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Still a Black Sheep in L.A.?

Despite what should be a Hall of Fame career, Eric Dickerson may forever be branded as the player who brought the Rams to ruin.

January 30, 1999|BILL PLASCHKE

MIAMI — As he stands barely a three-yard burst from football's greatest honor, Eric Dickerson knows what you're thinking.

"People look at me like, 'There goes a disgruntled player. There goes an ingrate,' " he says.

If Dickerson runs into the Pro Football Hall of Fame today as expected, he will do so lightly, with no apologies and no excuses.

But he will have one question.

"Everybody was mad at me for leaving town for more money, then a few years later, the Rams leave town . . . for more money," he says. "Yet I'm the bad guy?"

The plaque in front of his Canton bust will note that nobody else has rushed for more yards in a season, or as a rookie, or in a playoff game.

More compelling is what it will not say.

That, well, yeah, Eric Dickerson is probably still the bad guy.

A Hall of Fame can give you eternity. But can it give you love?

So we will find out today when Dickerson, five years after leaving football, 12 years after leaving the Rams, probably will be elected in his first year of eligibility.

He once caused us to pull out our hair, this guy. Now that he has reached hallowed ground, how many of us will be able to summon the hands to clap?

Today's news is guaranteed to return respect that was lost amid distractions that surrounded him like no defensive lineman could.

But in Los Angeles, is it guaranteed to give him back his reputation?

"It doesn't matter to me," he says. "A lot of people say they know me. But a lot of those people have never met me."

The Hall of Fame focus this week has been on Lawrence Taylor, who will probably be elected today too, despite a long list of off-field problems with the law.

Dickerson never did anything like that.

According to some folks in Southern California, he did worse.

He stole our football.

By demanding and forcing a trade from the Rams while under contract and at the height of his career in 1987, he essentially took the town's football championship hopes with him.

Some say he eventually took the Rams with him.

The Indianapolis Colts gave him his desired money, a four-year deal worth about $1.5 million a year, nearly $1 million more than he was making with the Rams.

They set him up for life.

But did they cost him his future?

If he had stayed with the Rams for his career, perhaps he would have broken Walter Payton's rushing record of 16,726 yards.

He finished second, 3,467 yards behind Payton.

But the margin looks smaller when noticing that not once in his five full seasons after leaving the Rams did he match the average of his first four seasons with them.

He averaged 1,742 yards in those first four years. He averaged 982 in those five years afterward.

"Yeah, people are always saying that if I had stayed, I would have had this many yards, or that many yards," Dickerson says. "I don't know. I really don't know."

If he stays with the Rams for his career, maybe he becomes to Los Angeles what Tony Gwynn is to San Diego.

He puts the Rams in the Super Bowl, he becomes part legend, part landscape.

Maybe he gets local TV broadcasting and commercial deals.

Maybe when the NFL awards Los Angeles its expansion team next spring, somebody calls and asks him to pitch in.

"I don't like to look back at the past," he says.

He is speaking by phone from his home in Calabasas.

Bet you didn't know he lived there, did you? Bet you didn't even know he still lived in California.

That's how anonymous he has become.

He did have one TV deal this year, for a football talk show.

In Dallas.

"If somebody called me from a local team, I would sure listen," he says. "And I like TV, that sort of thing."

He says he's still happy managing real estate and personal appearances from an office in his house, but you have to wonder.

How does an articulate superstar who glows under the spotlight just disappear?

Is his local legacy that he ran like nobody else . . . or that he fled like nobody else?

"As I've gotten older, I realize I made some mistakes," he acknowledges. "I done some things, I wish I had not done them. I said some things that, today, sound different."

Like when he said, "That's my motto: 'Get rid of me.' "

Or when he said, "I don't care what my teammates think. Are they going to send me a check to pay for my mortgage?"

Or how about when he challenged then-coach John Robinson to, " . . . go run 47-Gap."

All of these quotes were made during the 1987 season, which was bad enough. Worse, they were made by a man who was trying to renegotiate an existing contract.

The city was not thrilled.

He was ripped in letters and columns.

It was so bad, angry fans supported, well, uh, Georgia Frontiere.

Dickerson is still defending himself.

"People said I had a contract," he says. "Well, I had an agreement. I never had a guaranteed contract in my life.

"I just wanted to be secure. I just did not want to be underpaid."

He made his final point in his final game with the Rams in Cleveland on Oct. 26, 1987.

It was a Monday night massacre, not just of the Rams--the Browns won, 30-17--but of Dickerson's image.

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