Dickerson carried teams in bygone era, paid price

by | National NFL Insider
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Dickerson was a workhorse and is paying for it now. (Getty Images)
Dickerson was a workhorse and is paying for it now. (Getty Images)

It was 1986 and running back Eric Dickerson and the Rams were playing the Chicago Bears and doing something that is rare today and will become even more so in the future -- he was a runner carrying the team on his back.

Dickerson had just finished playing the Bears on Monday night, and Chicago's defense was brutal. He carried the football 29 times for 111 yards and had three catches for 46 yards. As was the case with most of Dickerson's incredible career, he was basically the sole target for the defense at a time when defenses could pretty much do whatever manner of violence they desired to runners.

The Rams had a game six days later. On the team plane to New Orleans, Rams coach John Robinson approached Dickerson. "I know you just played a hard game," he said, "but do you think you could carry the ball 38 times in this next one if needed?"

"Yeah," Dickerson said, "I can."

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Dickerson, for once, wouldn't need to, as he had 20 carries and five catches. But in the next several games he carried the football 24, 27, 31, 28 and 28 times. He would take massive shots. Dickerson was an elite talent but he was also a workhorse. It was an understated part of his career and something the vast majority of future runners will never be.

The hits Dickerson would endure, especially the head shots, would cause long-term damage. He suffers from memory loss, worries about the brain disease CTE and is one of thousands of players who have sued football.

"It used to be almost funny when I couldn't remember things then it stopped being funny when so many others players from [that] era also had these same problems," said Dickerson, a Hall of Famer. "I'll be in the middle of a sentence and forget what I was talking about. I forget the names of my friends."

Soon a group of young men hoping to be the next running back stars in professional football will be standing around in their underwear, then running and jumping for the NFL's talent evaluators at the combine in Indianapolis.

These runners enter football as their position has become the most devalued at any time in the history of the NFL. Running backs are VCRs in a DVD world. No one may ever do again what Adrian Peterson did last season -- including Peterson -- even in an 18-game season because you'll have a bunch of Kaepernicks and RG3s siphoning off touches.

The rules changes in offense -- both to lead to more explosive passing games and protect the health of players -- make the Dickerson era the last golden era of the great, durable back.

"To me, the game is softer now than when I played," said Dickerson, "but for these young players coming out of college now that will help them. These rules changes are good. They'll protect these young guys. These guys that are 20 years old, they don't understand. At one point, I thought I was invincible. But I wasn't.

"So while the running back isn't as big a deal today as it was when I played, the runners today might be able to leave football with their health more intact. We weren't protected in terms of the concussions. I'd get a concussion and the doctor would ask, 'How many fingers? What's today's date? What stadium are we in?' If I answered one question right, I got sent back in."

From roughly the late 1970s to the late 1990s, backs equaled the star power of quarterbacks as they routinely had 30 to 40 carries a game. Go down the list. The early outskirts of the golden runner era starts with names like Larry Csonka and continues into the meat of that era with names like Dickerson, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Thurman Thomas, Walter Payton, Bo Jackson, John Riggins, Marcus Allen, Marshall Faulk, Tony Dorsett and Earl Campbell.

Even lesser known stars from that era like Gerald Riggs, Terrell Davis, Ricky Watters, O.J. Anderson, Rodney Hampton, Billy Sims, Marion Butts, Joe Washington, James Brooks, Mike Alstott, Joe Morris, Natrone Means, Chuck Muncie, Dave Meggett and Christian Okoye were dominant. On and on it goes.

The key for many of these runners was the fact they carried the ball a great many times. Not every runner. Not in every scenario. But most of the time. What young runners coming into football now will rarely see is the back being the center of an offense.

"Those were tough times for running backs," said Dickerson, "but they were great times."

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