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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 had created ripples in Pittsburgh—had a child with his high school sweetheart (they agreed not to marry); piled up reams of parking tickets at school—but people forgave quickly around there. After all, Dorsett was born just about 20 miles from the Golden Triangle. But now he was in Dallas, a Texas boomtown where rich people wore boots, ate chicken-fried steak and liked their football players respectful. The paradox was that certain things were so easy—Dorsett didn't even start for the Cowboys until the 10th game of his rookie year, but he still set team records for most rushing touchdowns in a season, longest run from scrimmage and most yards in a game—while other things were so hard. Why didn't Landry run him more? Who cared if he was late for a practice? Why couldn't you have fun and still be a Cowboy?

"Tony is shy to a degree," says his good friend, Cornerback Dennis Thurman. "And from the start people here misunderstood him. Realistically, having that much money and coming from where he did, well, he needed time to adjust. But he got labeled a troublemaker—which he certainly isn't—and it's hard to get rid of that. He was always accepted by the players. But it's only now that he's acting the way outside people expected from Day One."

Today is an interesting one for Dorsett. He has been named Best-Dressed Man in Professional Sport by the Custom Tailors Guild in New York, and he thinks that's a hoot, typical of the press he has come to distrust and fear. "I mean, how do they know what I wear?" he asks. "How many times do I even go to New York?"

He stares with awe at the floor in front of his locker. Though Dorsett is indeed a snappy dresser, the award does seem rather silly just now. He has plans to go to dinner at a nice restaurant, but he has forgotten his dress shirt. And he slammed his new sport coat in his car door, ripping it and spotting it with grease.

As the room empties, various items near Dorsett's locker become evident. Dennis Thurman has a picture of Sugar Ray Leonard in his locker. D.D. Lewis has a picture of Drew Pearson. Drew Pearson has a picture of Tony Hill. Robert Newhouse, the veteran fullback, has syringes in his locker, and he limps off to give himself an allergy shot in the bathroom. "When Tony arrived, the fullback stopped running," Newhouse says. "Just kidding."

Prominent in Dorsett's locker is a New York Yankee hat and a tall jar of gumballs. On the bench is a large stack of envelopes; Dorsett has had to hire a secretary to answer his mail. At the bottom of the locker is a cracked stained-glass picture of Dorsett, given him by a fan. People give Dorsett a lot of things, which is a problem because they usually want something in return. In 1979 someone gave him a mirror. Dorsett dropped it on his right big toe, breaking it, and missed the entire preseason and the first regular-season game.

"Probably Tony's biggest problem in the beginning was that he couldn't say no to anybody," says Brandt. "He spread himself too thin. He'd say, 'I'll be at your house at eight and yours at nine,' and it was impossible."

At dinner Dorsett considers his past. "I'd say that things did come at me too fast, and that I was a little naive. But everything was so easy. Going from nothing at Pitt to the national championship and the Heisman. Then the Super Bowl. Then Rookie of the Year.... It still freaks me out.

"After a while I just started drifting, taking it easy and getting my thousand yards. I don't know why—maybe it was not carrying as much as I wanted—but I wouldn't do anything for two or three series and I'd lose my feel for the game.

"The thing that changed it for me was the NFC championship game last year. I didn't get a lot of yards and we lost to Philadelphia. I know I didn't lose the game, but something came together then and made me want to reach out. I'd always worked and now I wasn't working anymore. I decided I would run and lift weights and do whatever it took. If I failed, I wanted it to be all of me. I'd do whatever the team wanted. If I ran only two times a game, I'd be the best two-carry-a-game runner that I could be."

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