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HELL ON WHEELS
Rick Telander
December 07, 1981
Having mastered The System, Dallas' Tony Dorsett is speeding to the finest season he has had since turning pro
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December 07, 1981

Hell On Wheels

Having mastered The System, Dallas' Tony Dorsett is speeding to the finest season he has had since turning pro

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Dorsett speaks often of seeing "flashes of color" when he runs, blips of enemy hue that steer him through trouble like warning lights. On that play, though, he doesn't know what he saw. "It wasn't even color flashes," he says. "Sometimes it's just this feeling for everything that's happening around you, almost like an outside force. I knew people were coming and I stepped back in a spin...and...it was incredible." He stops there, humbled by the memory.

When a great runner gets the ball, the last thing you want him to do is think. Al Lavan, the Cowboys' running back coach, says that one of the big differences in Dorsett's rushing this year is that he now comprehends all the elements of the plays he runs—the blocking, the timing, the pursuit angles, the purpose of the plays—and can call these things up in midstride, without thinking.

"He has that great reflex," says Lavan. "When something flashes in front of him, he'll run away from it—but it can also be a liability on certain plays. So we try to get him the ball where he can best utilize his abilities—deep in the backfield, quick up the middle, in the open, one on one. Our toss play, which is like USC's Student Body Right or Left, is really our bread and butter, the one play that has to be effective for our offense to work. When we come out in the I formation, everybody figures we're going to toss to Tony, but it doesn't matter as long as we run it right. Tony has such a good feel for the toss right now—we're averaging over five yards on it—that it's making everything else work. I try not to tell him too much, and I never tell him how to run, because at this point it would only restrict him."

Tony Dorsett is little—5'10", 188 pounds—but he is quick, agile and fast, three distinct qualities. He is even tough. At Hopewell High School in Aliquippa he was All-America as a running back and all-state as a monster back. But the adjectives quick, agile, fast set him apart.

"The reason he strikes fear in everybody's heart on the field," says Chicago General Manager Jim Finks, "is that he has that rare ability to start and stop—which you usually don't find in the blazers—plus the ability to go all the way at any time. He reminds me most of Gale Sayers, who, until his knees went, never got caught from behind."

The Cowboys, as everyone knows, have tests for everything. No one has run their agility test, a course that is dotted with cones and hurdles, faster than Dorsett. They have another drill, developed by Conditioning Coach Dr. Bob Ward, called the Agility-Speed-Unexpected Visual Stimulus Test, which uses flashing lights to direct runners in various directions. No one has come close to Dorsett in that one, either. As Ward says, "Dorsett's ability to perceive the unexpected is extraordinary."

Brandt speaks of the "trout" in Dorsett, his ability to wiggle upfield, to make tacklers behind him miss. But in a straight line Dorsett is also unique. He repeatedly ran 4.3 40s at the University of Pittsburgh, and at the 1979 Super Stars competition he clocked a 9.5 hundred—in tennis shoes, on cement, with a bad start. In fact, Dorsett probably is one of the two or three fastest running backs ever to play the pro game.

Still, it is remarkable that no one has ever stopped him, at any level. He has been a running back for 11 years—two in high school, four in college, five as a pro—and he has rushed for more than 1,000 yards all 11. His lowest total—1,004 yards—came in 1974 as a sophomore in college. His highest—1,948 yards—came in 1976 as a senior. As a pro he averaged 1,156 yards a year before this, his best season. His durability doesn't compute; he has had no knee surgery, no serious injuries of any kind. When he arrived at Pitt, he weighed 155 pounds. Four years later he had broken or tied 14 NCAA records, including most yards rushing in a career (6,082) and most points in a career (356). He won the Heisman Trophy in 1976—"If held played both ways, he could have won three," says Johnny Majors, his coach at Pitt—and a year later he led the Cowboys to their second Super Bowl championship. "He was the ingredient that made us champions," says Brandt, in case there is any doubt.

On the surface everything has gone splendidly for Dorsett all along. In Dallas he started right off with the endorsements for Converse and 7Up. His football contract, renewed last season, was for six figures. The girls were always there. Maybe he fumbled too much, but he was a small man in a vicious game. In a 1979 Gallup survey, American teenagers voted Dorsett their second favorite sports personality. First choice was near-saint Roger Staubach.

The problem was that although Dorsett was an adult, he was reluctant to put away youthful things. A lot of it was friskiness, just plain I'm-rich-and-happy exuberance: the stories about acting ("No, I don't think I want to act," he says now), the time he and a date were taken to jail in handcuffs (because Dorsett didn't think the cops were acting civilly toward them), the vanity license plates that read TD 33 ("I got rid of those fast," he says). But some of it was because he was spoiled.

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