Eric Dickerson flew. So has time.
It has been 29 years since the former Los Angeles Rams star set the NFL’s single-season rushing record — a span that matches his jersey number — and now the Hall of Fame back once again waits to see if his mark of 2,105 yards will fall.
If last year was an indication, though, Dickerson won’t be glued to the TV, wringing his hands every time Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson gets a handoff. While Peterson was moving ever closer to the record in a 2012 regular-season finale, Mr. 2,105 wasn’t even watching.
“I was at Toys ‘R’ Us so my little girl could take some Christmas gifts back,” Dickerson said. “My phone was blowing up. I had 180 text messages and about 70 calls. The guy says, ‘Aren’t you Eric Dickerson? You aren’t watching the game, man?’”
Dickerson, 53, got to his home in Calabasas just in time to see the last two minutes of that finale against Green Bay. Peterson rushed for 199 yards but fell nine short of claiming the record.
“I did answer one call,” Dickerson said. "[Hall of Fame Rams tackle] Jackie Slater called me. He was like, ‘Man, are you watching this game? Man, it looks like they’re trying to give it to him. They aren’t tackling!’”
With 24 seconds remaining, a playoff berth and the rushing record on the line, and the filled-to-the-brim Metrodome roaring, Peterson shot through a hole on the left side for a 26-yard gain. His season yardage total — staggering, considering he was a year removed from reconstructive knee surgery — stood at 2,097.
The Vikings kicked the field goal with three seconds left for a 37-34 victory. Dickerson, suddenly interested again, exhaled.
“I was like, ‘OK, well, I’m safe again,’” he said.
The 2,000-yard club is among the most exclusive in sports. Only seven players have accomplished the feat: O.J. Simpson, Dickerson, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis, Jamal Lewis, Chris Johnson and Peterson. Each of the previous six saw their numbers fall off sharply in the season that followed.
Peterson has talked this off-season about setting a goal of 2,500 yards, pushing the record into the stratosphere. There is a world of difference, of course, between talking and doing.
“He’s going to see a lot of eight- and nine-man fronts,” Dickerson said. “Because they’re going to dare [quarterback Christian] Ponder to throw the football. They’re going to stack the line of scrimmage. If I’m a defensive coordinator, my thing would be, ‘OK, I want you to hit him all the way to the ground. Punish him.’ That’s what they do.
“The kind of runner Adrian is, he won’t back down from that. But that’s how you try to get to a back, frustrate him with the fronts, and just constantly hit him, hit him, hit him.”
However, he conceded that Peterson has already seen, and defeated, a lot of defenses that focused almost exclusively on stopping the run.
“People throw around ‘great’ so freely,” Dickerson said. “Some of these guys are average. But for him, yeah, he’s a great player. Just look at him. When he comes out on the field, his presence . . . and that’s what it comes down to, your presence. The way you carry yourself, like, ‘I’m the guy.’ I felt like that.”
Fellow Hall of Fame back Marcus Allen agrees that Peterson belongs in another class.
“He’s an animal, dude, and I say that in the most positive way,” said Allen, whose best rushing season in the NFL was for 1,759 yards in 1985. (He rushed for 2,427 in his final season at USC.) “He’s relentless. He might not be as great an all-around player, but he’s a great running back. I don’t think you can line him up and have him do all the things that Marshall Faulk did, put him at wideout or have him run routes and do all those things. But when it comes to running the ball, he’s great, no question about it.”
Peterson is a different type of runner than Dickerson was. Peterson runs hard and angry, seemingly seeking those head-on collisions. The graceful, gliding stride and upright posture of Dickerson made it look as if he was exerting minimum effort.
“Eric took such long strides and his motion was so smooth, it didn’t look like he was running very fast,” former Rams tight end David Hill said. “A lot of times, that fooled a lot of defenders. I remember in his first training camp, we were so interested in watching him run that [coach] John Robinson kept giving us a hard time because we were spending more time watching him run than blocking. We were looking over our shoulders to try to see what he was doing.”
Dickerson ran for 1,808 yards in his first season, 1983, a rookie rushing record he believes will outlast the single-season rushing mark.
“I’ve always felt like that will be the hardest to beat,” Dickerson said, “because you only get one shot at it.”
Slater said he’s convinced Dickerson would have had another 2,000-yard season with the Rams had the star back not been traded to Indianapolis in 1987. He added that the 2,105 means a lot to Dickerson’s blockers too.
“I know Eric would be the first one to tell you that he couldn’t have done it without us, and we appreciate that,” Slater said. “There’s no doubt about it, there was a lot of collaborative effort on the part of the offensive line, the tight ends, the receivers, everybody. But let’s just face it, Eric was the one running with the football, the one making the plays. Eric was a very special guy.
“I was used to that, because I blocked for Walter Payton in college [at Jackson State], so I knew a special back when I was around one.”
Dickerson and Payton, the Chicago Bears icon, were forever linked in that record-setting 1984 season. Two months before Dickerson set the single-season record, Payton passed Jim Brown to become the NFL’s all-time rushing leader.
For his feat, Payton received a midnight-blue Lamborghini Countach from his shoe sponsor, Kangaroo. So when Dickerson ran for 2,105, he was anticipating a similar gesture from his sponsor, Adidas.
“The players were saying, ‘I know they’re going to give you something nice. I know you’re getting a car,’” he said.
Not so fast.
“You know what they gave me? Take a wild guess. How about a carrot cake with candles? That was embarrassing. The linemen, they were all standing around and were like, ‘A cake? A cake? Man, there’s no keys in that cake?’ I’m like, ‘Man, I’m allergic to nuts. I can’t eat this cake.’
“We just kind of walked off. I couldn’t even eat it. I was like, ‘Wow.’”
Twenty-nine years later, Dickerson can chuckle about the snub. He has the record, more meaningful to him than any set of wheels. He said he plans to send Peterson a text message this week, before the Vikings open the season Sunday at Detroit.
“I just want to wish him good luck, tell him I hope he has a great season. At the end I’m going to say, ‘But don’t break my record.’ I hope he has 2,104 yards.”
One yard short? That would take the cake.