John E. Hoover: Eric Dickerson's happy NFL is seeing the light
BY JOHN E. HOOVER World Sports Columnist
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
5/22/12 at 4:51 AM
Go to John E. Hoover's blog
In a room full of football legends, a room already alive with laughter and one-liners and boisterous back-slapping and fist-bumping, Eric Dickerson glides in and lights up the place.
Dickerson and dozens of other former players visited patients at the Saint Francis Hospital Children's Center on Sunday, and on Monday they played in a golf tournament at The Oaks Country Club benefiting Tulsa Sports Charities.
The Pro Football Hall of Famer, author of the greatest season by a running back in NFL history as well as the single-greatest playoff game, is still swift and agile as he moves from person to person, trading handshakes and hugs. He's smooth and svelte and, although age has clearly overtaken most of his counterparts, looks fit enough to play this very day.
But Dickerson, 51, hides pains that only aging football players can comprehend.
"It's a brutal sport," Dickerson says.
Brutal enough that his friends, Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, took their own lives. Brutal enough to take other friends, like Chester McGlockton and Reggie White, in their sleep. And brutal enough that another friend, Eric Harris, succumbed in February to a massive heart attack despite what Dickerson thought was excellent physical condition.
"Saw him at the Super Bowl," Dickerson said. "He looked great. He said, 'Eric, I feel good, I've been working out.' He was thin. He was a defensive back.
"Guys just die in their sleep? And why? Because of all those collisions. Those collisions add up. It's rough out there."
Ten days ago, Dickerson attended Seau's funeral in San Diego. Seau's death reignited criticism of the National Football League's care of former players.
"He was at Tim Brown's tournament the day before he killed himself - allegedly killed himself," Dickerson said. "Tim was almost angry about it. He said, 'Man, Eric, I saw the dude the day before. We talked, we laughed. Then the next day he kills himself.' I said, 'Did you see anything?' He said, 'No. He was the same Junior, laughing, talking, playful - just the kind of guy he was.'"
From 1979-82, Dickerson set a Southwest Conference record with 4,450 yards on 790 carries at SMU.
At the peak of his 11-year NFL career, Dickerson was arguably football's best runner. His 1983 season of 1,808 yards was a rookie record. In 1984, he rushed for 2,105 - still the NFL standard. After a long holdout, he gained 1,234 yards in 1985 (the year he slammed the Dallas Cowboys for a playoff-record 248 yards), then ran for 1,821 in 1986. He was the fastest player to reach 10,000 career rushing yards (91 games) and currently ranks seventh all-time with 13,259.
The Rams traded Dickerson to the Indianapolis Colts in 1987. He played for the Los Angeles Raiders in 1992. Injuries - mostly a debilitating nerve ailment in his neck - sent him into retirement after just four games with the Atlanta Falcons in 1993.
It doesn't seem like almost 19 years since Dickerson last played.
"Maybe not to you, but to me it does," he said. "Sometimes it almost seems like I never played."
Like many former gridiron gladiators, Dickerson struggled to accept the immediate and unexpected termination of that which defined him. He went through periods of depression for the first two to three years.
Still, the pain lingers. He doesn't sleep much - three or four hours a night is a good stretch, he says - and although he no longer has to sleep sitting up, he still can't sleep on his left side because it goes numb in the night.
Dickerson said he suffered a major concussion at SMU - he woke up in the locker room - but said he doesn't know of any lingering effects from his 2,996 career carries or his 281 pass receptions in the NFL.
Still, Dickerson said he's joined in litigation with 14 other former players who claim the NFL failed to adequately address the long-term consequences of concussions. More than 2,200 ex-players have filed 80 similar suits.
He said the NFL, thanks to the highly publicized death of Seau and others, is only now starting to realize its responsibility in taking care of its former players. A light has been shined in a dark place, he said.
"I just feel like now, the league has been exposed so much," he said. "We've been complaining about this for years. You know, no health care; once you're out, they almost don't want you to come back. And now, players have been killing themselves, dying. The average age of an NFL player is 54 years old. ... It's very scary."
Dickerson said the machismo behind the multi-billion-dollar NFL is cultivated each fall in pee wee leagues across America.
"It's like a gladiator," he said. "You're not supposed to show pain. Why? You're not supposed to show emotion. Why? If a little 10-year-old cries, the coach says, 'Hey boy! You ain't supposed to cry! Football players don't cry!' Hey, you do cry. That's part of it. You cry. You hurt."
Dickerson said he and other former players don't want anyone to feel sorry for them. But he does want them to understand that the idea of the "spoiled athlete" is unfair. He paid his dues, and he's still paying.
Dickerson still lives in the same Calabasas, Calif., mansion he bought with his first contract extension back in 1986. He has a grown daughter, Erica, and he and his wife, Penny Sutton, have a 6-year-old daughter, Keri, and a 9-week-old son, Dallis.
He said he can barely lift Keri because of the nerve atrophy on his left side. He also said he'll have some career advice for Dallis, should the topic ever come up.
"Man, I thank God for me playing," he said. "But if you're good at something else, play the other sport. I'll tell that to any kid.
"Last night, I had a dream I was playing football. I was playing high school football, but I was in the pros. I was like 30 years old playing high school football. You just don't stop. It's like a never-ending story. I'll probably be doing that 'til the day I die."
Pro Football Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson tees off Monday during a Tulsa Sports Charities event at The Oaks Country Club. KT KING / Tulsa World
Former OU running back Marcus Dupree putts on the seventh hole during a Tulsa Sports Charities event at the Oaks Country Club. KT KING / Tulsa World