If there is one player that helped usher in the modern age of pro football, it was Eric Dickerson.
To be fair, there were a large number of athletes who helped drive the NFL to new heights beginning in the 1980s.
However, Dickerson was a standout who dropped jaws and elicited ahhh’s whenever he touched the ball.
The bespectacled Dickerson’s ability to slash, gash, and trash defenses was a thing of beauty.
He was elusive, quick, and had speed to burn.
During his time in the league, Dickerson set a new standard for rushing excellence.
He also set a new record that has yet to be broken.
This is the fascinating, controversial, and engaging story of Eric Dickerson.
Eric Dickerson pic.twitter.com/eAA7KdKmvW
— Denver_Gator (@gator_denver) January 10, 2021
Growing up in Texas
Eric Demetric Dickerson was born on September 2, 1960 in Sealy, Texas.
By the time he reached Sealy High School, Dickerson was already a well-known star in the making.
As a high school senior in 1978, his team went 15-0 and won the state football championship for their division.
Showcasing his speed even then, Dickerson ran for 296 yards and scored four touchdowns during the title game.
As a prep athlete, Dickerson also ran track. In 1977, he won two state titles.
In two of his better events, Dickerson ran the 100 meter dash in 10.3 seconds and a 200 meter time of 20.9 seconds.
With his name firmly entrenched in the lore of Texas high school sports, Dickerson had a healthy number of colleges seeking his services including Texas A&M (who he originally committed to), Oklahoma, USC, and Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
With the urging of his great-great aunt, he decided to attend SMU.
“The Pony Express”
Before Dickerson arrived, SMU was not traditionally known as a football powerhouse.
In fact, in the decade before Dickerson’s freshman year, the Mustangs never won more than seven games in a season.
All that changed when head coach Ron Meyer pulled in a recruiting class for the ages in 1979.
Along with Dickerson, Meyer was able to persuade prep stars Craig James and Charles Waggonner to become Mustangs.
During his freshman season at SMU, Dickerson saw limited playing time but still ran for 477 yards and six touchdowns.
SMU’s record in 1979 was 5-6, a one-win improvement over the previous year.
The boon in Meyer’s recruiting started to pay dividends in 1980.
That season, Dickerson received more rushing attempts and rushed for 928 yards and a combined seven touchdowns.
Powered by Dickerson and James, the Mustangs finished the ‘80 season 10-2.
Their 10 victories were the most by an SMU football squad since 1935.
After the season, the team was invited to play in the Holiday Bowl against a talented BYU squad led by star quarterback Jim McMahon.
The game turned out to be one of the best Holiday Bowls (and best bowl games period) in history.
Dickerson scored twice during the contest and James scored three times.
However, it was not enough as the Mustangs lost the game 46-45.
By 1981, The Pony Express (as Dickerson and James were called) had become one of the hottest college teams in the country.
1979 – 1982, Eric Dickerson and Craig James formed the Pony Express, one of the most dynamic backfield tandems in college football history.
•#PonyExpress #Football #CollegeFootball #FootballTrivia #EricDickerson #CraigJames #SMU
— The Daily Dose #DailyDoseSports (@DailyDSports) March 27, 2019
As a junior, Dickerson rushed for 1,428 yards and 19 scores.
He was named Second-team All-American and Southwest Conference Offensive Player of the Year and First-team All-SWC after the season.
The Mustangs ended the year 10-1 and were named NCF National Champions and Southwest Conference champs.
Before the 1982 college season, Meyer left to coach the New England Patriots.
The university hired Bobby Collins to take Meyers vacated position.
Despite the coaching change, SMU kept right on rolling.
The program cracked 11 wins and finished 11-0-1 on their way to being recognized as the Helms Poll National Champions and Southwest Conference champions.
Dickerson had his best rushing year as a collegian, running for 1,617 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Along the way, he was named a First-team All-American, First-team All-SWC for the second time and a repeat SWC Offensive Player of the Year winner.
After the season, Dickerson finished third in Heisman Trophy balloting behind Georgia’s Herschel Walker and Stanford’s John Elway.
For his college career, Dickerson rushed for 4,450 yards on 790 carries which broke Earl Campbell’s conference records for yards and attempts.
He also tied Doak Walker’s school record with 48 career touchdowns.
Controversies lead to the “Death Penalty” for SMU
Despite the feel-good story that SMU became during the early 80s’, there was skepticism surrounding the program, its coaches, and players.
First, there was the matter of high profile prep stars such as Dickerson and James choosing to attend SMU.
Local, state, and national media all wondered why a program with such little football clout bagged such a huge recruiting haul.
Then, there was the matter of the “Trans Am.”
Specifically, the brand new Trans Am Dickerson began driving around during his senior year of high school.
The car magically appeared around the time Dickerson committed to Texas A&M.
After he de-committed to A&M and took a scholarship from SMU, the car seemed to disappear.
To this day, Dickerson claims that his grandmother bought the vehicle for him.
As the Mustang program continued to improve, Meyer, Dickerson, and James (among others) came under fire for how they were winning.
By Dickerson’s senior year, it seemed like there was a daily story on how SMU “bought” players, ran a “pay for play” scheme, and/or gave their recruits “impermissible benefits” (according to NCAA lingo).
Dickerson addressed the NCAA in an October 2020 interview ahead of the release of his memoir.
“The thing is, the NCAA are the biggest pimps of all,” Dickerson said. “I call them pimps, because they pimp all these players, they make all this money, and they give out … a whole year’s scholarship and board. That’s almost like a form of slavery. You make this money for us. We’ll board you.”
In 2010, ESPN did a “30 for 30” documentary called “Pony Excess” about the SMU scandal.
— Thaddeus D. Matula (@thadfilms) February 25, 2019
After the documentary aired, Dickerson and James were interviewed about the material and both had plenty to say.
First, in addressing why they went to SMU, Dickerson and James both had the same reason.
“We went to SMU because Ron Meyer made us believe in a vision,” James said. “Sure did,” Dickerson said.
“We believed in him. We got excited about him. It was Dallas,” James added. “Anybody could’ve gone anywhere they wanted to go. But we went with him because we all liked him and he had a great coaching staff, one of the all-time great coaching staffs.”
James addressed the pay for play scandal during the interview.
“Of course you have to tell that story,” James said of the film. “It is what it is. It’s a part of history. It did, I think, accurately portray the culture of that era. And it’s really hard now for a generation that didn’t grow up watching that to comprehend how that could’ve happened.”
The documentary also highlighted how the scandal eventually led to the NCAA giving SMU the dreaded “death penalty.”
Among the penalties the Mustangs endured were: No games in 1987, no home games in 1988, the loss of 55 scholarships over a four year period, no off-campus recruiting until August of 1988, and the hiring of only five full-time assistant coaches instead of the typical nine that was common at the time.
Of course, it was lost on no one that James, Dickerson, and Meyer were not affected by the sanctions as all were long gone by the time the NCAA made its ruling.
“The big thing is that to me, to me, the NCAA made an example out of our school. They would never do it to Texas, Alabama, Notre Dame, [USC],” Dickerson said about the death penalty. “I don’t care if they caught them walking in with cases full of money. Money, cars, they would never do that to them. A smaller school, most definitely. We were guilty just like everyone else was guilty. So why did you pick us? Why us?”
Both Dickerson and James (who went on to work for ESPN after his pro career) addressed players getting paid by coaches to play at their school.
“Imagine, you’re 18 years old or 17 years old, and someone offers you $100,000. Do you think you’re gonna take it?” Dickerson said. “Absolutely. Nine times out of 10, you come from a poor family. Your mama don’t have anything; your dad got a little job. You’re probably making $10,000-$12,000 a year, back in those days, if you’re lucky. When you look at guys who get recruited, most of the best athletes, they come from poor families. I don’t forget. I was a junior [in high school] looking through my mother’s stuff and looked at her bank statement, and we had $30 in the bank.”
“You’re 17 or 18 years old, and you’re put in this fast lane, and you’re really puppets, as I look back now, in a rich man’s game,” James said. “I don’t know if there’s not many people in life that wouldn’t have some do-overs if they could with some decisions that were made when you’re 17, 18, 19 years old. I know this: When I got to SMU and it came time to go to a party, and Marilyn (his eventual wife) says, ‘You’ve got to have a blazer,’ I didn’t have a blazer. It was the fast lane that we got in that had nothing to do with us. Eric and I have basically been the …”
“Scapegoats,” Dickerson said emphatically.
Dickerson Heads to the NFL
Despite the ongoing SMU scandal, it didn’t take long for Dickerson to be selected in the 1983 NFL Draft.
He briefly considered joining the Los Angeles Express of the United States Football League but eventually decided against it.
With the second overall pick of the draft, Dickerson headed to California after all.
However, it was to the Los Angeles Rams instead of the Express.
Where most rookie ball players might need time acclimating to the professional game, Dickerson was perfectly suited for it.
In his rookie campaign, he rushed for an astounding 1,808 yards, 18 touchdowns, and another 404 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns.
Along the way, Dickerson set rookie records for most rushing attempts (390), most rushing yards, and most rushing touchdowns.
— RM III (@nuunnyyaabbiiz) October 28, 2018
For his efforts, Dickerson was named to the Pro Bowl, a First-team All-Pro, NFC Offensive Player of the Year, NFL Rushing Yards leader, and NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
With Dickerson’s help, the Rams improved from 2-7 during the strike-shortened 1982 season to 9-7 in ‘83.
Their record helped get LA to the playoffs where they faced the Cowboys in the Wild Card round.
During the game, Dickerson rushed for 99 yards and caught two passes for 11 more yards.
He was held scoreless against Dallas, but the Rams still prevailed 24-17.
The following week, LA faced the Redskins and were promptly waxed by Washington 51-7.
Dickerson was pounded to the tune of 16 yards on 10 carries and nine yards on six catches.
Dickerson Breaks the Single-Season Rushing Record
How do you improve on a record-breaking rookie season?
How about setting a league record that has yet to be broken?
It was hard to imagine, but Dickerson actually got better in his sophomore NFL year.
On the back of 379 rushing attempts, Dickerson set a league record with 2,105 rushing yards in 1984.
He also added 15 touchdowns and 139 receiving yards.
Even more entertaining, Dickerson had a plan mapped out for the final two games of the ‘84 regular season.
First, he would gain 100 or so yards against the Houston Oilers in the penultimate game.
Then, he would break O.J. Simpson’s record of 2,003 yards while “The Juice” was in the San Francisco stands watching the game.
However, that plan backfired when the Oilers thought they would talk a little trash while corralling Dickerson.
Instead, Dickerson used their slights as motivation and took vengeance.
After the bodies were cleared, Dickerson had run for 215 yards and two touchdowns on the way to a 27-16 victory.
Simpson’s record was broken a week earlier than expected.
Eric Dickerson and John Robinson share a moment as ED breaks O.J. Simpson's single season rushing record vs. Houston, Week 15 1984. Dickerson would finish the season with an incredible 2,105 yards rushing- an NFL record that still stands. #LARams pic.twitter.com/TTxlTx4b1p
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) June 12, 2018
However, Dickerson explained why he didn’t care about breaking the record a week early after the Houston game.
“They were saying things, dirty things, grabbing my face mask, taking cheap shots,” Dickerson told the Los Angeles Times in a 2017 interview. “I’m from the Houston area, and when I was drafted I said I didn’t want to go to Houston. I didn’t see that team going anywhere. A lot of them took that personally. They were out there … on tackles, they’d twist my head, my knees, my ankles. I was getting ticked. I told them, ‘It’s gonna be rough on y’all today.”
Dickerson continued to add to the record the following week against the 49ers, ending the season with 2,105 yards.
At the time, many scoffed at the record since Simpson had broken 2,000 yards in a 14 game regular season.
Dickerson broke the record in 15 games (out of a 16 game regular season).
During the season, he also broke Simpson’s record of most 100 yard rushing games in a season.
“That’s what everybody says — O.J. got his in 14 games, I got mine in 15. My thing is, nobody had run for 2,000 since O.J.,” said Dickerson in 2017.
The Rams improved their win total by one in ‘84 and entered the playoffs with a 10-6 record.
In the Wild Card Round against the Giants, Dickerson rushed for 107 yards and a touchdown, but had a costly fumble that led to a New York touchdown.
Los Angeles ultimately was bounced from the postseason for the second year in a row after the Giants prevailed 16-13.
After the season, Dickerson was voted to his second Pro Bowl, was named a First-team All-Pro and NFC Offensive Player of the Year for the second time, and also garnered the league rushing leader award along with the NFL rushing touchdown leader award.
1985 & 1986
After an incredible first two years in the league, Dickerson had an off year in 1985, by his standards.
He rushed 292 times for 1,234 yards and 12 scores.
The Rams themselves had an 11-5 record, their best year since a similar finish in 1980.
In the Divisional Playoff game, they blanked the Cowboys 20-0.
Dickerson ran over and through Dallas for 248 yards and two touchdowns.
The following week was a reversal of fortune.
Playing against the mighty ‘85 Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship game, the Rams were shut out 24-0 and Dickerson was held to just 46 yards and two fumbles.
1986 saw Dickerson post the second best rushing total of his career.
In 16 games, he rushed 404 times for 1,821 yards and 11 scores.
He was voted to his third Pro Bowl, his third First-team All-Pro, another NFC Offensive Player of the Year award, and he was the NFL’s rushing yards leader for the third time.
The Rams ended the season 10-6 and faced the Vikings in the Wild Card playoffs.
During the game, Dickerson rushed for 158 yards, but was held scoreless.
Minnesota ended LA’s run 28-17.
1987 and a Trade to the Colts
As 1987 began, the Rams and Dickerson continued to engage in contract discussions that began back in 1985.
At the time, Dickerson believed he was worth far more than the $682,000 salary LA was paying him.
After three games to begin the season, both parties had had enough.
In a deal that is still talked about today, Dickerson was part of a three-team trade that sent him to the Indianapolis Colts.
To get arguably the best running back in the league, the Colts sent newly drafted linebacker Cornelius Bennett to the Bills in exchange for a few first round picks, a second rounder and running back Greg Bell.
Then, the Colts packaged Bell, a few of their Bills draft picks, plus a few of their own and, along with running back Owen Gill, traded the lot to LA for Dickerson.
In a three-team blockbuster deal, the Los Angeles Rams agree to trade All-Pro running back Eric Dickerson to the Indianapolis Colts for a total of six draft picks and two players.#TDiSH pic.twitter.com/YTfYfI8VEa
— Brandon M. Wright, J.D. (@wrightbefore) October 31, 2018
An NFL official called it “the deal of the decade.”
The official further stated, “When was the last time you heard of the top runner, in his prime, being traded?” he said.
After the shocking move, Rams head coach John Robinson addressed the decision to move Dickerson.
”No one player is bigger than the team,” Robinson said at the time. ”When the contract begins to affect on-the-field activities, it’s time to make a move.”
Dickerson was reunited with his former SMU coach, Meyer, when he arrived in Indy.
Meyer had left Southern Methodist in 1982 to coach the Patriots.
He was then fired by New England in 1984 and was hired by the Colts in 1986.
Despite the disruption in home locations, Dickerson still managed to rush for 1,288 yards and six touchdowns in 1987.
His totals helped bring him a Pro Bowl nod and First-team All-Pro selection.
The Colts finished the strike shortened season 9-6 and faced the Browns in the Divisional Playoffs.
Dickerson did his part during the game, gaining 50 yards on the ground, 65 through the air, and adding a touchdown reception in the second quarter.
However, it was not enough and the Colts were sent packing 38-21.
1988 & 1989
In 1988, with the trade behind him, Dickerson torched the competition again.
This time, he pounded opponents for 1,659 yards, 14 scores on the ground, 377 receiving yards and another score through the air.
His rushing mark made Dickerson the first Colt to lead the league in rushing yards since Alan Ameche in 1955.
After the season, he would be named to his fifth Pro Bowl and another First-team All-Pro selection.
The Colts ended the year 9-7, but missed the playoffs.
1989 was a disappointing year for Indy, finishing out of the postseason again with an 8-8 record.
Dickerson, however, had 1,522 combined rushing and receiving yards and eight combined scores.
Along with a Pro Bowl invite, that season Dickerson became the fastest player in NFL history to surpass 10,000 rushing yards.
He did so in only 91 games, faster than the likes of Jim Brown (98 games), Barry Sanders (103 games), Emmitt Smith (106 games), and LaDainian Tomlinson (106 games).
By that same year, Dickerson had set another league record by rushing for over 1,000 yards in seven consecutive seasons.
He was the league leader for four of those seasons.
1990 & 1991
There was trouble in paradise by 1990, however.
Although he was the highest paid running back in the NFL at the time (annual salary of $1.4 million), Dickerson wanted more.
The constant squabbling irked the Colts and they placed their star on the inactive list to begin the ‘90 season.
Dickerson was stuck in purgatory for the first seven games of the season and lost more than $600,000 in salary.
A few weeks after returning, Dickerson rushed for 143 yards against Cincinnati.
His total that day helped move him past Brown on the league’s all-time yardage list.
He was now third in NFL history behind only leader Walter Payton and Tony Dorsett.
Because of his contract demands and limited field time, Dickerson only gained 677 yards and four touchdowns in 1990.
Indy stumbled to a 7-9 record.
The Colts regressed further in 1991.
After starting the year 0-5, Meyer was given his walking papers.
Dickerson suffered from injuries and continued to ask for more money.
Indy suspended him again in November of that year.
The start-and-stop season led to Dickerson’s worst totals as a pro (536 rushing yards, 269 receiving yards, and three total scores).
Indy became the laughingstock of the league, falling to 1-15.
Dickerson Heads Back to LA…then moves on to Atlanta
Just as he had with the Rams, Dickerson eventually wore out his welcome with the Colts.
The constant dissatisfaction with his contract led Indianapolis to trade Dickerson to the Raiders in April of 1992.
In exchange, the Colts received the Raiders fourth and eighth rounds picks in 1992.
Splitting time with Marcus Allen, Dickerson was still able to gain 729 yards and two touchdowns and another score through the air.
Los Angeles finished out of the postseason with a 7-9 record.
Marcus Allen smiles @ Eric Dickerson as they become a Backfield for the Oakland Raiders pic.twitter.com/FIQlPjfTTO
— NFL Classic (@NFLclassic) April 16, 2016
Dickerson’s time with the silver and black was short lived.
On July 7, 1993, he was sent to the Falcons for a sixth round pick.
Dickerson was mainly a backup and only collected 149 total yards with no touchdowns.
After only appearing in four games, he was traded to the Packers for running back John Stephens.
However, he failed his physical with Green Bay and chose to retire as the league’s second all-time leading rusher.
Eric Dickerson bounced around at the end of his career. Traded to the Raiders in ‘92 and then the Falcons in ‘93. He only played 4 games in Atlanta and rushed for 96 total yards. Traded to the Packers, he failed the physical and retired. pic.twitter.com/0Y3hNg7oGJ
— One Team Too Many (@OneTeamTooMany) December 11, 2020
For his career, Dickerson had 13,259 yards rushing, 90 rushing touchdowns, six receiving touchdowns, and 2,137 receiving yards.
He was a six-time Pro Bowler, five-time First-team All-Pro, NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 1986, three-time NFC Offensive Player of the Year, NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, four-time league rushing yards leader, NFL rushing touchdowns leader in 1984, and was later named to the NFL’s 1980s All-Decade team and 100th Anniversary All-time team.
Post Career Accolades
Six years after his retirement, Dickerson was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
His Hall bio reads, “I think the one (record) I look at most and means the most to me is my rookie rushing record. You get one shot at that. You don’t get several. You don’t get 10. You get one.”
OTD 1999: Canton welcomes the Class of 1999 into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
· Billy Shaw
· Eric Dickerson
· Tom Mack
· Ozzie Newsome
· Lawrence Taylor
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) August 7, 2020
In retirement, Dickerson has stayed close to the game.
For two seasons, he worked as a broadcaster for KCBS television in Los Angeles providing commentary for NFL pregame and postgame shows.
He also started a sports memorabilia company with a former teammate called Original Mini Jerseys.
The company sells miniature replica NFL jerseys.
Dickerson owns an internet based sporting goods company called E Champs.
He currently works as an analyst for Fox Sports FS1.
In summing up his pro career and legacy, Dickerson said it best during a 2017 interview.
“People talk about the greatest runners — some say Walter [Payton] is the best, some say O.J., some may say me, some say Jim Brown. I just say, I’m good.”