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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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When Dorsett first came to Dallas, he got serious with a girl who subsequently died of a rare nerve disorder. This year a Cowboy defensive tackle named Don Smerek was shot in the chest outside a Dallas nightclub frequented by some of the players. The Cowboys were told of the shooting just before a game at San Francisco; they were thrashed by the 49ers, 45-14, their worst defeat in 11 years.

A strong man, Smerek survived, and after being released from the hospital he visited the Cowboy locker room. Dorsett was shocked. "His chest used to be huge, like two dumbbells," says Dorsett. "But now, my God.... He said when he was shot, he could feel himself dying."

These things have their effect, and it isn't surprising that over the years a lot of the kid stuff has been wiped out of Dorsett. "Tragedies make you realize how selfish you are," he says. "Death has a way of putting things in perspective." Since going into the NFL, Dorsett has been active in numerous charities, notably the American Heart Association, to which he feels a closeness because of Melvin.

"Marriage isn't the thing that changed Tony entirely," says Julie, who met Dorsett while she was working as a lab technician in California, near the Cowboys' Thousand Oaks summer training camp. "He's told me that I've made a big change in his life—because now he has somebody to share things with. Right after the Cowboys lost the NFC championship game last January, we sat and talked and he said how he just wanted to straighten out all of his life, to change a lot of things so he could do what was best for his career. He proposed to me then, and we were married in April. I don't understand a lot of things about football—in fact, I had to think a long time before I knew I wanted to share the pressures of his life with him. And there are a lot of pressures. But I know that being named captain shocked him and moved him. And I know he really wants to succeed with the Cowboys."

Says Brandt: "A bad wife can be bad, but a good, understanding wife can help a lot."

Dallas has just stunned Miami. Down by 13 points with five minutes to play, the Cowboys rallied for two touchdowns and a 28-27 victory. The crowd was noisy (for Cowboy fans). Dorsett, who gained 122 yards on 24 carries, says the fans were the reason the team had momentum on its last drive.

Wide Receiver Butch Johnson and Dorsett sit now at a table in the party room at Dorsett's house, out there on the plains where people tether horses in their backyards. (Dorsett fell while riding a horse a couple of years ago and these days prefers to charge around the countryside on his Kawasaki 750.) The room features a huge stereo, a bar, a trophy or two, and Dallas-blue and silver decorations. Dorsett had it done this way and calls it his "Cowboy Room."

Earlier Dorsett had said that his major goal was to go to Super Bowl after Super Bowl, but that a smaller goal was to be mentioned some day "in the same breath" with O.J. Simpson, Jim Brown, Gale Sayers, Walter Payton and Earl Campbell. He also said that it's time for him to start thinking about life after football, to start meeting the right business people. "In a way, I feel like I've wasted four years," he said.

Johnson, an entertaining and excitable person—something of a Cowboy anomaly—has been explaining why Dorsett isn't as popular in Texas as Campbell. And he has been explaining what Dorsett can do to rectify the situation. Among other things, he says, he can socialize with Howard Cosell. Dorsett is listening, with a determination that verges on obsession.

A few days later Dorsett would discuss the changes he is now going through. "People can say, 'You can't buck the system,' right? 'Perform or leave,' right? But a lot of it is realizing what your role is. I've found I can do certain things and still remain me. With friends, my wife and I can be ourselves; with diplomatic people, we can be diplomatic. Now I know you've got to be versatile in life. Programs go on with or without you."

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