It was January 3, 1983, the last day of the NFL’s strike-shortened season, and Tony Dorsett’s Dallas Cowboys were losing to the Minnesota Vikings on Monday 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 10 Cowboys 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.”
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?
Dorsett moved to Frisco three decades ago, not long after he married his first wife, Julie, back when this area was mostly undeveloped pastureland. He has lived in a gated community a few minutes southwest of Toyota Stadium for the last 10 years or so.
He walks around the bottom floor of the two-story house, opening the blinds, trailed by a tiny, shivering Yorkshire terrier named Charlie. He is in all black—a black, hooded Old Navy sweatshirt; black pants; low-cut black suede boots; and black socks that he habitually pulls up every few minutes. He drops himself into the brown leather chair near a giant TV.
Next to the TV, above the fireplace, hangs a large portrait of Dorsett and his family—his second wife, Janet, and their daughters Jazmyn, Madison, and Mia—dressed alike in white shirts and jeans. It looks like it was taken six or seven years ago. Jazmyn is now out of the house, a senior guard on the Oklahoma State University basketball team. Madison, 15, and Mia, 10, will be home soon.
“My little Madison, boy—she’s an athlete,” he says. Madison plays soccer, and she’s starting to show that certain something that separates good from great, that aggressiveness and extra effort. But her father’s hopes for her athletic future lie elsewhere.
“I seen my daughter run track and my mouth just dropped,” he says. “That’s her? But I was watching her. She don’t even know how to come out of the blocks, but she can roll. I was like, ‘Girl, you are my Olympian. You are going to the Olympics. We going to the Olympics.”
Dorsett says he only ran in a couple of meets when he was a high school senior. He didn’t like it. He ran because he had to, not because he wanted to. “But I could have been a good track guy,” he says. It’s not hard to imagine him at a high school track meet. He is 59 now, 60 in April, but he looks no different than he does in the family portrait, and in the family portrait, he looks much the same as he did when he retired from the NFL after the 1988 season.
That is part of the reason there was such a strong reaction to news reports in early November that Dorsett’s brain was damaged. But it’s not just that he looks relatively youthful and healthy. He looks the same as he did when he was the charismatic leader of one of the most popular teams in NFL history, the version of the Cowboys first branded America’s Team. That’s why Dorsett rose straight to the top of the 24-hour news cycle, somber present-day clips juxtaposed with some of the brutal hits he took during his playing days, including the one that knocked him unconscious in a 1984 game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Today, there is a light dusting of gray in his hair, but he still could be the all-caps TONY DORSETT of his playing days, even if he lives a mostly lowercase life now. He doesn’t necessarily look like a former NFL running back—at 5-foot-11 and around 180 pounds, he wasn’t even big enough for that position back when he played—but it’s clear from how he carries himself that he was an athlete. Maybe you’d guess he had been a middleweight boxer if you didn’t know any better.
“Physically, I feel … pretty good.” He says the last two words as though he has only just now considered his condition and is a little surprised by the answer. He had his share of injuries as a player, including a torn ligament in his left knee that ended his final season before it even began. “I mean, I’m still able to get out—I don’t run or jog outside on pavement. I get on an elliptical machine. I can lift some.”
There are former NFL players who can barely walk on artificial hips and knees, whose hands are gnarled by arthritis, who have the range of motion of a department-store mannequin. Dorsett is lucky in that regard. The game didn’t rob him of his body.
But it did take his mind.