Two weeks ago Pittsburgh's Tony Dorsett tore through and around Navy's defenses for the 180 yards that established him as the most prolific runner in the history of major-college football. Down in the visitors' locker room after that game, Dorsett listened thoughtfully as Bill Hillgrove of Pittsburgh's WTAE concluded his radio interview. "In my estimation," Hillgrove declared, "you are the greatest back to ever play the game."
"Well," said Tony, "my stats prove it."
Lovers of humility may have bristled, but Tony was not yet through. Hustled before the press, he proclaimed that his career rushing yardage—then 5,206, or 29 yards more than Archie Griffin had accumulated at Ohio State en route to a couple of Heisman Trophies—hardly quenched his thirst. He would feel fulfilled, he said, if he could push the record so high that he could safely assume nobody would break it until after the world had scattered dirt on his grave. About 6,000 yards would be nice, he suggested. That figure would require him to average a stunning 198.5 yards in his four remaining regular-season games. Still, he considered the goal realistic.
Alas, such declarations stamp Dorsett in the minds of many as a smart aleck while the fact is that ordinarily he is a young man of proper reserve, greatly beloved by his teammates, who, as he bore in on Griffin's record at Annapolis, ranged the sideline chorusing, "Go, Hawk, go!" What Pitt Coach Johnny Majors turned loose three years ago is a muscular but lithe Panther—a dark, dimpled, handsome figure up from 157 pounds as a freshman to 185 pounds of speed and surprising inside power, who fits the words once spoken by Penn State's Joe Paterno as he gazed upon a tight end named Ted Kwalick. "What God had in mind there," said Paterno, "was a football player." If so, God was twice as earnest about the superbly equipped Dorsett. But why a goal of 6,000?
"It's just because I love the game," he answers, without affectation. "It's been a major part of my life, and every time I do something that a lot of people recognize, I'm going to take pride in it. And no matter how long or how much I've been into this game, I'll take pride in every record I set. I wanted to be known as No. 1, and I want to be known as that as long as I live."
Having achieved the first half of that parlay, Dorsett next would pit himself against Syracuse, an opponent that promised to challenge him not nearly as much as the intervening six days that lay ahead. Sunday morning Pitt publicist Dean Billick awoke to a telephone that refused to quit. Everybody wanted Dorsett for something. Uncomplaining, he plunged into the whirlwind, having long since been schooled by Majors in a manner antithetical to John Wooden's sheltering of Lew Alcindor. "Great athletes," argues Majors, "are able to meet the challenges. I put confidence in Tony, hoping he'll say in public what he believes and hoping he won't paint himself into a corner. And he hasn't." Dorsett, although once so painfully shy that he had to be dissuaded by his mother and coaches from quitting college his freshman season, exchanged chitchat with President Ford, gave him a Pitt tearaway jersey and moderately concluded, "He seemed to be a nice person." By Thursday evening, having inched his way through the traffic thrown up by NBC Television, Mutual Radio Network, a couple of national magazines and both major wire services, Dorsett arrived for a guest appearance on a call-in radio show that was not lacking in cynics and/or archrival Penn State fans.
Caller: I'd like to ask Tony if he's going to graduate this year. Also, I'd like to ask what percentage of seniors on the team are going to graduate.
Dorsett (calmly crushing caller's anti-jocko hopes): I am going to graduate this year. I won't graduate in April—I think I'll be three hours short. So I will take an independent study course, and I'll graduate in June. I'm really not sure about what percent of our seniors will graduate, but our academic adviser, Alan Beals, has put a lot of effort into that, and he's hoping and looking for 100% graduation.
On Friday, Tony checked into a suburban hotel along with his undefeated, second-ranked teammates, while at a hotel across town the Syracuse squad arrived with a hitherto undistinguished quarterback named William J. Hurley Jr.
The next afternoon, elusive and swift of foot, Hurley ran so deftly it seemed the surest way to stop him would be to grab the yellow hair that flowed from his helmet down his shoulders. Throwing on the dead run, the Syracuse quarterback drilled bull's-eye passes short and long. He accumulated 315 yards passing and rushing, a Syracuse record. His only serious mistake was to include his running backs in the game; one of them fumbled away the ball at the Pitt seven-yard line in the first quarter and another fumbled at the Pitt three in the second.