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Here's what Curtis Dickey has seen in his life: for his first 18 years there was dirt poverty, as he grew up with his five brothers in the poor, black section of Bryan, Texas. His father died when he was 19. His mother "worked all along." He was an introverted youngster, whose shyness was made more acute by a slight speech impediment, but he was big and strong and fast and smart at football, and there was no defiance in his eyes. So it was inevitable that one day he would be in great demand by college football recruiters. They offered Dickey all the things recruiters offer big and strong and fast and compliant high school running backs, especially the ones rich in all those prized qualities. Dickey was considered the No. 1 high school prospect in the country in 1976. But he was a hometown boy, and his hometown had treated him well, so he turned away all the recruiters from far-off, glamorous schools. He wasn't even curious enough to accept invitations to visit such places as USC, or perhaps he didn't feel secure about venturing outside of Bryan.
Dickey enrolled at Texas A&M, the Hometown U. five miles from where he had grown up. No sooner had he enrolled than he became the star at a school so crazy about football that 26,000 of the 31,000 students buy season tickets. In his freshman year only 100 of those students were, like Dickey, black, and a fair number of them were athletes on scholarship, a situation that did little to alleviate Dickey's social insularity. But that didn't matter too much, because his life was centered around football anyhow—except for those few times when he joined the track team as a sprinter. He was a natural at that, too; he won the NCAA indoor sprint title this year and last and finished second in the 100 at the 1978 outdoor championships. He was working toward a diploma in physical education—though he will leave A&M next spring a few credit hours shy of earning his degree, not an unusual occurrence among pressed-for-time college football players—and he was well liked and he had nice clothes and a nice car and a little gold necklace that said SUPERSTAR. And a couple of close friends, other black football players. All he had to do to keep all those good things was to do what he was told, which he did very well.
So after 18 years of a boyhood narrowed by poverty and after nearly four years of a young adulthood sheltered in the college football system, Dickey became the second-best career rusher in Southwest Conference history (3,658 yards). Only Texas' Earl Campbell, to whom Dickey is often likened, had more (4,443). And Dickey accomplished this despite carrying the ball considerably fewer times than Campbell did. His number of rushes has been curtailed by persistent injuries, though he often played when hurt, which pleased his coaches and demonstrated once more how much character he has.
In a few months Dickey may be training to sprint in the Olympics. Then again, he may not. In April he will be drafted by the NFL; and he'll be picked early—probably first among the runners—because he is big and strong and fast and smart about football and has character. And it figures that Dickey will get along fine in the world of pro football, where there will always be someone to give him the direction he takes so well. He will make a lot of money and contribute to the success of a pro franchise.
But then, but then, Dickey might get injured, maybe slightly a lot of times or severely one time. That would make people lose interest in directing him. He'd find himself in the real world for the first time since his football talent was spotted. He'd find himself pedaling fast, maybe not even in a straight line, because self-direction would be fairly new to him. If he is as naturally street-smart as he is football-smart, everything would work out all right. But if he isn't....
Merrill Green, Dickey's high school coach, has watched him as long and as closely as anyone. "When he was a sophomore—this is how brilliant we were—we didn't put Curtis on the varsity at first because we didn't think he wanted to play," says Green, who at one time or another also coached coaches Barry Switzer of Oklahoma, Fred Akers of Texas and Tom Wilson, Dickey's mentor at A&M. "He was so introverted we thought he was indifferent. He didn't seem to care. He certainly didn't jump out at you. But then one night he gained more than 300 yards in a junior varsity game, which kind of woke us up.
"Soon we realized that not only could he run with a natural ability, but also that he had a natural sense for football and was very smart about plays and things. And all the time he was here he did everything we asked him. Everything. Sometimes when you have that super an athlete, you have a tiger by the tail attitude-wise. But Curtis did all we asked him and more, almost to a fault. He seemed to miss some of the outside world. I wouldn't say he was socially backward but I think his awareness of the outside world could have been developed more. If he only knew how great he really is, there's no telling what he could become."
Dickey is much less introverted today than he used to be, people say, and in fact doesn't really seem shy. The quietness he affects because of his stutter tends to mislead, to make him seem more timid than he is. He is quick to laugh—a high-pitched cackle that appears incongruous coming from his muscular 6'1", 205-pound body—and he's relaxed around people. He was elected one of A&M's four captains by his teammates. Wilson, his coach, sees leadership qualities in him. "As a captain, I have to be a leader," says Dickey. "In case the team be dyin', I have to go around, hit them on the head, be jokin' with them."
Unexpectedly, the Aggies have been dying quite a lot this year, and it has been a disappointing season for Dickey as well. He was considered Heisman material before the season started, but injuries have all but eliminated him as a candidate. Texas A&M was considered a threat for the Southwest Conference title, but the Aggies are 4-4 so far, with Arkansas and Texas remaining on the schedule. They have not been playing poorly—they clobbered Penn State 27-14 in their best showing so far—but untimely mistakes have cost them dearly: a one-point loss to undefeated and 11th-ranked Brigham Young when an A&M punt was blocked in the last minute and BYU took advantage of the break to score a touchdown and a two-point conversion; another one-point loss, to Texas Tech, when a blocked punt led to a field goal; and a tough defeat at the hands of then unbeaten and sixth-ranked Houston on a touchdown with 15 seconds remaining.
The A&M offense is designed around Dickey, its tailback. When he took over midway through the 1978 season, Wilson immediately junked the Aggies' wishbone in favor of the I formation to take advantage of Dickey's running. And Dickey has taken advantage of the I, rushing for 808 yards in 161 carries this year despite his injuries. The pro scouts remain very hot for him, Heisman or no, infirmities or no.