Running back Tony Dorsett was one of the more gifted tailbacks in the history of football, and he took full advantage of the gifts the universe blessed him with.
He was a big time star at every level he played at, not to mention a winner at every level.
Dorsett may not be the most famous legend from yesteryear, but his career was about as successful as anyone else’s.
A Western PA Prodigy
Anthony Drew Dorsett was born on April 7, 1954 to Wes and Myrtle Dorsett in Aliquippa, Penn., a small town located in the western part of the Greater Pittsburgh area.
The western section of Pennsylvania has been something of a breeding ground for NFL stars, including Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Joe Namath, and Ty Law. Perhaps it was something in the water, as the old saying goes.
Whatever it was, Dorsett would quickly blossom into something special.
He attended Hopewell High School, playing both football and basketball. As a sophomore, he made his way onto the gridiron, and although he was a standout running back in junior high, at just 147 pounds, the coaching staff felt he couldn’t handle the position at the high school level, so instead, he started at cornerback and saw spot duty at tailback.
In 1971, as a junior, Dorsett fought sophomore Michael Kimbrough for the starting running back spot, and he claimed it when he caught a screen pass and took it 75 yards for a touchdown in the season opener.
That was the proverbial breaking of the dam for him, as he would tally 1,034 yards and score 19 touchdowns that year, while continuing to play the starting cornerback position. The Hopewell Vikings went 9-1 and Dorsett earned All-State honors.
In his senior season, Dorsett ran for 1,238 yards and again was named to the All-State team. Once again, the Vikings had a 9-1 record.
However, because of a rule that required teams to go undefeated in order to qualify, Hopewell High didn’t make it to the WPIAL Class AA playoffs.
But Dorsett did play in the Big 33 Football Classic, which serves as an all-star game and showcase for the top high school football players throughout Pennsylvania. While there, he caught the eye of Johnny Majors, who was about to become the head coach at the University of Pittsburgh.
A Star Panther
Dorsett went on to play college football at Pittsburgh for Majors, and he was an instant sensation, running for 1,686 yards as a freshman, which was second in the NCAA and the most ever by a freshman, while scoring 13 touchdowns.
He earned All-American honors that year while helping the Panthers finish with a winning record for the first time in a decade.
Off the field, he had to deal with some adversity. His son Anthony was born early in the season, which led to public scrutiny since he was born out of wedlock.
Many felt he should drop out of school, marry Anthony’s mother and get a job in order to be a responsible, present father. Dorsett refused because he felt that continuing to play college ball and making it to the NFL would be the best way to support his family.
Of course, a tiny fraction of college football players ever turn pro, let alone become good players there and make a fortune, but at the time, many probably considered Dorsett to be just another good college player who wasn’t talented enough to make it big.
When his numbers fell in 1974 as a sophomore to 1,004 rushing yards, it seemed that perhaps the pundits were right, that he should quit college and get a “real” job.
But he picked things up as a junior, equaling his stats as a freshman with 1,686 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground, while also adding 191 yards and three touchdowns in the air. In one contest against Notre Dame that year he exploded for 303 yards, which was a Pittsburgh single-game rushing record.
Happy Birthday, @Tony_Dorsett 🥳
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) April 7, 2021
Dorsett’s senior season would be his zenith in the college ranks. In the season opener, Pittsburgh faced Notre Dame on the road, and according to legend, the Fighting Irish let the grass on the field grow long in order to hinder him.
It didn’t work, as Dorsett had a 61-yard touchdown run the first time he touched the ball and finished with 181 yards in a 31-10 wipeout of the Irish.
In four career games against them, Dorsett rushed for 754 yards, which was an NCAA record for four-year opponents.
According to the man himself, he had some extra motivation to slice and dice the Irish, as Tom Pagna, who was an assistant to their head coach Ara Parseghian when he came out of high school, once threw some shade at him.
“Rumor got back to me that Tom Pagna, who was Ara Parseghian’s right-hand man, said they weren’t going to recruit that ‘skinny, little kid from Aliquippa,'” said Dorsett. “He later denied it. Whether it was true or not, I believed it, and I had a point to prove.”
By the end of the season, Dorsett had certainly made his point to all of America by collecting an NCAA-high 2,150 rushing yards, to go along with 22 rushing touchdowns. He was a first-team All-American for the third time at Pittsburgh, as well as the winner of the Maxwell Award, the Walter Camp Award for player of the year and the United Press International (UPI) Player of the Year award.
To top off all of his personal accolades, he also won the Heisman Trophy. His 6,082 career rushing yards with the Panthers was the most of any running back in college football history.
During the season, Dorsett became the first-ever college running back to reach 6,000 rushing yards. (1976) pic.twitter.com/EqzULZEEkr
— Pittsburgh Clothing Company (@PGHClothingCo) November 30, 2017
Behind Dorsett’s 202 rushing yards, Pittsburgh won the 1977 Sugar Bowl by devouring the Georgia Bulldogs 27-3 to win the national championship.
Starring In Big D
Despite Dorsett’s massive success in college, NFL scouts weren’t sure if he would be a standout at the pro level, as he stood 5-foot-11 and weighed only about 190 pounds.
He, according to his agent Michael Trope, was hoping he would be drafted by the New York Jets, who held the fourth overall pick in the 1977 NFL Draft. For that to happen, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Seattle Seahawks and Cincinnati Bengals, in that order, would’ve had to pass on the Heisman winner.
While the Bucs and Bengals were committed to choosing other players, Trope told the Seahawks that his client wouldn’t want to play for them, partly because he wanted greater marketing opportunities than Seattle had to offer at the time.
Luckily for Dorsett, the Seahawks traded their pick to the Dallas Cowboys, who then took him second in the draft. His flashy, exciting running style, not to mention his persona and swagger, would be a good fit for his new team.
The Cowboys had already been one of the NFL’s best teams for the past several years. Coached by Tom Landry, they had appeared in two Super Bowls earlier in the decade, winning one, and they possessed Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach, as well as the feared “Doomsday Defense.”
Dorsett instantly showed everyone that he belonged in the NFL. He rushed for 1,007 yards and 12 touchdowns in ’77, despite only starting four of 14 games, and won the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
He set a new Cowboys record for most rushing yards by a rookie, and it would stand for nearly four decades until it was broken by Ezekiel Elliott.
Dallas went 12-2 that year, which was tops in the NFC East, and easy playoff victories over the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings sent it to its fourth Super Bowl of the ’70s.
The big game in New Orleans would be played against the Denver Broncos, who were led by Craig Morton, himself a former Cowboys quarterback. But the Doomsday defense harassed Morton into a terrible game, while Dorsett had 66 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries.
In a contest that was never close, Dallas dominated and won 27-10. This made Dorsett the first man to ever win a collegiate national championship and a Super Bowl in consecutive years.
He built on his solid rookie year with 1,325 rushing yards in 1978, while also catching 37 passes for 378 yards. In all, he scored nine touchdowns for the Cowboys, who went 12-4, while earning his first trip to the Pro Bowl.
Once again, Dallas advanced to the Super Bowl, where it would face the dynastic Pittsburgh Steelers.
Super Bowl XIII would be a matchup between the two most successful teams of the decade, not to mention the NFL’s two most popular squads. Pittsburgh featured a star tailback of its own in Franco Harris, not to mention numerous other standouts on both sides of the ball.
After taking a 14-7 lead, Dallas gave up two unanswered touchdowns, and after only being able to muster a field goal in the third quarter, Harris and wide receiver Lynn Swann added two more touchdowns to put the Cowboys down 35-17 with just 6:51 left in the fourth period.
But they would mount a frenzied comeback, aided by Dorsett’s 29-yard run on their next possession, which would lead to a touchdown. After recovering an onside kick, Dallas scored again, cutting its deficit to 35-31 with 22 seconds left.
But it was too little too late, as Pittsburgh held on to win its third world championship. A strong performance by Dorsett consisting of 96 rushing yards and 44 receiving yards had gone to waste for “America’s Team.”
The Cowboys started 1979 strong, winning seven of their first nine games, but they then lost three in a row as Dorsett’s production began to sag. Still, they managed to win 11 games and finish first in the NFC East for the fourth year in a row, as Dorsett finished the year with 1,107 rushing yards, 375 receiving yards and seven touchdowns.
In the divisional round against the Los Angeles Rams, the Cowboys fell behind 14-5 at halftime, only to rally for a 19-14 advantage with 12:46 left in the fourth quarter. But the “Doomsday Defense” didn’t hold up in crunch time, and Dallas fell 21-19.
During the offseason, Staubach announced his retirement, ushering in a change of the guard.
Running To Greater Heights
With Danny White the new signal-caller in Dallas, expectations for the team moving forward were tempered. But White instantly proved to be solid, while Dorsett continued to run through and around opposing defenses.
The running back would put up 1,185 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground in 1980, and the Cowboys maintained their status as one of the league’s best teams with a 12-4 record.
— St. Louis Football Cardinals (@BigRed_STL) April 8, 2021
However, the Philadelphia Eagles, who also won 12 games, would earn the tiebreaker, meaning that Dallas only finished second in the division.
Dorsett went supernova on the Rams in the wild card round with 160 rushing yards, 28 receiving yards and two touchdowns, and the Cowboys got revenge for last year’s choke with a 34-13 blowout.
Trailing 24-10 in the third quarter in the divisional round against the Atlanta Falcons, White proved that he was worthy of the starting QB job by leading the type of comeback Staubach was known for spearheading. The Cowboys came back to win, 30-27.
But the Eagles ended the Cowboys’ championship hopes by corralling them into a 20-7 defeat in the NFC Championship Game, as they held Dorsett to a lackluster performance.
The PA native would hit a peak in 1981. Although he scored just six total touchdowns that season, he went for 1,646 rushing yards and a career-high 1,971 total yards from scrimmage, resulting in his second Pro Bowl nod and his first All-Pro recognition.
1981, Cowboys at Patriots on Monday Night Football. Tony Dorsett goes 75 yards for a TD in a 35-21 Dallas win. pic.twitter.com/XVNADt74cx
— Funhouse (@BackAftaThis) November 25, 2019
By winning 12 games, the Cowboys would regain the NFC East title, and a 38-0 beatdown of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took them to the NFC Championship Game again, this time against the rival San Francisco 49ers.
The Niners possessed a young QB named Joe Montana, who was in his first full year as a starter. Dorsett had 91 yards on the day, and his second quarter touchdown gave Dallas a 17-14 lead heading into halftime.
In the final minutes, the Cowboys were holding on to a 27-21 lead. All they had to do was stop San Fran on their final drive.
However, they ended up on the wrong side of one of the most memorable plays in sports history. Facing third down in the red zone with about a minute left, Montana was chased going to his right towards the sideline when he threw a high pass that was caught by wide receiver Dwight Clark in the end zone.
“The Catch,” as the play became known, resulted in a heartbreaking 28-27 loss for Dallas.
The 1982 season was limited to nine games due to a strike, but Dorsett still made the most of it, getting 745 rushing yards and five touchdowns in those nine games, while also producing the NFL’s longest touchdown run of all time in the final game of the schedule.
In 1983, @Tony_Dorsett ripped off the first 99-yard TD run in NFL history.
He wasn't even supposed to get the ball on the play 👀😳 pic.twitter.com/I3YTGL6X0J
— NFL Legacy (@NFLLegacy) May 29, 2019
Despite a 6-3 record, Dallas narrowly lost out on another NFC East title, but with the help of two big games from Dorsett, it was able to outlast Tampa Bay and the Green Bay Packers to reach the conference championship game yet again.
Once there, however, their NFC East rival Washington Redskins put them down 31-17.
1983 was another “close but not quite” year for Big D. Dorsett logged 1,321 rushing yards and would be named to the Pro Bowl for the third straight year and fourth time in his career.
Dallas had a 12-4 record on the season, but a Week 15 loss to the Redskins cost it the division title. In the wild card round, the Rams upset the Cowboys in Texas 24-17.
In 1984, fans and teammates started to lose patience with White. He was benched for the first several games of the schedule, only to regain his job afterward.
Despite another strong season from Dorsett (1,189 rushing yards, 459 receiving yards and seven touchdowns), the Cowboys missed the playoffs for the first time since 1974, and their luster was starting to wear off.
Heading into the 1985 schedule, Dorsett was unhappy with his contract and held out during training camp as a result. The team had given defensive tackle Randy White a more lucrative contract that included a $6.4 million annuity package and a $1.5 million real-estate plan.
In addition, Dorsett had tax troubles. The I.R.S. claimed he owed over $400,000 in back taxes, and as a result, the government started garnishing his salary the previous season.
Cowboys president Tex Schramm gave him a new five-year deal worth a total of $9.65 million, and the running back returned to the team.
Although he was now 31 years of age and at a point where a running back’s production usually drops off considerably, his did not. He had 1,307 rushing yards, 449 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns, and although he missed the Pro Bowl for the second straight year, he was still the team’s biggest weapon.
The Cowboys won 10 games and returned to the top of the NFC East, but they were embarrassed by the Rams in their first playoff game, 20-0.
Looking to provide a shot in the arm, the team brought onboard Herschel Walker, the talented running back for the Georgia Bulldogs. He had spent the last few seasons in the United States Football League, and when it folded in ’86, he promptly joined the Cowboys, who had drafted him the year prior.
Although fans were excited, the acquisition wasn’t without controversy. Walker was given a five-year, $5 million contract, which was worth more than Dorsett’s.
The incumbent back wanted to be given a raise or, failing that, to be traded, and he threatened to become a “disruptive force” if neither happened.
Dorsett remained a Cowboy, and although the pairing of him and Walker was uncomfortable, the two would coexist for a while. Despite missing three games with ankle and knee injuries, he still led Dallas in rushing with 748 yards.
But the team finished just 7-9, its first losing season in over 20 years.
But the Dorsett-Walker experiment would start to wear on the former. Walker didn’t like how he was being shuffled from one position to another on offense, and after he complained that Dorsett was getting more carries, Walker became the team’s main priority at tailback.
As a result, the 1987 season was a dismal one for Dorsett. He started in just six contests and managed only 456 rushing yards.
Even worse, late in the season, head coach Landry kept him on the bench for the entire game, even though he was perfectly healthy. That was the final straw for Dorsett, and he once again demanded to be traded – except this time he was dead serious.
Last Hurrah In Denver
The Denver Broncos trade for Dorsett prior to the 1988 season, giving up only a conditional fifth-round draft pick. They were coming off back-to-back Super Bowl losses, and head coach Dan Reeves, who had previously coached Dorsett when he was Dallas’ offensive coordinator years ago, felt he could help Denver get over the hump.
Reportedly, Dorsett was still able to run the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds, although he was now 34 years of age.
“I think Tony can help us,” said Reeves. “If I didn’t think so, we wouldn’t have gone after him. I think he’ll fit in very well with what we do on offense.”
After the discord of the past few years, Dorsett admitted that he felt refreshed.
“Mentally, I couldn’t feel better,” he told Sports Illustrated. “As far as my reputation for being a troublemaker, well, I don’t back off. The Cowboys try to mold everyone in their image, and I couldn’t be molded.”
Although he wasn’t quite what he once was, it looked like Dorsett would be a big help to the Broncos when he ran for at least 100 yards in two of the team’s first four games. Although he played in all 16 contests, injuries slowed him down late in the year, and he only put up 703 rushing yards and five touchdowns as Denver missed the playoffs.
After suffering a torn ACL in his left knee during training camp in 1989, Dorsett decided to retire.
Life After Football
Dorsett’s legacy as an all-time great is rock solid. He finished his career second in career rushing yards with 12,739, behind only Walter Payton (several players have since surpassed both).
If not for the labor stoppage that limited the 1982 season to nine games, Dorsett would’ve likely gone over the 1,000-yard rushing mark that year, giving him nine such seasons in a row, which would’ve broken the record held at the time by Franco Harris.
Thus, it was not exactly surprising when the former Cowboys star was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1994.
It made him one of only two players who had won the Heisman Trophy, won the Super Bowl, won the College National Championship and been enshrined in the College Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall Of Fame.
Off the field, Dorsett and his wife Janet have had four children. One of them, Anthony, went on to play football at the University of Pittsburgh, then moved on to the NFL where, as a defensive back, he played eight seasons and went to the Super Bowl twice.
Dorsett has a nephew who also played Division I college football as a defensive back. That nephew, Ty Law, had a very successful NFL career that included multiple Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro nods, as well as three Super Bowl championships with the New England Patriots.
Off the field, Dorsett had done some advocacy in order to help others improve their health and well-being.
He, along with many other current and former NFL players, worked with orthodontic technician David Gergen and the Pro Player Health Alliance to create awareness about sleep apnea and help promote treatments for the condition.
By hosting the Tony Dorsett Celebrity Golf Classic, Dorsett has helped raise millions of dollars for McGuire Memorial, a facility in Western PA that aims to help those with various disabilities, particularly children.
Several years ago, he disclosed that he had been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disorder that affects quite a few football players. He admitted that he sought an assessment and diagnosis due to depression, memory loss and even suicidal thoughts.
In recent years, CTE has become a contentious issue for the NFL. Ever since legends such as Junior Seau and Aaron Hernandez, both of whom committed suicide, were diagnosed with the ailment, many have expressed concern about the effects of the extreme physicality of football on current players.
Still, Dorsett can look back at his career at every level with thorough pride and satisfaction.