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CARRYING THE OFFENSE : Eric Dickerson, Prepared to Absorb Bumps, Relishes the Rush Hours With Rams

September 12, 1986|CHRIS DUFRESNE | Times Staff Writer

At his current rate of 38 carries a game, Ram running back Eric Dickerson will finish the season with 608 rushes.

Assume, also, that he'll finish with a few other things, like a ruptured spleen or some cracked ribs. A bad case of migraines, maybe.

The Rams, of course, are fools to treat their most valuable player with such utter disregard for his kidneys.

Running Dickerson ragged is kind of like beating a precious diamond against concrete, over and over.

So it is curious to see Dickerson so happy these days, whistling while he works, singing while he showers.

You would have thought he'd probably wanted to strangle Coach John Robinson after the 193-yard pounding that the running back gave, but also took, in last Sunday's 16-10 win over the St. Cardinals.

However, Dickerson said this week that he could think of only one coach he'd rather play for.

"Myself," he said. "If I was a coach, I'd give myself the ball. No, I don't think I could play for a better coach."

Yet, a concerned media corps wondered this week if Dickerson would ever carry 38 times in one game again.

"Only when we have to," Robinson said. "Only if he gains around 190 or 200 yards, only if he averages about 5.1 yards per carry. If he could sustain that, we'd give it to him 50 times."

Robinson, remember, went to John McKay's school of USC football philosophy.

It was McKay who once was asked how O.J. Simpson, USC's star back, could possibly carry the ball 40 times in a game.

"Why not?" McKay cracked. "It ain't heavy."

And you know who followed McKay as coach at USC.

Robinson once ordered the ball given to tailback Ricky Bell 51 times in a game. Robinson ran Marcus Allen and Charles White into the ground and into the Heisman Trophy.

When he came to the Rams, Robinson drafted Dickerson, and it has been run, run, run ever since.

"At no point in Sunday's game was Eric tired," Robinson said. "I never once looked at him and said, 'Are you tired?' "

Robinson, in fact, scoffs at the idea that running backs wear down.

"I think, for the most part, most of the great backs are at their best at the end of the season," he said.

And Dickerson is not one to argue. He said the most frustrating part of his career was when he was forced to alternate at tailback with Craig James at Southern Methodist University in what became known as the Pony Express backfield.

Dickerson said he does not get tired carrying the ball. He wants it as often as he can get it. He talks about getting into a groove, comparing himself to a hitter and his swing.

With the ball in his arms, Dickerson is safe, he said. Without it, he feels naked and vulnerable.

"A lot of guys get hurt just standing around," Dickerson said.

When Dickerson runs, his mind drifts to another plane. By the fourth quarter, in fact, it is the defense, not Dickerson, that usually turns to mush.

Dickerson said he can sense a defense crumbling before him.

"Sometimes the defensive linemen will have their hands on their knees," he said. "Sometimes, you can hear them bitching at each other. You can see them getting tired and frustrated."

Then Dickerson kicks into another gear.

"I'm in a different frame of mind," he said. "I can't describe it, the feeling. It's like I'm at my best and nothing's going wrong. Or if it is wrong, I can make something out of it." Dickerson said it's a feeling he only gets from running with the football.

"It's like I know what I'm doing," he said. "It's my craft. It's like a singer on stage who knows what he or she is doing. Michael Jackson says that's when he feels most comfortable. Well, when I run, that's where I feel more comfortable."

Dickerson said that preparing for a physical beating is largely a mental process.

"It's almost to the point where I enjoy hitting people, and getting hit," he said.

Dickerson said he was not very sore when he awoke Monday morning. Some weeks are better than others.

Of course, Dickerson is only 25. He knows there will come a day when muscles will ache well into the week.

Yet, his is not a mindless, brutal art form. Dickerson dislikes pain as much as anyone. Unlike some backs, though, he has learned to duck and dodge his way around tacklers and out of emergency wards.

There are, for example, dozens of scars on the tops of his hands, the results of swiping tacklers off his legs. He studies defenders, looking for flaws. Some defensive backs tackle with their heads down, which dictates a stiff-arm.

"You have to know how to get hit," he said. "Sometimes you can take hits where they don't want to hit you."

Dickerson watched Herschel Walker of the Dallas Cowboys running against the New York Giants Monday night. Dickerson said he was amazed at Walker's size and speed but wondered how many years Walker could last, running over linebackers instead of around them.

"Sometimes you see people try to bulldoze guys," Dickerson said. "You can't do that every week. Earl Campbell is the perfect example of that. Sooner or later, someone's going to get you."

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