Dorsett lasted longer in the NFL than he thought he would — a dozen years, the first 11 with the Cowboys. He finished his career with the Denver Broncos, retiring before the 1989 season. He briefly considered a comeback in 1990, but, for the most part, when he left the game, he was ready.
“When I came into the league, I said, ‘Man, if I’m out here four or five years, I’m gonna be the happiest football player on earth,’ ” he says. “So I doubled that and some change.”
Dorsett knew he didn’t have the temperament for coaching, the patience, but he thought he might make a good color commentator. Maybe he could call college or pro games. He had always been able to handle himself in front of a camera. The opportunity never presented itself. When Dorsett was done with football, football was done with him.
But he has never been able to replace it. His former teammates struggle with the same thing. “We even have a saying,” says Bob Breunig, who played middle linebacker for Dallas from 1975 to 1984. “ ‘You play 10 years for the Cowboys, and you spend the rest of your life getting over it.’ ”
They were America’s Team, though they hated the name and the target it drew on their backs. More important, they were Dallas’ Team, and when they were out on the town—at Le Jardin, at Elan, up and down Greenville Avenue—that was just fine.
“Let me tell you something, bro: let the good times roll, baby,” Dorsett says. “It was a lot of fun. It was a lot of fun from the standpoint of winning games, being with a lot of great players, but then, socially, it went through the ceiling, man. We had a lot of single guys on the team. We had a lot of fun.”
That’s not what he misses. That’s not what he hasn’t been able to replace. He is happy being a family man, just another suburban retiree, Janet’s husband, Jazmyn, Madison, and Mia’s dad. But he isn’t anyone’s teammate anymore. He misses being around a team, everyone fighting for the same goal, going into training camp and watching it all build from there, knowing that 50 guys have each other’s backs. And, yeah, he misses the rush that came with it, how he could be down for a week and then a big game would change everything. There are no more big games. “You don’t get those quick fixes sometimes here in the real world,” he says.
But it’s even more elemental than that.
“You know, football is me,” he says. “I mean, football is in my blood. If there was something I could do, I’d do it right now.”
He doesn’t blame the game for where he is now. Dorsett was a football player, and that’s what a football player does. Play with injury, play when it hurt, because it always hurt. He played with a broken transverse process bone in his back, “squealing like a pig” on every hit, so painful the other team was running to the Cowboys sideline begging the coaches to pull him from the game. He made those choices based on the information he was given, took those chances. “Giving it up for my team, for the NFL,” he says.
No, it’s not the game that let him down, he says. It’s the league that paid him to play it. He says the NFL knew the risks associated with concussions and brain trauma and kept it quiet, kept it from both the players and the public, treated those head injuries like just another sprain or tear, a temporary setback, not a potential lifelong problem. The league and its owners should have looked out for him and his fellow players, he says.
“I’m a Hall of Famer,” he says. “I’m one of the most visible guys during my era. And nobody’s reached out to me. Nobody from the NFL has even checked, even asked a question to me. ‘Hey, man, I’m sorry’ or ‘Hey, man, I wish you well’—whatever. ‘Man, is there anything we can do to help you?’ You know, because sometimes—I go to doctors and I can’t remember the doctors’ names.”
It’s difficult for him to go to the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony now. He hasn’t been in a couple of years. It should be a celebration of the past, but Dorsett only sees the future.
“I say, ‘Is that me? Is that gonna be me in three, four years, I don’t know, five years, 10 years—is that gonna be me?’ I’m on that path. I’m going down that road. It’s sad—it’s sad—to go to the Hall of Fame and see these great players that meant so much to this great game, being in the condition that they’re in, and they’ve got to fight and struggle and plead for help. That part is mind-boggling to me. Mind-boggling, man.”
It’s mostly his short-term memory that fails Dorsett. But his long-term memories are starting to become more elusive, too.
“I’m sitting here trying to think where I was at yesterday,” Dorsett says. “I’m sitting here thinking, Man, where the hell was I at? Where was I at? I know I went to this basketball game with my wife. After we were doing our shopping, we went to a basketball game. I think it was the eighth-graders. I don’t know. We couldn’t stay but half the game. But I’m beating my mind up: Where did we go? Where did we go? I mean, man, I’m determined to figure this out, so I gotta go back and think—and then I can’t get it. And then if I keep thinking about it, then I get this fog. And I’m like, ohhh, man. Just beating myself up.”
Dorsett sinks deep into his big, brown leather chair, his head back, staring at the ceiling. On the ottoman in front of him, his phone buzzes with a text. He looks at it and tosses the phone back where it was, then leans over and pulls up his socks again. Charlie, the tiny, shivering dog at his feet, takes this movement as a sign that they’re going outside, so Dorsett gets up and lets him out into the backyard.
He’s seen a lot of Charlie lately. He hasn’t been doing much. He hasn’t wanted to. In a couple of days, he’ll get on another plane, this one bound for New York, to attend the Heisman Trophy ceremony. After that? “I’m in limbo right now,” he says.
He’s spent a good portion of his retirement being Tony Dorsett professionally, acting as a spokesman for this company or that, a sportswear company here, a long-distance provider there, showing up at meet-and-greets, attending banquets, maybe a car show, shaking hands, taking pictures. But he doesn’t do much of that anymore. He has thought about doing some motivational speaking, but he’s done it before and doesn’t really like it. Lately, he hasn’t felt like doing any kind of public speaking.
“I didn’t even want to do radio or TV, because I’d be doing an interview and all of a sudden I’d forget,” he says. Just like, ‘Oh, man—what were we talking about?’ It’s embarrassing, man. You want to go out and be productive and try to do things, positive things, and you get discouraged because of the fact you can’t remember people’s names, you don’t know where you’re going.”
He doesn’t know where he’s going right now either, but he knows he needs to go somewhere, stop hanging around the house so much. “My wife is gonna get tired of me.”
His phone buzzes again.
“I’ve got people calling me all the time,” Dorsett says. “I’ve got doctors, people want to help me pro bono. They’ve got this new technology, a new technique. So many doctors have offered help. I’m so appreciative. It makes me feel that when I was playing ball, I touched some lives. Not just myself—we gave entertainment to people, and they appreciated it so much that they want to give back, give something to me for all the enjoyment that we’ve given to them over the years. I get calls almost every week, and there’s a doctor that’s got this and a doctor that’s got that. I can’t use everybody’s treatment.” He laughs. “Something might start misfiring.”
On that Monday night against the Minnesota Vikings, Dorsett wasn’t sure if he was going to make it.
“I actually thought I was gonna get pushed out of bounds,” he says. “I was tiring a little bit.”
Vikings cornerback Willie Teal had to slow down a step or two to avoid the pileup of Drew Pearson and Tom Hannon, but he finally caught up to Dorsett just before the 20-yard line. But he was tiring, too. He didn’t have enough. Dorsett stayed in bounds, on his feet, on his way to a record 99-yard rushing touchdown.
“Can you believe that?” Don Meredith asked the Monday Night Football audience, as Dorsett crossed the goal line near the right pylon. He rounded off the run near the back of the end zone, his arms outstretched, punctuating the play with a simple right-hand spike of the ball, a casual and almost perfunctory gesture. Pearson caught up to him in the end zone, engulfing Dorsett in a bear hug that pulled him up onto his toes.
“He didn’t have enough shove in his push, or push in his shove, to get me out of bounds. And it ended up a record-setting run.” He raises his voice. “One that you can’t take away from me! The only thing you can do with that one is tie it, man. You can’t break it. You can only tie it.”
Do you remember? Tony Dorsett does.
But for how long?