Eric Dickerson was at a loss for words. The Sealy, Texas, native and Pro Football Hall of Famer was on the phone in his adopted home of Los Angeles, where his former team, the Los Angeles Rams, will play at home in Super Bowl LVI this Sunday. We’d been chatting about his unflinching new memoir, Watch My Smoke. In the book, Dickerson unleashes on the racial inequities he sees in football and paints an ugly picture of the scandal-tinged recruitment process that brought him to SMU in 1979.
On all that, Dickerson had had plenty to say. But in this moment, he had gone silent because of a much more pleasant story. It was about the first time I saw him play football, back in 1982. I was growing up in Syracuse, New York. One gray-skied fall afternoon I turned on the television, just in time to catch Dickerson breaking tackles, then running free down the sideline, galloping like a thoroughbred into the end zone—a special delivery from SMU’s legendary “Pony Express” running attack.
I was mesmerized. I’d never seen a football player run like that. And though I had never even heard of Dickerson—or SMU—I followed the Mustangs through the rest of their 11–0–1 season, in which they won the Southwest Conference and knocked off Dan Marino’s Pittsburgh Panthers in the Cotton Bowl. If that game hadn’t popped up on TV that afternoon, I likely never would have wound up attending SMU some years later—or made Dallas my home after graduation.
“Thanks for changing my life,” I told Dickerson. A few seconds later, his voice halting and cracking with emotion, he said, “Oh . . . wow. That’s . . . wow. Thank you so much for telling me that.”
I had to. Not just because my late mother would have insisted I credit (or maybe blame) Dickerson for inspiring me to make a life so far away from Syracuse. But also because, in the interest of full disclosure, I had to cop to being something less than an impartial observer when it comes to Dickerson’s complicated life story. That story involves suitcases full of cash, free sports cars, pay-to-play college football, and Dickerson’s estrangement from SMU after the school became the first to receive an NCAA “death penalty” punishment. It also includes Dickerson’s record-shattering rushing numbers in the NFL, salary disputes with the Rams, a training camp holdout, and a bitter trade that led fans in Los Angeles to throw Monopoly money at Dickerson and destroy replicas of his number 29 jersey.
In his memoir and in conversation, Dickerson is blunt about why he thinks all that happened—he was a Black man unashamed about asking for what he thought he deserved in a sport that prefers Black athletes do their talking on the field, and not off it. “Being a Black player,” he told me, “we’re programmed. You’re taught not to complain. You don’t complain about being hurt, about being tired. You don’t complain about money.”
Dickerson never got with that program. That made him one of the most controversial football players of his era. Three years after he retired from the NFL, sports journalist Jim Gray wrote, “In time, Dickerson will be appreciated. It’s just too soon.” Now, at 61, Dickerson’s time may have come.
In the beginning, he didn’t have the neck roll or hip pads or even the goggles. Growing up in Sealy, a tiny town roughly equidistant from College Station and Houston that was once home to the Sealy mattress company, Dickerson played his first football game in middle school for the Sealy Tigers. Wearing his prescription glasses because the bulbous goggles that would become one of his trademarks hadn’t yet hit the market, Dickerson caught the opening kickoff and returned it for a touchdown. He scored five more touchdowns that day. His teams in both seventh and eighth grades went unbeaten.
But during his sophomore year of high school, Dickerson and all but one of the Black kids on his team quit, citing their coach’s unequal treatment of white and Black players. “He was a white guy from East Texas,” Dickerson writes in Watch My Smoke. “Back then, East Texas meant one thing: he didn’t like Black kids.”
Dickerson told me he might never have come back to football if a local sports fan named James “Shack” Abernathy hadn’t intervened. “Shack came to my house one day after I’d quit and we took a drive in his car,” Dickerson says. “We drove through the poorest parts of town, and he told me to look around. He said, ‘Don’t let that white man, the coach, mess you over. Football could be your way out of here.’ ”
Dickerson returned to the team, and the other Black players who’d walked out returned with him. In his junior year, he ran for two thousand yards. By his senior year he was the top high school running back in the nation, and when college recruiters started showing up at his home, they came offering much more than scholarships.
In Watch My Smoke, Dickerson recalls an assistant coach from the University of Texas coming to his home on a recruiting visit. Dickerson told him he had little interest in playing for UT. According to Dickerson, the coach threatened him in response: “ ‘If you don’t come to Your State School, we’ll make sure that when you get out of college, you’ll never get a job in the state of Texas.’ ”
Dickerson walked out of the room and asked his mother to make the recruiters leave. He’s hated Longhorns football ever since. “I hate their uniforms, I hate their fight song, I hate that stupid cow mascot,” he writes. “Behind the ass-kissing of recruiting is contempt. At the end of the day, the white coaches know they have the power and the Black kids don’t.”
As Dickerson describes it, the rest of the recruiting process wasn’t much better than his experience with UT’s coaches. Every major football school in Texas—and the entire country—pursued him. When Dickerson went on campus visits, local newspapers trumpeted his arrival in large-type headlines. He hated it. “Man, I was just a kid,” he told me over the phone. “There was a lot of pressure to get it right, and a lot of people who were pulling me in different directions.”
The events that turned Dickerson’s recruitment into a national news story—and part of Texas football lore—occurred in 1979. That’s when, Dickerson writes, a Texas A&M recruiter came to Sealy and met with his mother, Viola Dickerson. (Biologically, she was his great-great aunt and had adopted Dickerson from the great-niece who’d given birth to him when she was a teenager.) The recruiter sat down in the living room and opened a suitcase containing $50,000 in cash. Dickerson never saw the money himself, but his mother told him that if he didn’t want to go to A&M, he shouldn’t take it. He didn’t.
A couple weeks later, according to Dickerson, an A&M booster who owned the livestock feed store in Sealy told him that if he signed with the Aggies, he could have a new car of his choosing. Before he knew it, Dickerson and his grandmother were in a Houston-area car dealership, where he selected a gold Trans Am off the lot. Soon after that, Dickerson verbally committed to A&M. He told me he did so “just to get it all over with.”
“I told everyone for years that my grandmother bought the Trans Am,” Dickerson told me. “That’s true. She filled out the paperwork. It was her name on the car.” But, as he discloses for the first time in Watch My Smoke, the money came from someone—he’s not sure who—connected to the Aggies. “I’ll never forget the price tag of that car,” Dickerson told me. “It was $14,500. That seemed like a million dollars to me in 1979.”
When news broke of Dickerson’s commitment to A&M, newspaper photographs of Dickerson standing by his new, gold car splashed on sports sections across Texas, and the NCAA began looking into the circumstances surrounding the car’s purchase. An NCAA investigator even came to Sealy High and pulled Dickerson out of a class to question him. They him feel “like I was some kind of criminal,” he writes.
The NCAA never sanctioned A&M over the car. But the controversy surrounding it grew even bigger after Dickerson pulled out of his verbal commitment to A&M in favor of SMU. Sports columnists joked that if A&M had given him a Trans Am (or a Trans A&M, as it came to be called), then SMU must have given him much more.
“I didn’t get anything to sign at SMU,” Dickerson told me. “I got $1,000 a month, in cash, in an envelope while I played there.” A booster named George Owen also gave him cash and a Corvette, Dickerson says. That kind of pay-for-play arrangement was rampant at SMU under coach Ron Meyer and, later, Bobby Collins. The university was sanctioned repeatedly for NCAA rules violations, but even after those penalties, SMU boosters continued to pay players, provide them with cars, and arrange for them to live rent-free in off-campus apartments.
SMU’s decision to “phase out” pay for play instead of ending it altogether was made by the school’s board of governors, whose chairman was former Texas governor Bill Clements. That “phase out” was the final straw for the NCAA, which handed SMU a two-year ban from college football (the “death penalty”) in 1987. That was—and still is—the stiffest punishment any college program has received for NCAA infractions.
But as far as Dickerson is concerned, the real “Ponygate” scandal wasn’t how much he was being paid, but how little. “These schools, they run on football,” he told me. “You don’t get sixty thousand people at a swim meet. Football is what makes the money. And by no means was I getting rich at SMU.” The university, on the other hand, was. During Dickerson’s years, SMU regularly packed Texas Stadium with 65,000 fans for Mustangs home games.
In his book, Dickerson scoffs at the notion that college scholarships are just compensation for football players’ labor. College football, he points out, is a “more-than-full-time job,” and some players, especially Black athletes who may have come from under-resourced high schools, arrive on campus ready for football but unprepared for college academics. They put on pads and play, but many, like Dickerson, never graduate. “Young, Black men do physical labor for free while old white men make the money,” he writes. “Sound familiar?”
The NCAA has finally, grudgingly, begun to change. Just last year, it allowed athletes to make money off their “name, image, and likeness.” Dickerson thinks that’s a move in the right direction, but for him, the shift in policy came four decades too late. “In the old football world,” he told me, “if you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t tryin.”
That’s why it never made sense that the “old football world” tried to blame athletes when scandals erupted. SMU invited its players to cheat, allowed its boosters to cheat, and the ex-governor of Texas himself signed off on the scheme. So how did Dickerson become the face of Ponygate? “You’ve been hearing a lot of talk these days about how society always assumes young Black men are criminals,” he writes in Watch My Smoke. “Now, think back about the SMU scandal and how that was portrayed in the media and who was portrayed as the wrongdoer.”
Indeed, once SMU football was put to “death,” the university tried to repair the damage with empty, symbolic gestures like removing the mustang logo from center court in Moody Coliseum, changing the color of the mustang on the football team’s helmets from red to blue, and making it clear that the players from the early 1980s era were not welcome on game-day sidelines—NFL All-Pro running back Eric Dickerson included. “That was hurtful,” Dickerson told me. “They kind of vilified me like I was trying to hurt them. I wasn’t trying to hurt them. I wanted my school to win.”
Despite the controversy swirling around Dickerson and the Mustangs in those years, SMU did win. Painfully, for Aggie fans of a certain age, SMU beat A&M in each of Dickerson’s sophomore, junior, and senior seasons. “A&M guys who are about my age are still mad about that,” Dickerson told me. “But I think they forgave me a little because my cousin Ricky Seals-Jones went to A&M. So I tell them, ‘Y’all got him instead of me.’ ”
Seals-Jones had a fine career in College Station and now plays in the NFL for the freshly renamed Washington Commanders, but to Aggies, that’s hardly a fair trade, considering that Dickerson has been inducted to both the pro and college football halls of fame. As a senior at SMU, Dickerson finished third in Heisman balloting behind John Elway and winner Herschel Walker, but he remains adamant that he would have won the award had he not had to split rushes with SMU running back Craig James. Even so, in Watch My Smoke, Dickerson argues that Walker finishing ahead of him in the balloting was “ridiculous.”
“He had 135 yards more than I did, but with 103 more carries,” he writes. “He averaged 5.2 yards per carry; I averaged 7. There was really no comparison.”
There wasn’t any comparison in the pros, either. While Walker was playing for the USFL’s New Jersey Generals in 1983, Dickerson was breaking the NFL rookie rushing record. A year later, Dickerson crushed O. J. Simpson’s single-season rushing mark with 2,105 yards. Both records still stand, and Dickerson isn’t worried about them falling, even with the NFL’s expanded seventeen-game schedule. “Teams don’t run the ball today like we did,” he told me. “And there aren’t a lot of guys who can take the beating I did. Derrick Henry might be able to. Saquon Barkley. Zeke Elliott. No, I think that record will stand for a long, long time.”
Is that confidence or arrogance? With Dickerson’s football career, that’s often been a question. I know how I’d answer that question, but then, I still have the pictures of Dickerson that once hung on my SMU dorm-room wall. Still, I’m not alone in fully embracing Eric Dickerson. Today, Dickerson is no longer the persona non grata he once was in the City of Angels and University Park. He’s been one of the Rams’ biggest cheerleaders ever since the team’s 2016 return to Los Angeles. He’s also welcome on the sidelines at SMU games and has even helped the Mustangs recruit coaches who have finally turned the program around after decades of mostly dismal results. And he’s donned his famous goggles again, running across the country to the Super Bowl in a TV ad for Sleep Number beds—an interesting endorsement coming from the blazing running back who grew up in the sleepy Texas town that begat Sealy mattresses.
We ended our call about where it began, with me thanking Dickerson for making that run all those years ago that eventually led me to Texas. He replied: “Oh, I gotta tell some of the SMU guys about that.”