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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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THE RECORD OF A 1,000-YARD MAN

YEAR

TEAM

CARRIES

YARDS

AVE.

TDs

1971

Hopewell High

139

1,034

7.4

19

1972

Hopewell High

171

1,283

7.5

23

1973

Pitt

288

1,586

5.5

12

1974

Pitt

220

1,004

4.6

11

1975

Pitt

228

1,544

6.8

14

1976

Pitt

338

1,948

5.8

21

1977

Dallas

208

1,007

4.8

13

1978

Dallas

290

1,325

4.6

10

1979

Dallas

250

1,107

4.4

7

1980

Dallas

278

1,185

4.3

11

1981

Dallas*

264

1,331

5.0

4

* 1981 totals through 13 games

Pete Gent is there, in the second row, looking troubled. In front of him sits Don Meredith, long-jawed, half-hayseed, smiling like a sharp. Don Perkins is there, too, and Bob Hayes and Dan Reeves. Way in the back looms big Bob Lilly. Nobody seems to know how the 1965 Dallas Cowboys team photo made its way onto the locker room bulletin board next to the sign-up sheet for a team dove hunt at the Helms Ranch in Mount Vernon, Texas and a quote about football and hell from Herschel Walker. But there it is. And as the players trickle out, most stop to look at the old-timers.

Tony Dorsett walks up and puts a finger on the photo, looking up at the faces and then down at the names listed below. "Don Perkins," he says softly. "Renfro." His eyes move to the grimacing young man sitting in the second row, the one who looks upset, betrayed somehow, as though the sun is shining in his eyes only.

"Pete Gent?" asks Dorsett. It is Gent, a Cowboy receiver from 1964 to 1968, the player who fell out with The Cowboys' System and later wrote his indictment of it, North Dallas Forty. There have been other name players who fell out—Pat Toomay, Duane Thomas, Hollywood Henderson; The System doesn't even tolerate sitting on the fence—but Gent is probably the best known and most thoughtful of them, the outcasts, the Men Who Didn't Fit.

If there is tension in Dorsett as he gazes at the photo, it is because until recently he seemed to be falling out, too. Though he routinely gained a thousand yards a year for the Cowboys, Dorsett didn't have that something—obedience, perhaps—that let Dallasites know where he stood, whether or not he was a real company man. Early along he did that uncool stuff—got into a bar fight, changed the pronunciation of his name from DOR-sett to Dor-SETT (which is how a buddy said they said it in France), told folks he'd be quitting football after five years to go into acting full time, had "TD" painted on the doors of his Lincoln Continental.

Dallas fans, described by Gil Brandt, the vice-president for personnel development, as "a white-collar, discerning audience," cheered players like Randy White and Harvey Martin. But they showered Dorsett with ambivalence. In 1978 Dorsett's parents flew in from the family hometown, Aliquippa, Pa., to watch a game. Dorsett had missed a practice earlier that week and been fined, and when he entered the game, the crowd at Texas Stadium heartily booed. It was a bad scene.

Dorsett was a proud but confused young man back then. In 1977, his rookie year, he told a reporter, "No one's gonna bad-mouth me in Pittsburgh, Dallas or Timbuktu." It sounded worse than he meant it. On the field he was good; as a Cowboy he wasn't making it.

And then, last spring, things changed abruptly, amazingly. Dorsett got married. He gave up his apartment in town and with his wife, Julie, and her 5-year-old daughter, Shukura, moved into a house 21 miles northeast of Dallas. He stayed out of bars; he worked out furiously; he showed up for camp last July in perfect shape. Tom Landry took one look and named Dorsett a team captain. The hottest items on Dallas sports pages became "New Tony Dorsett" stories. He seemed happy enough, and yet there was something almost grim about the 27-year-old's determination, his measured speech, his avoidance of controversy. He has maintained that attitude this season, and no doubt as a result is having his best year ever, with 1,331 yards rushing, 5.0 yards per carry. What happened?

"You hope in this life" that you grow and don't always repeat your mistakes," Dorsett says, turning from the 1965 team picture. "I'm in the best shape physically and mentally I've ever been in and I don't want to waste anything now. I've made adjustments." He shrugs. "I mean, I guess I've matured."

As Dorsett walks blank-faced across the parking lot, it's clear that Pete Gent is no longer on his mind.

If you want one play that best illustrates what Tony Dorsett can do on a football field, you could go with a run he made off left tackle last year against St. Louis. The ball was on the Cardinals' four-yard line. The right defensive end was crashing down, the right linebacker was filling, the two corners were blitzing, and Dorsett was heading full steam into what was essentially a cup of defenders. Suddenly he pivoted on his right foot and stepped straight back out of the hole, turning 360 degrees. The two corners, Roger Wehrli and Carl Allen, collided headfirst at the exact spot where Dorsett had been an instant before. Dorsett swung wide around the left end, and though hemmed in by the safety, somehow outran him for a touchdown. The play lasted only a few seconds, but during it five defenders knew they were going to tackle Dorsett, yet none of them even touched him.

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