Tony Dorsett Is Losing His Mind

cowboyslogoUnexplained fits of rage. Forgetting where he was yesterday.

A Dallas Cowboys great begins to discover the price of football.

It was January 3,1983the last day of the NFL’s strike-shortened season, and Tony Dorsett’s Dallas Cowboys were losing to the Minnesota Vikings onMonday Night Football. A fumbled punt had the Cowboys trapped deep in their own territory, the ball a few inches outside the end zone.

And the Cowboys were out-manned. Fullback Ron Springs didn’t hear what play they were going to run, so he was still on the sideline, leaving only 10Cowboys on the field and Dorsett all alone in the backfield. 

The Vikings were in their goal-line defense, bunched up around the line of scrimmage, gunning for a safety.

Do you remember? Tony Dorsett does.

The call was for a run—“Dive 21,” Dorsett says—that would take Dorsett straight up the gut of the defense, between center Tom Rafferty and guard Herb Scott. 

“When you’re backed up that far, you just want to tighten up your chinstrap a little bit, because you know they know you can’t get too tricky, too fancy,” Dorsett says. “You just figure, I’m gonna get a good shot, so just get ready for it.”

That shot never came. Rafferty hit defensive tackle James White, turning him around, out of the play. Scott paused to let Rafferty by, then fired out to his right to seal off linebacker Dennis Johnson. They created a giant opening in the middle of the defense. 

“Man, I got great blocks from Herb Scott and Tom Rafferty,” Dorsett says. He is almost hovering above his seat in the living room of his Frisco home, eyes wide as he narrates the play, calling every block and cut. He is right there again. “And I jumped through that hole.”

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After skipping over Scott’s outstretched leg, he burst 10 yards up the field before veering to his right, heading for the sideline. “I run to daylight,” he says, “just like I was always taught. I run to daylight.”

Dorsett grew up wanting to be a running back like his older brothers at Hopewell High School in Alquippa, Pennsylvania. But he wasn’t like them. He was better. What pushed him further than Melvin, Ernie, Tyrone, and Keith—to three All-American selections and the Heisman Trophy in 1976, to the Cowboys and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1994—was his mind. He studied his playbook until he was prepared for every outcome. He visualized himself in every situation, until he felt like he’d already been through it.

“And your recall is like—bam—nanoseconds,” he says. “Bam.” 

Do you remember? Tony Dorsett does. 

But even if you were inclined to lazily resort to cliche and say he remembers this play from 30 years ago like it was yesterday, you can’t. Because Dorsett doesn’t remember what he did yesterday. He has days where he wonders how he got here, from a steel town outside of Pittsburgh to a spot in the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor. On the worst days, he literally wonders: How did I get here? 

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