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Running is so natural to me. When I was running track, people used to ask me, 'When are you gonna start running hard?' The wind hits me in the face, and I feel so smooooooth.... Man, I love to run!
On Eric Dickerson's first day in a Los Angeles Rams uniform, at a preseason minicamp in the spring of 1983, head coach John Robinson sensed for the first time the singular gift of the man around whom he sought to build his offense.
Of course, Robinson had known of Dickerson for years, since he had first seen his filmed exploits as a star running back at Sealy High in Sealy, Texas (pop. 4,418), which is about 50 miles due west of Houston. At the time Robinson was the head football coach at the University of Southern California and was recruiting Dickerson to play there. "He was a sensational high school player," Robinson says. "One of two or three great players in the country that year." In fact, Robinson dropped by to see Dickerson during his senior year at Sealy, meeting him in the office of Ralph Harris, the football coach and athletic director. Dickerson made the meeting as brief as any Robinson had that year.
"I really like USC, Coach, but it's a little too far away for me," Dickerson said. "I'm gonna go to Oklahoma."
"Well, good luck," Robinson said. "I'm sorry we can't get you. You're a good one."
Small talk aside, that was basically that. Robinson had no idea that a man so big—Dickerson was 6'3", 202 pounds at the time—could carry himself with such swift, soundless grace. Oh, they all knew he was fast. The year before, as a 17-year-old junior with little schooling in track, he had won the state championship in the 100-yard dash in 9.4. Because he was so big, they all perceived him as a power runner, a bone-jarring hoss who used his speed and power to crash through lines for daylight. That was how Bruce Snyder, now the Rams' running back coach, assessed Dickerson when he was coaching at Utah State and Dickerson was playing for Southern Methodist (he had decided not to go to Oklahoma after all) against Brigham Young in the 1980 Holiday Bowl.
"He looked big and physical," Snyder says. "And the first impression was that he was not very fast or nimble-footed."
So when he showed up at that first minicamp with the Rams, Robinson and Snyder were expecting this hoss. And that was why, when they discovered what they really had, Dickerson so awed them. Deceived by Dickerson's grace, Robinson kept yelling at him as he sent him through holes in the line. "Run faster, Eric! Run faster!" And, "Hit the holes faster! You gotta go quick!" Frustrated, Dickerson finally turned to Robinson and said, "Coach, I'm runnin' as fast as I can. Let's run together across this field. You'll find out how fast I'm runnin'."
"He made no noise when he ran," Robinson says.
"You couldn't hear anything," Snyder agrees. "You can usually hear a runner's pads; they'll flop around a little bit. And you'll hear feet on the ground. And with a big man, you'll get more sound vocally, a kind of breathing and grunting."