Editor’s note: If you’re a football fan of a certain age, you’ve almost certainly heard the story. In 1979, Eric Dickerson was the best high school football player in the country, a 6-foot-3 running back with scholarship offers aplenty and no shortage of enticements from eager colleges. And for decades, a legend took hold: Texas A&M gave Dickerson a gold Trans Am to verbally commit to the Aggies—a car he kept after eventually signing with SMU instead. Dickerson had always steadfastly denied it, claiming that his grandmother has purchased the car for him.
Until now. In the following excerpt from his memoir, Watch My Smoke: The Eric Dickerson Story, written with Greg Hanlon, which is available today wherever books are sold, the College and Pro Football Hall of Famer peels back the curtain on what really happened with the Trans Am. Turns out, he wasn’t lying. It also wasn’t close to the whole truth.
Of course there were benefits to being the top recruit in the country. Like the Trans Am—the one I drove to school my senior year, a week before national signing day in 1979. I was 18 then and now I’m 61, and it’s still the thing people ask me about the most.
For all these years, I’ve been telling people my grandma bought it for me. That’s the truth—technically. But yeah, there’s a lot more to it than that.
To understand the story, you first need to understand the pressure I was under to go to A&M. Sealy’s in East Texas, about 70 miles from College Station, so it was an A&M town. The town’s biggest businessman, Clarence Shear, who owned the livestock feed store, was a big A&M booster who had given me a job the summer before. And the man I called my stepdad—my biological mom’s husband—had a side deal with A&M, where they offered him a house in Westview, the White part of Sealy, and a few head of cattle. (Cattle were big in Texas recruiting in those days; recruiters promised to keep your freezers stocked with meat.)
But I wasn’t into A&M. First, I didn’t like their uniforms. That was a big factor for me as an 18-year-old who wanted to look cool. Second, the student body was about two-thirds male. When I visited, it seemed like there were no girls, just a bunch of dudes from the school’s Corps of Cadets in military uniforms. They didn’t even have cheerleaders; they had male “yell leaders.” It just wasn’t what I was envisioning for my college experience.
So that was the backdrop. But then came the moment when a different A&M recruiter came to my house and, in front of my mom, opened a suitcase containing $50,000. I never saw the suitcase, but my mom came over from the next room and told me what happened.
—Eric, that’s the most money I’ve ever seen in my life.
My mom was still cleaning houses at the time. She got some money from my dad’s railroad pension as his widow, but I’d looked at her checking account a little bit before that and saw $20 or $30.
Then she said: But if you don’t want to go to that school, do not take these peoples’ money.
That was my mom. Yes, she was tough, but she always put me first. And I didn’t like that school. And, believe it or not, I didn’t take that money.
What if I had blown out my knee? That $50,000 could have bought a big house in Sealy.
It’s a fair question, but that thought didn’t cross my mind. A lot of things didn’t cross my mind back then—including the fact that someone could make millions of dollars playing pro football. You have to understand how sheltered and naive I was. That’s true of most kids being recruited to play college football. That’s why the NCAA’s system of exploitation works.
Even though I turned that money down, A&M stayed after me and remained in the picture—there was that much pressure for me to go there. And then, a few weeks later, I mentioned to my stepdad in passing that I really liked the new Pontiac Trans Am. I’d seen it at a dealership on I-10 that I used to drive by to visit my grandparents in Houston, and I just liked it: the bird on the hood, the fins on the side, how sleek it was.
It was an innocent comment. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have remembered even saying it. But recruiting isn’t a normal circumstance, and before I knew it, I was talking to Shear, the big A&M booster in town.
—We can make that happen, he said.
Then he told me to go to the dealership, and all of a sudden I’m there with my mom and my grandma, then the staff is telling me to pick any car on the lot. That’s the way things were in those days: one minute I’m a broke kid idly fantasizing about a nice car. The next, a bunch of grown-ass men are falling over themselves to give me that car.
I had my pick of a Corvette and three Trans Ams: black, silver, and gold. I liked the gold one.
The dealership guy said he’d be right back, that he just had to make a phone call. When he returned, he gave my grandma the paperwork to fill out.
Now, until the present day, I’ve always said publicly that my grandparents bought me that car. My grandfather made good money from his job as a crane operator at a steel mill, and my grandma’s name is on the paperwork, so that’s technically true. But behind the scenes, A&M had agreed to reimburse her. And that, my friends, is how the notorious Trans Am was paid for.
I didn’t know any of this at the time, however. I learned it a few years later, when I was already in the pros and I asked my mom. But at the time, I wasn’t trying to look a gift horse in the mouth, and I didn’t need to know everything. The only thing I knew was that I was driving home the finest car, by far, of any kid in Sealy, White or Black. I’ll never forget peeling out of the lot and feeling the engine underneath me. The new car smell, the vinyl dashboard, and the 8-track player I was gonna play my Commodores and Isley Brothers on. I was excited, and my mom and grandma were excited because I was excited. I couldn’t wait to go to school the next day.
Of course when I showed up at school, it became huge news—across the state, across the country. A couple days later, my cousin and I pulled up to a restaurant and got out of the car, and a photographer snapped a picture of us and the car that wound up in the Houston Post the next day.
Not long after that, an A&M booster or an assistant coach (I can’t remember) asked me to commit to going to A&M. With all the media coverage of the car, and with all the excitement around town about the car and what that potentially meant about me going there, I said yes.
It was a verbal commitment. I was 18 and it seemed like the thing to say to make a lot of adults happy. But my heart was never really into it, and I’d soon renege on it. I know a lot of A&M fans are still pissed at me about that, but I really don’t care: if they want to be pissed at a kid whose head was spinning and was being pressured by all different kinds of adults, then that’s their problem and not mine.
There’s this urban legend that angry A&M boosters destroyed the car, but I’m here to tell you that never happened. I had the Trans Am my first few years at SMU, before I sold it to my best friend and fellow SMU running back, Charles Drayton. Thanks to an SMU booster named George Owen, I was driving a Corvette by then.
So that’s the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but, straight from the horse’s mouth. Is that such a scandal? That the best player for one of the best teams in the country got a nice car? I don’t think so. I think I deserved that car—and a lot more than that.