his mother and two older brothers.
"We'd play high ball," Bailey says. "We used cans or a Nerf ball. You'd throw it straight up, high as you could, and see who could jump and get it and run with it. Everybody could tackle you. I didn't get tackled much. I got a Payton outfit one year too. And a Csonka. But I loved being TD."
Bailey is still running, and he is no easier to tackle. Last Saturday, Bailey, a 5'9", 180-pound senior, displaced Dorsett, his boyhood idol, in the college football record book. On his 25th and final carry of the day, in a 41-0 win over Central State of Edmond, Okla., Bailey gained his 6,085th career yard to pass Dorsett on the alltime NCAA list by three yards. Bailey finished the game with 172 yards and four touchdowns before leaving with a bruised thigh.
Bailey holds virtually every rushing record in Division II—24 categories in all. Those feats earned him the Harlon Hill Trophy, the Division II equivalent of the Heisman, in both 1987 and '88. "From the first time he touched the ball in the first practice, we knew we had something special in JB," says Don Pitt-man, the offensive backfield coach who recruited him for the Javelinas.
In 1976, when Dorsett broke the record, he played for Pitt, a Division I-A school. "We know this is not the same level of competition as in Division I-A," says Texas A & I coach Ron Harms. "But blockers are better at the larger schools too. Pro scouts say Johnny would be a great back anywhere."
Why, then, is Bailey not doing his running for a major college team? "I wasn't into my books," he says bluntly. Bailey didn't meet the academic requirements necessary to compete at the highest level, and, for a while, it was not certain that he would enroll anywhere. Pittman patiently sat in the Bailey home, chatting with Bailey's mother, Ruby Ford, when Johnny repeatedly failed to show up for appointments. "We'd talk about getting him to class," says Pittman. "I think she influenced him to come to us."
Bailey signed his letter of intent on a day when several of his high school teammates accepted scholarships from major schools. Bailey stood apart from the hoopla in a hallway at the school and told his coach Luther Booker, "Wherever I go, they'll hear about me."
After Bailey broke the record on Saturday, the referee flipped him the ball and his teammates hoisted him onto their shoulders. "I most definitely think I'm as good as any college back anywhere," he says. "I play the game with heart."
Away from football, Bailey retreats to his off-campus apartment for homework, dinner and time with his bride-to-be, A & I student Teresa Hopkins, and their infant daughter, Crystal. "Oh, that baby's busy," says Bailey. "She loves to splash the blue water in our toilet bowl."
The couple will not soon forget this little piece of the end of the decade: Oct. 12, Crystal's first birthday; Oct. 14, the day Bailey broke Dorsett's record; Oct. 15, Teresa's birthday; Oct. 20, wedding day. "I'm trying to deliver it all in one package," says Bailey.