But he did go back, as he still does today, because the town is a refuge from the life of celebrity and glitter that he leads in L.A. When Dickerson isn't chasing around the banquet circuit and accepting awards, he is at his agents' L.A. office counting his money or hanging out at his Orange County town house, which stands above a bleak canyon ruled by rattlesnakes and coyotes but provides the privacy he covets. Or he is dashing about in one of his three cars: a gray, '83 Porsche, a red '84 Porsche and a gray '85 Mercedes-Benz. He's in love with a girl from Atlanta, but he's also a bachelor and intends to stay that way.
"I love being single," he says. "I can come and go as I please and stay out as late as I want to."
There's still a lot of the small-town kid in Dickerson, and he has not yet learned how to deflect and deal with the pressures of the media circus. Early in July, with stories breaking regularly in the Los Angeles papers about his unhappiness with his current four-year, $2.2 million deal, he fled back to Texas. "I've been on the run so much, doing this and that," he says. "I thought I was gonna have a nervous breakdown. I had to go home and relax. I was too tense. I know when I have to go home because I start getting headaches. Tension. Anything will worry me. I may not get a check for the light bill off in time and I just get to worrying. I'm a worrywart."
But in Sealy he can spend time with his family, particularly his "mother," Viola Dickerson, who is actually his great-great aunt. She raised him from the day she brought him home from the Sealy Hospital, where he was born on Sept. 2, 1960. She finally adopted him in 1963.
Viola, without doubt, has been the single most important influence in Dickerson's life. Though knowing very little about football—"I like baseball," she says—Viola is the reason why Dickerson ended up at SMU instead of Oklahoma, which he preferred. And it was she who prevailed upon him to sign with the Rams instead of the Los Angeles Express of the United States Football League.
At age 80, she is a shy, kindly and churchgoing woman who still misses the small, two-bedroom frame house where she lived with her late husband, Kary, who laid tracks for the Santa Fe Railway. Last year Dickerson built her a spacious, two-story, centrally air-conditioned house. "I just miss all the memories, so many sweet memories with my husband. I was just as happy as I could be in that old house," she says. "It was an old companion. We had a wonderful life there. I remember Christmas and New Year's. They'd all come to my house for dinner, all my nieces and nephews and cousins. It had two bedrooms. I built Eric a room on it, on the side, in later years. He was so long and tall, he had to have a king-size bed. He had a double bed, but it was too small, like being in a casket. What I miss most about that house is I liked to raise my windows to let the good fresh air come in. These stay closed up because of the air conditioning."
Viola grew up on a farm outside Sealy, the sixth of seven children of a sharecropper. She dreamed of going to college and becoming a schoolteacher. "I finished the high school for black children in the 11th grade—that was as high as you could go those days—but my dad wouldn't send me to college. So I went to the 11th grade for two more years. He always told me, 'If I educate anybody, it's gonna be one of the boys, not the girls.' He said, 'If they get a husband, they're not gonna make any money for you.' I was sure disappointed."
Instead, she milked cows and plowed, walking behind the mules, picked cotton for a dollar per 100 pounds, washed clothes and darned socks and eventually started cooking for the town doctor, at $2.50 a week. Eventually, she says, "I got him up to $12.50 a week."
All her brothers and sisters married and raised families, but Viola remained childless. "It just wasn't intended for me," she says. "But I had a hand in raising a bunch of them." After one of her older sisters, Willie Bee Gentry, died in childbirth, Viola helped raise one of her daughters, Johnnie Mae. And when Johnnie Mae grew up and had a daughter, Helen, Viola helped out by taking her in at 16 months and raising her, too. It was Helen, at age 16, who gave birth to the fattest baby in Sealy and turned him over to Viola for adoption.
That, of course, was Eric. To this day, after growing up in the same house with her, Dickerson still calls his natural mother "Helen" and sees her only as a sibling. "We argue just like brother and sister," he says. Eric hardly knows his father, who lives in Houston. "To me, he's just like any other guy," Dickerson says. "I mean, no one special." Helen eventually married a landscaper Robert Johnson, and they have four kids of their own. They all live right next door to Viola. Now and then, Johnnie Mae comes by to visit from Houston. "It's one big family now," Viola says.