Eric's adoptive father, Kary, was a steadying force in his life. "Eric was never a minute's trouble," Viola says. "He did all the things the other boys did. Slip off and go huntin' and fishin' and swimmin' and scare me to death. He played everything in school. Basketball, track, football. In football, when they all made a pile on him, I was so scared he wouldn't be able to get up. Lots of times I jumped up and started down on the field, and my husband would say, 'He'll be all right!' "
Eric adored Kary. Two heart attacks had forced him to retire from the Santa Fe in 1956, but he attended all the football games at Sealy, despite the pains in his chest. "I was so afraid he would have a heart attack," Dickerson says. "Mama used to warn him, 'You stop goin' to these games. You'll die in these stands one day watching Eric play football.' " He died at home in 1977, in Dickerson's junior year in high school, and Eric still grieves. "He was a good man," Dickerson says. "I never saw him get mad. He was so understanding."
By then Dickerson was on his way to becoming the most electrifying high school football player in Texas, but he didn't have an easy time of it at Sealy. He intensely disliked coach Harris, a harsh and inflexible disciplinarian who imposed strict hair and dress codes on his players, banning Afros and cornrows and jewelry. He worked the players so late at times that they had to turn on the lights. He berated them as "losers" when they were defeated, kicked chairs and once tore down a blackboard.
Harris, the tight-end coach at the University of Texas today, confesses to excess. "I was a stern disciplinarian," he says. "I demanded what I thought it took to become a champion. I'm old-fashioned. We eliminated the individual. That's where I was out of line. I went to the total team concept, but I went overboard. I tried to take away the youngster's individuality, which he deserves to have. I overdid it. I was very young and had a lot to learn."
Dickerson rebelled at Harris's methods. "Me and Ralph just didn't get along," he says. "I couldn't stand him sometimes. He rode us too hard. He was always talking about we were a bunch of losers. I couldn't stand that."
In fact, Dickerson and some other black players quit the team as freshmen. Dickerson returned to play as a sophomore, but he and Harris butted heads through that year and the next. The situation came to a head in Dickerson's junior year when he lost his temper in a basketball game and fought an opponent. Acting in his role as athletic director, Harris suspended Eric from participation in all sports. It was only after Dickerson underwent strenuous predawn workouts—Harris called them "sunrise services"—that he was permitted to run track that spring and play football his senior year.
By Dickerson's final season, he and Harris had come to a truce of sorts. "I think I learned that people who are exceptional don't fit the traditional mold," Harris says. "To force them into that is unfair to them. Eric was inelastic and so was I."
Sealy High went 15-0 in Dickerson's senior year. The team crowned its season by defeating Wylie High of suburban Dallas, the defending champion, 42-20 for the state Class AA title as Dickerson scored four touchdowns and rushed for 296 yards, a state title game record that still stands. In those 15 wins, Dickerson gained 2,642 yards, scored 37 TDs and earned praise as the best high school running back in the nation. But whatever he did for himself hardly compared to what he did for the town.
For the championship game, in far-off Waco, the townspeople chartered 13 buses. Tom Golson, the superintendent of schools, said the joke around town was, "Last one out of Sealy turn out the lights."
"What Eric accomplished for Sealy, Texas was he brought the races closer together over the long run," Golson says. "More people got to know each other, so there were better feelings all around." Of course, he also brought the college scouts closer together, too. "There were 13 or 14 at every game," Golson says. Coaches came to town from all the big schools around the country looking for bowl insurance. The recruiting got so intense that Eric hid at friends' houses.