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The defense must make Vince Lombardi turn over in his grave, and the Packer sweep doesn't bowl anyone over anymore, but in Green Bay they're getting ready to break out THE PACK IS BACK bumper stickers again. The reason? Simple. In this Age of Airball the Packers have the jazziest passing game in the NFC. Green Bay finished the strike-shortened '82 season with the best record (5-3-1) among NFC Central teams, and after Sunday's 27—24 win over the Los Angeles Rams, the Packers are 2-1 and flying high again.
In James Lofton, John Jefferson and Paul Coffman, Green Bay has the best trio of receivers in the NFC. But the unlikely hero of the Pack's air attack is Lynn Dickey, a 33-year-old, immobile, oft-injured but strong-armed quarterback. Dickey didn't play a full season as a starter until 1980, his 10th year in the NFL, but now he's leading the league in passing. Through Sunday's game he had completed 63 of 87 passes—72.4%—for 911 yards and nine touchdowns. Dickey is also the career leader among quarterbacks in the category of gruesome injuries and ailments, and despite his brilliant start this season, 1983 has proved no exception in that regard.
Dickey's ills this year began when he got a headache on the Thursday before Green Bay's opener against Houston. No problem. Pain is Dickey's constant companion, the lapdog given to him at the start of his pro career. Without doubt, Dickey has been spindled, torn, battered, injected, cut, sutured, rehabbed, written off and resurrected more times than any other man still playing the game. His injuries have left him with a reputation as one tough hombre, a genuine stoic, a man who would battle Godzilla—and win—to stay at the job he loves.
The headache kept getting worse. On Friday, Dickey had to leave practice and go home because of the pain. Nobody doubted that this was real pain. Dickey, after all, had played part of the 1979 season with an 18-inch steel rod holding his lower left leg together and never complained. Nor did anyone assume that the cause of this headache, which couldn't be traced to fever or trauma, would be simple to pin down. "Lynn never has anything you can handle real easily," says Domenic Gentile, a Packer trainer for 22 years. "In the training room now, if a player comes in and has an injury we can't do anything about, we call it an L.D., a Lynn Dickey."
There was talk that Dickey might have to sit out the Houston game, which also would have been no surprise. In his NFL career he has missed 53 games because of injury. It wasn't always like this. Indeed, Dickey's early years back in Osawatomie, Kans. (pop. 4,500) were tranquil and relatively pain-free. "Lynn spent his time throwing things and playing games," says his father, Carl, a retired railroadman for the Missouri-Pacific. "He didn't know what an injury was." Dickey didn't miss a game in high school, and at Kansas State he was unavailable just once, because of bruised ribs. His notions of physical hardship and limitation came from observing his older brother Larry, who was crippled by polio at age six.
Things began to change for Dickey when he arrived at the 1971 Senior Bowl. Fired up by all the gawking pro scouts, Dickey threw too hard too fast in the game after not warming up sufficiently, and his arm got sore. "I could almost hear the scouts mumbling," says Dickey, a slow-talking, self-effacing type. "I'd been told I'd be a first-round pick, but I figured I was dropping a few notches."
He figured right. He wasn't drafted until the third round, by Houston, which had already taken Quarterback Dan Pastorini in the first round. Dickey rode the bench behind Pastorini that first year, but in 1972 he figured he had a shot at the starting job. Then came a preseason game against St. Louis at the Astrodome.
With his receivers covered, Dickey tried to scramble but was grabbed from behind by a Cardinal defender, who rode him to the artificial turf piggyback style. Dickey's left knee struck the ground with such force that it jammed his left hipbone out of its socket, breaking off a piece of the socket bone and tearing ligaments in the process.
The Oilers' doctor snapped Dickey's hip back into its socket, and Dickey felt so relieved he tried to stand up so he could go back to the huddle. The doctor kept him down. Indeed, the injury was so severe that it didn't even resemble a sports injury; it was like the kind of joint damage associated with a high-speed, head-on auto collision, a "dashboard injury," as it's called in emergency rooms.
The next day Dickey was flown to Boston to undergo surgery by a hip specialist. The broken piece of socket bone was reattached with two screws. "I think it was the worst nerve injury I've ever seen," says Dr. Robert Fain, the Houston team physician who became associated with the Oilers at the time of Dickey's rehabilitation. Dickey had to get injections in his back for several weeks to give him nerve blocks for the unremitting pain. He remembers getting a shot of morphine one night and passing out, then waking up and crying himself back to sleep. One morning he had no feeling in his left leg. A doctor came in his room with a pin and an ink marker and began jabbing Dickey in the leg, making marks where he had no feeling. The doctor said that he would return in an hour and that, if the numbness hadn't subsided he would be forced to reopen the 13-inch incision on Dickey's hip. Dickey asked if he could get his leg out of traction for a while. The doctor removed it from traction and left, and Dickey started beating fiercely on his leg. Eventually some feeling came back, and Dickey was able to avoid another session with the knife. The pain was still severe a month later when Dickey left the Boston hospital to begin learning to walk again.