EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Eric Dickerson will be wearing his familiar number 29 on an unfamiliar uniform today.
"Everybody's been asking, 'Can you picture Eric Dickerson in a Colt uniform?' " Indianapolis quarterback Jack Trudeau said Saturday night.
"I was surprised the Rams would part with him. In fact, I was shocked."
Trudeau had a nation of company. How could one of the great marriages of football--Eric Dickerson, 27 and in his prime, running in a John Robinson offense--come apart so bitterly?
What happened in Cleveland? What happened that made Dickerson stand on the sideline last Monday night and watch the Browns take his teammates down the tubes, 30-17?
"I told 'em that my leg was sore, and it was sore," Dickerson said after arriving from Indianapolis with the Colts to play the New York Jets today.
"John (Robinson) knows I'm not a faker. I never faked. And it was bothering me at the time.
"It tightened up on me on that (touchdown) run. And so when I went in (at halftime), it was real sore, and he said, 'Don't play. Don't go back in. We don't want to take the risk of your getting hurt.' "
So Eric the Indestructible, who in four years had never missed a game because of an injury, didn't lift a leg to help, and after all that flash and dazzle, that's the final sour, sorry image Ram fans have been left to hold.
"I know I've never been hurt," Dickerson said Saturday. "I probably could have played. If it had been a serious, serious situation I probably could have played.
"But I felt like I'd given them so much--so much of my services--and they just weren't thankful for it."
The next day, Tuesday, at the National Football League owners' meeting in Kansas City, Colt General Manager Jim Irsay approached Ram Vice President John Shaw to ask about Dickerson.
"John Shaw and I talked very casually," Irsay said. "(But) the feeling around the league was that the Rams wouldn't trade him."
The first clue that they might came the following day, when the Rams placed Dickerson on their temporary inactive list for this week's game against the San Francisco 49ers at Anaheim, declaring that he was "physically and mentally unable to play."
Then on Friday, Colt Coach Ron Meyer said, "Jim Irsay came to me and said, 'Do you want to make a run at Eric Dickerson?' I was ecstatic."
A day of whirlwind negotiations involved not only the Colts and Bills but the Minnesota Vikings, Houston Oilers and St. Louis Cardinals.
"There was never a deal even close with Tampa Bay," Irsay said, refuting an early rumor.
"When you go after a player of this magnitude, you have to give up a lot. We were pretty well committed Friday that if they were going to trade Eric Dickerson, we were going to get him."
They also had to satisfy Dickerson, but money was no problem.
"I'm satisfied," Dickerson said, smiling.
Irsay, son of Colt owner Robert Irsay, said, "The terms of the contract make him the highest-paid running back in football, by a wide margin."
He would not confirm reports that Dickerson, who was offered a raise from $682,000 to $975,000 by the Rams, would be paid $5.6 million over the next four years--$1.4 million a year, guaranteed.
But earlier, in private, Dickerson nodded silently, smiled and said, "That's about right."
Publicly, facing a battery of TV cameras and two dozen reporters at a press conference, Dickerson said, "(The Colts) were willing to pay me the way I thought I should be paid. I didn't feel being with the Rams that I was appreciated for the talent I have.
"Last week, I felt I could no longer play for the Rams. Management felt like I had turned on them, and I felt like they had turned on me.
"John Shaw did not lie. He said I was the best. He also said I was the best player they had . . . had ever had. But he wasn't willing to pay.
"I was pretty content for the first two years (1983-84), but playing with the Rams wasn't fun (anymore). I hated it. I hated going to practice. Hopefully, I'll get back to where I love playing football again."
The timing of the trade finds Dickerson starting his new career at the same Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands where he played his first game for the Rams four years ago, helping them score a 16-6 win over the New York Giants.
It also reunites him with Meyer, who was his head coach at SMU and appears to be lifting the Colts out of their losing rut.
"I know from a first-hand, hands-on relationship he has the ability to propel a team to great heights," Meyer said. "He is the only player in the league we would have made this trade for."
Dickerson said he hadn't been to bed since Thursday night, but "I plan on playing some tomorrow. My leg is still a little sore, but I'm mentally ready."
"We'll wing it," Meyer said. "I don't want to put him in a situation that would endanger him. I don't want him to have a bad experience."