SI Vault
Joe Marshall
September 19, 1977
"It was never like this at Pittsburgh," groaned Tony Dorsett as he suffered through the rigors of his first Dallas training camp. Despite his million-dollar contract, Dorsett was mistreated like every other NFL rookie. But by the time camp was over, it was clear he was going to provide a treat for Cowboy fans.
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September 19, 1977

Tony D Comes To Big D

"It was never like this at Pittsburgh," groaned Tony Dorsett as he suffered through the rigors of his first Dallas training camp. Despite his million-dollar contract, Dorsett was mistreated like every other NFL rookie. But by the time camp was over, it was clear he was going to provide a treat for Cowboy fans.

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Under the lights of the New Orleans Superdome in the early evening hours of Jan. 15, 1978 Tony (TD) Dorsett, No. 33, rushes for a record 303 yards, scores seven touchdowns and leads the Dallas Cowboys to a 49-3 rout of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XII. "It was just like another day against Notre Dame," the jubilant Dorsett gushes to Phyllis George after the game.

That is the fairy-tale ending to the story of Dorsett's first NFL season. In the preceding chapters Dorsett (now pronounced Dor-SETT) steals the NFL rushing title from O.J. Simpson and, of course, wins Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors. Is this, perhaps, expecting too much? Apparently not, or so it would seem from the amount of media attention Dorsett's getting. It didn't make any difference this summer if he broke a long run, a whiskey glass or curfew. If Tony Dorsett did it, it was news. Dorsett's transition from a Pittsburgh Panther to a Dallas Cowboy, from a Heisman Trophy winner to an untried NFL rookie, is being chronicled in the minutest detail—e.g., "At 7:21 a.m. Tony Dorsett spread a teaspoonful of sugar substitute over his Special K." The only thing Dorsett has failed to do in Dallas so far is replace the Cowboy cheerleaders in the hearts and minds of the city's fanatical football followers. But give him time.

In truth, Dorsett by himself would not have attracted all this attention. What has made him a media event is the fact that he is a Dallas Cowboy. When Simpson came into the NFL eight years ago, he, like most high draft picks, had the misfortune of joining a losing team. Buffalo had won just one game the previous season. But Dorsett signed on with a team that has made the playoffs 10 of the last 11 years, a team that is annually the favorite for the title in the NFC East.

What's more, Dorsett brings to Dallas the single ingredient the Cowboys have lacked in recent years: speed in the offensive back-field. The Cowboys have always had the fastest linebackers and the fastest linemen in football. Curiously, they have also always had some of the slowest backs in captivity. No more. At Pitt, Dorsett's speed, quickness and shiftiness made him the leading rusher in history. He was the first player ever to have four 1,000-yard seasons and the first to rush for more than 6,000 yards in his career. He won the Heisman and led the Panthers to the national championship. For Dallas, Dorsett could well mean victory in the Super Bowl.

Dorsett seems typecast for the hero's role. He is handsome and affable, quiet but articulate. At the Cowboy training camp in Thousand Oaks, Calif. he unhesitatingly sacrificed his spare time to a demanding press. In the humble manner of the storybook all-American boy, he lavished attention on the children who hounded him for autographs. At times, though, he seemed incapable of performing his assigned part as the Cowboys' shining knight. Indeed, there were moments when the Dorsett story looked like a downer—a tale of disappointment, of questionable dedication and durability.

Dorsett himself occasionally seemed depressed. Sitting at breakfast one morning in the fifth week of training camp, he suddenly and without prompting voiced his frustration. "I'm not accustomed to being second, third or fourth," he said. "Here I'm playing behind all the vets. It's disappointing. What can you do in training camp? You can't show anything on the practice field. You have to wait for the preseason." Pointedly, he massaged the bruised left knee that had limited his playing time in Dallas' opening exhibition and would make him a spectator for the second. Then he added disconsolately, "I haven't done anything to deserve to move up."

In fact, Dorsett did plenty to deserve to move down. His misadventures started shortly before training camp when he made headlines for the first time in his pro career Trouble was, he did his scrimmaging not on a football field but in a Dallas disco. Two charges of simple assault were filed against Dorsett, one by a bartender, the other by a barmaid. When Dorsett arrived in camp, one of his new teammates greeted him as "Ali Jr." On the second day of practice he was detected dogging it during a drill and had to run a penalty lap. The first night the players did not have meetings Dorsett missed curfew, offering the lame excuse of a traffic jam. He was roundly hoorahed by his fellow rookies for lack of originality, and Coach Tom Landry fined him $87.50—half the standard levy because the Cowboys' full squad still had not reported. "With his bankroll, he can afford it," said rookie Placekicker Leonard Allen.

Then, on the second carry of his first intersquad scrimmage against the San Diego Chargers, Dorsett hurt his knee. He is small by NFL standards—standing just a fraction over 5'10" and weighing only 188 pounds—and his durability was the sole concern of the Cowboys when they drafted him. For a moment the Cowboys and their prize rookie held their breaths. "A lot of pain shot up in my leg," said Dorsett. "I thought it was serious enough to take me to the table." The injury was not serious, but it limited Dorsett's practice and playing time for four weeks. After the scrimmage Landry noted cheerlessly, " Dorsett's going to be a great back...if he can stay healthy. You've got to stay healthy. That's what the NFL is all about."

Dorsett's life as a Texas millionaire got off to an agreeable start. Shortly after the draft he signed a five-year, $1.1 million contract package with the Cowboys, and while No. 1 draft choice Ricky Bell managed to pry $1.2 million from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dorsett is not complaining. As part of his contract, Dorsett received a stupendous bonus from the Cowboys—reportedly $600,000—and the payments have been spread out in such a way that he will still be receiving bonus money in 1996.

Anticipating the lucrative contract, Dorsett bought a dove-gray Continental with "TD" in ornate burgundy script near the handle of each door. Then he bought a motorcycle. "For gas economy," he says. "I've always been good with money," Dorsett told Mary Elson of the Dallas Times Herald. "No matter how much I've had, I've never gone out and thrown it around. And I'm not throwing it around now. But I'm getting so many things I've always wanted." He picked out an $80,000 house for his parents in Aliquippa, Pa. and rented a posh apartment for himself in Dallas. He also has talked about building a mansion with tennis courts, a swimming pool and a few horses on a couple of acres in Dallas. "I don't think I need anything else," he said.

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