There was none of that with Dickerson. "He was so smooth," Robinson said. "That's the thing that surprised me. If you were blind, he could run right by you, and I don't think you'd know he was there unless you felt the wind. He's unique in that way. He is an extremely powerful runner, but he's so graceful it's really deceiving. He's the smoothest runner I've ever seen."
At age 24, after only two seasons of professional football, Dickerson has become the most productive runner in the National Football League and, barring injuries, is on his way to becoming the greatest ground-gainer in the game's history. Last Dec. 9—in the 15th game of the season and to a sustained ovation from 49,092 folks in Anaheim Stadium—Dickerson slashed around the left side of Houston's line for nine yards. That carry gave him 2,007 yards for the season, four more than O.J. Simpson's single-season rushing record set during a 14-game schedule in 1973. A week later he added 98 more yards against San Francisco, giving him 2,105 yards and a new NFL record to shoot at in 1985.
"I feel I can do better this year than I did last," says Dickerson. "I think I'm with the right team with the right scheme and with the right coach and the right offensive line—at the right time."
Indeed, there appears a touch of fate in the emergence of Dickerson as the league's premier running back. When Robinson went to the Rams from USC in 1983, he quickly installed the one-back offense that glorified the run and (made a tradition of the tailback—the same offense, essentially, that had showcased Ricky Bell, Charles White and Marcus Allen at USC. After the Rams acquired the No. 2 pick in the '83 draft, Robinson grabbed Dickerson. The Rams had traded Wendell Tyler, making Dickerson the unquestioned centerpiece of the show, and buttressed the offensive line by obtaining tight end David Hill from the Detroit Lions.
Robinson considered a one-back attack when he drafted Dickerson, but it was the acquisition of Hill that sealed things. "A great blocker," says Robinson.
If Dickerson had a team, a scheme, a coach and a line suited perfectly to his gifts, the shifting strategy of the times was clearly in his favor, too. In his rookie year, with defensive alignments set to stop the pass, running the football became the thing to do. And no one did it quite like Dickerson.
"We wanted to see if Eric could handle the pressure of carrying the football," Robinson says. So they gave the ball to him and found out. No rookie running back has ever had such a year: 1,808 yards in 390 carries, an average of 4.6 yards, with 18 touchdowns. Only Jim Brown, Earl Campbell, Walter Payton and Simpson (twice) ever rushed for more yardage in a season. In '84 he carried 379 times, had an average gain of 5.6 yards and ran for 14 touchdowns.
Dickerson is faster than any of the great tailbacks Robinson coached at USC, the coach says, but speed alone does not a great runner make. "I think you can be an average speed guy and be a great runner," says Robinson. "Courage and vision are the things. It all starts with the eyes. The great runner has to see and be able to communicate whatever he sees to his feet—to see something and get his body to move toward it or away from it. Eric sees things differently. And I think all great runners are tough guys. Payton, Simpson, Brown, Allen—they always take such a beating. The running back has to have as much courage as any person playing any sport. I've never seen Eric intimidated."
Whatever the underlying gifts that make him what he is, Dickerson first began expressing them on the playing fields of Sealy. Corn and soybeans were major staples on the farms, but Sealy mattresses made it nationally famous. To Dickerson it was a humdrum place.
"Things were so boring," he says. "For a guy 17, 18 years old, there was nothing to do in Sealy. To have a good time, we used to go down to the 7-Eleven. I mean, that was it. Or you'd go to the bowling alley. Or you'd go out and ride around and say, 'God, this is boring!' The day before a game, everybody would go to Tom's Dairy Bar. It was like a big deal. That was it." More than once, Dickerson was heard to say, "If I ever get out of this hick town, I'm never coming back!"