Foxboro, Mass. — He plays on "America's team" but he's not "America's player" -- yet. Is Tony Dorsett one of the great runners in pro football history or just another talented player who'll be cashing some big paychecks for a long time to come?
After watching him perform for four seasons in the National Football League, his jury of fans and peers is still out. Despite impressive statistics that would be the envy of most running backs, Dorsett has always left the impression that there is more to come, that his best performances still lie bottled up within him somewhere, not yet released.
Or perhaps it only seems that way; for of the many who have entered pro football, few have had so much expected from them.
Tony's debut with the Dallas Cowboys in 1977 was the most eagerly awaited by fans and the most carefully documented by sports media since O. J. Simpson joined the Buffalo Bills nine years earlier.
The swift young runner's credentials were awesome -- no, perfect. Tony starred at the University of Pittsburgh for four years, shattering the collegiate career rushing record by gaining over 6,000 yards. His senior year he earned the Heisman Trophy as the nation's outstanding player while helping Pitt win the national championship.
When the Cowboys traded for the No. 1 spot in the 1977 pro draft so they could grab him, Dorsett returned the favor by helping Dallas win the 1978 Super Bowl in his rookie season. And to top it all off, he gained at least 1,000 yards in each of his first four years, a league record, while quietly becoming the second-leading rusher in Cowboys history.
Still, two negative impressions have followed this handsome, personable young man (One quipster has described him as "Flip Wilson with muscles"): a lack of durability and a questionable attitude.
A small man by pro football standards (5 ft. 10 in., 190 lbs.), Tony has carried the ball fewer times than he would like as Coach Tom Landry has tried to spare him from heavy duty and its greater risk of injury. And off-field problems, together with his outspokenness, especially in his pleas for more action, have gained him a label in some quarters as a troublemaker short on commitment to team play.
But Dorsett has always argued that there was a good reason for his speaking up -- and it wasn't selfish.
"I don't think I'm unreasonable when I ask for 25 carries a game," he says. "And I'm not on some kind of ego trip. It's just that I've learned that it takes that many for me to get into the rhythm of the game. It takes me time to learn just how the defense is playing me."
While it's too early to say that time is running out for Tony to achieve his predicted greatness, he is the first to acknowledge he has fallen short -- so far.
"I still haven't had the kind of season I'm capable of," he says. "I'm talking about the great season, leading the league in rushing, making All-Pro, winning the MVP award, and all that. I came to Dallas as a rookie and predicted I would gain 1,500 yards in a season. I think I'm capable of doing it.But the fact remains that I haven't."
Two signs point to a new sense of responsibility this year that may carry Tony to new heights: Off the field, his marriage last spring seems to have added stability to his life. And Landry's naming of him as offensive co-captain was a vote of confidence that said he was ready for more responsibility between the sidelines, too.
So far in this young season, the results have all been positive. In last week's nationally televised Monday night game against New England, Dorsett raced for 162 yards, including one 75-yard scamper that was just the kind of game-breaking play the Cowboys had envisioned when they drafted him. After that night's work, Tony led the league in rushing (423 yards), something he is quick to play down now, although "it might mean something near the end of the year."
Observes teammate Drew Pearson, the wide receiver:
"I think Tony's more serious about what he's doing. Therefore, he's paying more attention in meetings, studying defenses, checking what's going on at the line of scrimmage, seeing where his blockers are instead of just running. He's making a science of his game."
"Tony came into training camp better prepared this year, and he has worked hard," agrees Landry. 'He's impressed everyone this year. His attitude is great."
No one has to remind the Dallas coach that a big game by Dorsett is a big plus for the Cowboys. Perhaps Tony's most amazing statistic is that in the 23 games in which he's gained over 100 yards, the team has a pretty fair record -- 22 wins, 1 defeat.