"Oh, Lord, them folks would just drive you crazy," Viola says. "They'd be here morning, noon and night. Some would be in the house and others would be standing at the end of the road waiting for them to leave. Those folks gave me high blood pressure. I'm still taking medicine for it."
Barry Switzer, the Oklahoma coach, came to the house twice, but Viola was not taken by him. "All he talks about is football and Billy Sims," Viola told Eric. But that is where Dickerson wanted to go. "They were always on television," he says. "They just seemed so glamorous." Viola urged him toward SMU because she liked coach Ron Meyer—he talked a lot about family and education—and Dallas was only 200 miles away. "I want you to stay in Texas so I get a chance to see you play," she told him.
So off he went to Dallas. Despite platooning with Craig James for four years, Dickerson gained 4,450 yards to break Earl Campbell's Southwest Conference rushing record. After finishing third in the Heisman Trophy voting, he found himself torn again, this time between the Rams and the Express. And once again he turned to Viola, calling her one day from Southern California to explain the decision facing him.
"Let me think it over," she told him. "Call me in the morning." The next day she had her answer. "Go with the NFL," she said. "They've been around longer than that other league."
That was all the push that Dickerson needed. After signing with the Rams, he quickly developed a reputation among his fellow players for being tight with a buck. To be sure, he has always been mindful of money and his worth to the Rams, which, after his '84 season, he figured to be considerably more than the $350,000 they were due to pay him in 1985.
In April he fired his Colorado-based agent, Jack Mills, and hired the former WBC heavyweight champion, Ken Norton, and Norton's business manager, Jack Rodri. "Jack Mills was too far from me," Dickerson says. "He's there in Boulder. I don't know what's going on out in Boulder. I can't see my money. I don't know what he's doing with it sometimes." Dickerson lives only an hour's ride from his new agents' offices in downtown Los Angeles. And on the eve of training camp, Dickerson announced that he was holding out until the Rams extended his contract.
In any case, tales of Eric's parsimony have been greatly exaggerated. In his rookie year, Dickerson bought Viola a red Cadillac for her 79th birthday. On her 80th birthday he gave her a $10,500 mink coat. Then came the new house on the old wedge of land in Sealy. He and former Rams quarterback Vince Ferragamo gave the offensive linemen fancy Rolex watches in 1983, and last year Dickerson presented each of his linemen with a gold ring bearing the historic numeral 2105. "There is no better offensive line than mine," Dickerson says. And none more appreciative of a back's success.
One of Dickerson's closest friends, in fact, is none other than David Hill, the great blocker that Robinson acquired to make the one-back attack work. "Eric makes it easy for us," Hill said. "He hits the line quick and that's the best thing that can happen for an offensive lineman. There are times when I'd miss a block—you know, one of those matador blocks where you have the cape and say 'Ole!' and the guy is by you—and Eric just put a move on him or ran so fast that the guy never touched him. Everything happens so much quicker. With another back, you feel you have to hold a block longer. With Eric, you have to make your block quicker." And so they complement each other perfectly.
"It's hard to find daylight," Dickerson says. "But it's great when you find it. Man, I love to run!"