A New Team Handles Dickerson : Managers Seeking to Enhance His Image, Bank Account

Times Staff Writer

Say you are Eric Dickerson, only 24 and on top of the world, but well aware of your athletic mortality.

You know this can't last forever, and you want to earn as much money as you can while you're hot, then take good care of that money so you won't have to worry when the knees are gone.

So, you hire an ex-fighter and the Dutch immigrant who managed him for the last 10 years of his career to run interference against the Rams' corporate defense and supervise your financial affairs.

This is the odd trio brought together by a chance meeting in the Bahamas and now viewed with considerable skepticism by the sports community.

Is this amateur night for agents? Is Dickerson about to be stung?

The office building is a block off Wilshire Boulevard, between MacArthur Park and the Ambassador Hotel. Solid, traditional, old-line Los Angeles.

When the elevator opens, the heavy wooden double doors in the foyer read on one side, "Ken Norton Personal Management," and on the other, "J.R. Industrial Investments, Jack Rodri, President." The old 1-2.

Right now their clientele is limited to one man: Eric Dickerson. Norton's private office is heavily appointed with memorabilia from his boxing career, a career highlighted by three fights with Muhammad Ali. As his 40th birthday in August creeps near, the former heavyweight champion still have his well-developed physique, four years after his 54-second knockout at the hands of Gerry Cooney.

"I'm 35 and holding," Norton grumbles with a smile.

He sits in a large leather chair behind a half-moon walnut desk and says: "We formed a business venture for Eric. Once we get Eric going, we plan to branch out and help others."

If that produces thoughts of an experiment, with Dickerson the guinea pig, Norton tries to be reassuring.

"Everything Eric is going to do, Jack and I have already done," Norton said. "He's too good a friend to take a chance on hurting him. He's a heck of a guy."

Rodri, always smiling, is almost swallowed up by the sofa in the rear of the room.

"I've always been in business and had properties," he says. "But I never managed for other people--just Ken. I've been very successful managing for myself."

Rodri, 54, came to the United States from the Netherlands in 1956 and shortened his name from Rodriguez.

"You heard of the Spanish Inquisition?" he asks. "You'll find a lot of Spanish surnames there."

He became Norton's manager in 1971, when Bob Byron died. "I started taking care of investing Ken's money, paying his bills and managing his finances," Rodri says.

That is what they propose to do for Dickerson--that and promote him into the most marketable athlete in the country and, if possible, extract more money from the Rams for his services.

A few months ago, Dickerson had other people doing those things, but he didn't think it was working out.

First, he fired Jack Mills, the lawyer from Boulder, Colo., who in 1983 had negotiated his four-year, $2.2-million contract with the Rams.

Then Norton and Rodri fired Milton Kahn, the public relations consultant who was developing a show-business image for Dickerson with appearances, endorsements, a book and cartoon series. Kahn was replaced by Sandy Friedman, a vice president of the Rogers and Cowan public relations firm with such clients as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bruce Jenner, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Danny Sullivan, Martina Navratilova and, of course, Ken Norton.

The fourth member of Dickerson's new support group is David Epstein, a lawyer based in Century City who once was with the law firm that represented the Lakers and Kings when Jack Kent Cooke owned them. Epstein said he has worked with Norton and Rodri for years.

Rodri said: "We have power of attorney to pay his (Dickerson's) bills, but when it comes to a major investment, I wouldn't take the responsibility without talking to Eric."

Norton said: "Every check that goes out has to have Eric's signature. He can always come in and go over the books, find out where every penny is, what it was spent for and who took it."

That's exactly what Dickerson is doing. Notoriously frugal, he said he drives from his home in Irvine to see Norton and Rodri almost every day. "I get so tired of driving up to L.A.," he said. "But this is the best thing for me. I need someone very close."

He said that previously, he often had a hard time catching up with Mills in Boulder.

There were other things, too.

"Jack is a good guy, but he wants to stay good with me and good with the Rams," Dickerson said. "An agent has to be all for you only."

Mills chose not to return a reporter's calls to his office in Boulder.

Norton and Rodri also are changing the direction of Dickerson's investments. Oil is out. Factories are in.

Rodri said: "We like industrial real estate to invest in. Ken and I have made a lot of money in it."

Norton said: "My theory was you put 50% in the bank, blow a quarter and invest a quarter. No matter what happens, you will always have that 50%."

So that takes care of Dickerson, but what's in it for Norton and Rodri?

"We'll charge less than his last agent did," Norton said, although he wasn't specific. "It wasn't because of the monetary thing we became his agents. He needed help. We're not out to make a big buck with Eric. The money will come later, down the line, like a snowball going downhill."

Norton and Dickerson met as spectators at a triathlon in the Bahamas two years ago.

"We became friends almost instantly," Norton said. "I had my wife and children, and we were like one big happy family because we had a lot in common.

"I was raised in a very small town in Illinois (Jacksonville). He was raised in a small town in Texas (Sealy). He was raised by his great aunt. My great aunt raised my mother and me."

Norton also played some football, at Northeast Missouri State, before turning to boxing in the Marine Corps.

As he and Dickerson became acquainted, Norton said: "It came out that he was pretty unhappy. He didn't know how much money he had and where it was. One day he asked me about my situation. I told him I felt pretty good about it, that my money had tripled since I retired. After awhile he said, 'Would you guys help me?' "

The first important business will be to seek renegotiation of Dickerson's contract. Although his overall package averages out to $550,000 a year, his pay this season will be $350,000--well below the market rate for a running back who has broken O.J. Simpson's record with 2,105 yards in a single season.

Rams owner Georgia Frontiere is on her annual holiday in London, and John Shaw, vice president in charge of finance, was avoiding the press, as usual, but the Rams' stand is predictable: No dice.

The sides haven't met yet, although Rodri recently wrote to Shaw requesting a meeting.

"We've just been reviewing his contracts and financial affairs," Epstein said.

The conclusion?

"That Eric's the most underpaid quality football player in America," Epstein said.

The threat of a holdout is subtle.

Dickerson said: "I don't want to hold out. I don't want people to think I'm the bad guy, but I have to look out for my best interests."

If the Rams grant an audience, Epstein said that he, Norton and Rodri will face Shaw as a team, although Rodri is expected to carry the ball.

"Jack did it for me with Don King," Norton said. "Nothing can be tougher than that."

Norton already is certified as an agent by the NFL Players Assn. Rodri and Epstein have applied.

Dickerson said: "I don't want to be involved too much, worrying about that. I just want to get into the best shape I can in case we can work out a deal and I can go into (training) camp on time."

The feeling in the Rams' organization is that they will not break policy by renegotiating or even offering Dickerson an extension, but will give him a substantial bonus for breaking Simpson's record last season.

Epstein said: "They have a real sense of Eric's worth and have always treated him fairly."

Frontiere bought Dickerson's great aunt Viola--Dickerson calls her mother-- a satellite dish so she could watch all of his games from Sealy, and has flown her to Anaheim a few times. Dickerson doesn't want to upset that relationship. A bitter contract dispute also would tarnish his image, which Friedman is working to enhance.

This month Dickerson was the host for the Junior Achievement Awards banquet, which featured top executives from major industries, "people that Eric would not normally meet," Friedman said.

Dickerson also plans to do radio and TV spots for the National Center for Prevention of Rape, which has selected him as its sports spokesman.

If his new representatives have their way, Dickerson will endorse this product, support that cause, speak here, appear there, sign autographs everywhere and prosper financially and in stature.

"It's a success story and it's up to everyone in this room to mold," Freidman said. "I only wish we were there when he broke the record. There are certain things that are done when records are about to be broken. Pete Rose, Henry Aaron. It was countdown time."

Norton said: "Basically, no one except (people in) the immediate area knew about it. It wasn't a big deal unless you were in football or in L.A."

Rodri added: "The Rams' PR office has all their players to worry about. Eric is a superstar who needs special attention."

As the sole client of two companies, he should get it. But others believe he is being manipulated by his new associates.

Kahn, his former PR man, said: "As far as I'm concerned, Jack Mills is as fine a sports representative as you could find. Most of my clients have either won an Academy Award or a Cleo or an Emmy.

"But people make changes. You can't say if it was a good or a bad move until we see what happens. If Eric walks away with a new contract for $2 million a year, then maybe it was good. If he ends up being Duane Thomas, then it wasn't a good move."

Epstein said: "What we hope for Eric is that when his career's over, he'll have what Ken has--his money and his wits."

PLAYER TEAM YARDS SALARY* PER YARD

John Riggins Redskins 1,239 $800,000 $645.68 Walter Payton Bears 1,684 $685,000 $406.78 a--Freeman McNeil Jets 1,070 $685,000 $640.19 a--Billy Sims Lions 687 $650,000 $946.14 a--William Andrews Falcons 0 $530,000 Wendell Tyler 49ers 1,262 $405,000 $320.92 James Wilder Buccaneers 1,544 $400,000 $259.07 a--Curt Warner Seahawks 40 $400,000 $10,000 Earl Campbell Saints 468 $400,000 $874.70 b--Eric Dickerson Rams 2,105 $350,000 $166.27 c--Marcus Allen Raiders 1,168 $250,000 $214.04

* Money figures include base salary and bonuses under existing contracts but may not include some deferrals, annuities, etc.

a--Missed all or part of '84 season with injuries.

b--Four-year salary through 1986, averages $550,000 a year.

c--Renegotiating.

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