Dorsett, Tony

views updated May 09 2018

Tony Dorsett


American football player

At just five-feet-ten-inches and 188 pounds dripping wet, Tony Dorsett didn't appear cut out to be a good running back. However, he spent four spectacular years at the University of Pittsburgh and twelve seasons

in the National Football League (NFL) proving that he wasn't only good, he was great. Combining lightning speed with agility that allowed him to change directions without losing momentum, Dorsett was an elusive runner with an uncanny ability to find a path down the field. His college record of 6,082 rushing yards stood for twenty-two years before being surpassed by Ricky Williams. His 12,739 rushing yards in the NFL was second only to Walter Payton .

Steel Mill Town

Tony Dorsett was born on April 7, 1954 in Rochester, Pennsylvania. He was the sixth of seven children in the family. Dorsett's father, West, worked in the steel mills for thirty years. Dorsett was very attached to his mother, Myrtle, who ran the household and carted the children to the Methodist church every Sunday. After his older brothers got into trouble for being out late drinking, Dorsett's parents laid down the law with him, and he avoided much of the trouble so readily available in the neighborhood. Although the family lived in a government-funded project called Plan 11, the housing development was clean and well-kept.

All his siblings were known for their speed, and Dorsett was no exception. His older brothers were track and football stars before him, and they served as Dorsett's role models and motivators. Upon entering high school Dorsett followed his brothers to Hopewell High School, located in a predominately white neighborhood, where a small number of black kids from the projects were bussed. Dorsett was determined that he would not end up working in the steel mills. Finding a better life was always in his mind.

As a sophomore Dorsett made the varsity football team, despite the fact that he only weighed 130 pounds. He played the season as a defensive back, and he quickly proved that he had the speed expected from a Dorsett boy. As a junior, Dorsett moved to the running back position. Over the next two years he scored forty-two touchdowns and led his team to consecutive 9-1 seasons. During high school Dorsett's reputation as being hottempered grew as fast as his reputation as an excellent football player. He was involved in numerous fights and was once briefly suspended from sports.

By his senior year Dorsett was drawing the attention of college scouts. Although he was recruited by more than one hundred colleges, Dorsett, who wanted to stay near his family, chose the University of Pittsburgh. It was risky move, considering Pitt had gone 1-10 the previous season and did not have the national media coverage of other top programs knocking on Dorsett's door. But Dorsett put his trust in the university's new coach, Johnny Majors, and his assistant Jackie Sherrill. On February 17, 1973, Dorsett signed a letter of intent to attend Pitt.

University of Pittsburgh

Many at Pitt were skeptical that Dorsett, at just 157 pounds, was the answer to anyone's prayer. But the skinny, shy freshman was soon to prove them wrong. On his first play from scrimmage the first day of practice, Dorsett ran the ball for an 80-yard touchdown. Initially named to the third team, by the third day of practice, he was listed as the team's starting tailback.


1954Born April 7 in Rochester, Pennsylvania
1970-73Star running back at Hopewell High School in Hopewell Township, Pennsylvania, near Aliquippa
1973-77Star running back at the University of Pittsburgh
1977Drafted by the Dallas Cowboys
1977-87Star running back for the Cowboys
1981Marries wife, Julie Ann
1988Traded to the Denver Broncos
1989Knee injury forces retirement
2002Introduces, with Thomas Foods, a line of sauces and marinades

Successful from the start as a football player, Dorsett was not always happy after he arrived in Pittsburgh. He had to adjust to being away from his family, living in a much larger city, and the increasing "fishbowl" nature of his existence. The Pitt sports information office began to refer to him as Tony, but until his junior year Dorsett, who had always been called Anthony, continued to sign autographs as Anthony Dorsett. His spot in limelight intensified after his girlfriend, Karen Casterlow, gave birth to the couple's son, Anthony, on September 14, 1973, the day Dorsett played in his first game as a Pitt Panther. The two never married, but Dorsett remained involved with his son throughout his childhood.

Unhappy and homesick, Dorsett almost gave up on college during his freshman year. Only after being encouraged by his mother and his coaches, did he agree to stick it out. After a freshman season with 1,686 yards rushing, Dorsett no longer had any doubts about his place. During his sophomore year, he was slowed by double- and triple-team defenses, but still managed to gain over 1,000 yards. During his junior and senior seasons, Dorsett, who bulked up to 185 pounds by his senior year, continued to improve, as did the Pitt team record. By the fall of 1976, Dorsett's final college season, Pitt was vying for the number one ranking in the nation, and Dorsett was vying for the Heisman.

During his senior year Dorsett rushed for 1,948 yards, scored twenty-one touchdowns, and set an all-time National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) record of 6,082 yards. Along with winning the Heisman Trophy in 1976, Dorsett ended his storybook college career with fifty-five touchdowns, an average of 5.7 yards per attempt, a national championship, and his jersey was retired. He had also been named an All-American all four years. He was ready for the pros.

Becomes a Dallas Cowboy

In 1977 the Seattle Seahawks had first pick in the draft and planned on selecting Dorsett; however, Dorsett made it clear that he did not want to play for the Seahawks organization, which was at the time struggling through its infancy as an NFL expansion team, even bluffing that he may decide to play in Canada if the Seahawks took him. Ultimately the Dallas Cowboys stepped in, trading Seattle its first round pick plus three second round picks for a chance to take Dorsett.

During his first pro season, Dorsett rushed for more than 1,000 yards, averaged 4.8 yards per carry, and scored twelve touchdowns. For his efforts, he was named the NFL Rookie of the Year. Dorsett and the Cowboys went all the way to the 1978 Super Bowl, beating the Denver Broncos, 27-10. The following season Dorsett was equally impressive, posting 1,325 rushing yards, plus an additional 378 yards receiving. Each year Dorsett methodically moved the ball down the field, rushing for 1,000-plus yards eight of his first nine seasons. Only in 1982, which was shortened by a players' strike, did he fail to achieve 1,000 yards. He reached the pinnacle of his career in 1981, his fifth season in the NFL, rushing for a team-record 1,646 yards.

Life in the Fast Lane

Dorsett, living in the limelight, decided to take full advantage of his status as a superstar. The same explosive personality that drove him on the field also characterized his life off the field. He became notorious for his extravagant and frequent parties. He frequented the local clubs, and more than once became involved in a scuffle. He lived the high life, filled with women, alcohol, and plenty good timesa stark contrast to his aloof, all-about-business, church-going coach Tom Landry . However, by the mid-1980s Dorsett was suffering some personal and professional setbacks.

Awards and Accomplishments

Dorsett was the first player to gain more than 1,000 yards each of his four college seasons and the first to accumulate more than 6,000 yards during his college career. He also set a record for three seasons with over 1,500 yards.
1973-77First Team All-American
1976Heisman Trophy Award; won national championship as a member of the University of Pittsburgh Panthers
1977Sporting News Rookie of the Year; set an all-time National Collegiate Athletic Association rushing record of 6,082 total yards, which stood for 22 years
1978Won Super Bowl as a member of the Dallas Cowboys
1978-81, 1983Selected to National Football League (NFL) Pro Bowl
1981Named National Football Conference (NFC) Player of the Year; named All-NFL.
1982Set unbreakable record of a 99-yard touchdown run; NFC rushing champion
1988Surpassed Jim Brown's rushing record; ended career with 12,739 yards rushing
1994Elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Related Biography: Football Player Herschel Walker

Herschel Walker won the Heisman Trophy as a junior at the University of Georgia in 1982. After establishing ten National Collegiate Athletic Association records in three years of play, Walker opted out of his senior year of college to join the upstart United States Football League (USFL). When the USFL folded in 1985 the Dallas Cowboys added Walker to the roster. At six-feet-one-inch, 223 pounds, Walker was a physical, straight-up-the-field runner with excellent skills as a receiver. He led the NFL in rushing in 1988.

When the Cowboys franchise was sold to Jerry Jones in 1989, the team was restructured to emphasize its passing game. As a result, Walker was traded to the Minnesota Vikings. After three seasons in Minnesota, he was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles, where he remained three seasons. Although he played an additional three seasons (one with the New York Giants and two again with the Dallas Cowboys), Walker's last season of major production was 1994. Over his career, he recorded 8,225 rushing yards and 4,859 receiving yards.

Dorsett's marriage ended in 1984, followed closely by his father's death. Then in 1985 the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) came knocking, garnishing his wages and placing a lien on his two Dallas homes to satisfy more than $400,000 owed in back taxes after a tax shelter Dorsett had invested in was disallowed. Dorsett had other concurrent financial troubles. He had made numerous poor investments, costing him much of his money. Because of his wild lifestyle and unproven, but widely rumored, drug use, Dorsett secured few endorsement deals to supplement his player's pay check.

A Relationship Gone Bad

Prior to the 1985 season things began to sour between Dorsett and the Cowboys organization. Dorsett decided to hold out, demanding that his contract be renegotiated. Dorsett was angry because he believed that the Cowboys management was responsible for the public airing of his financial problems, and because Randy White, the Cowboys' celebrated defensive tackle, had been awarded a larger contract than Dorsett. When the Cowboys brought on running back Herschel Walker, Dorsett went on a tirade because Walker's $5 million five-year contract exceeded his own $4.5 million five-year contract.

The signing of Walker proved to be the beginning of the end for Dorsett's days in Dallas. Although Dorsett personally liked Walker, the younger running back was everything that Dorsett had never been: bigger, younger, and in possession of a gentler nature that fit the all-American image of Dallas Cowboy football. Suddenly Dorsett was sharing time in the back field, and it deeply bruised his ego. On November 22, 1987, in a game against the Miami Dolphins, for the first time in his career, Dorsett was listed in the stats as DNP (Did Not Play). It was an embarrassment and an insult that Dorsett could not stomach. He began loudly demanding to be traded.

Dorsett eventually got his wish, and after eleven seasons in a Cowboy uniform, he was traded to the Denver Broncos. After a long, frustrating season in Dallas, Dorsett told Sports Illustrated that he was excited about the change, remarking, "Mentally, I couldn't feel better. As far as my reputation for being a troublemaker, well, I don't back off. The Cowboys try to mold everyone in their image, and I couldn't be molded." Despite his positive outlook, injuries limited Dorsett's playing time with the Broncos during the 1988 season. When he suffered from torn knee ligaments during training camp the following year, Dorsett was forced to retire.

At the age of thirty-four, when Dorsett joined the Broncos, he could still run forty yards in 4.3 seconds. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame's tribute to Dorsett, "[He] was a player who had it all the swift, smooth strides; the sharp, crisp cuts; the uncanny knack of finding daylight in the chaos along the line of scrimmage. Every time he touched a football, opponents shuddered. He turned small gainers into big gainers and routine plays into touchdowns." In 1994 Dorsett, in his first year of eligibility, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Career Statistics

Dallas: Dallas Cowboys; Denver: Denver Broncos.


(With Harvey Frommer) Running Tough: Memoirs of a Football Maverick, Doubleday, 1989.



Dorsett, Tony, and Harvey Frommer. Running Tough: Memoirs of a Football Maverick. New York: Doubleday, 1989.

Markoe, Arnold, ed. The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives: Sports Figures. Vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2002.

Who's Who Among African Americans, 14th ed. Detroit: Gale Group, 2001.


"Dustbin." Sporting News (October 23, 2000): 7.

Looney, Douglas S. "Thrown for Some Big Losses." Sports Illustrated (August 12, 1985): 22-27.

Telander, Rick. "Walker and Dorsett." Sports Illustrated (November 17, 1986): 76.

"Tony Dorsett Talks About Tax Problems, Divorce and the Death of his Dear Dad." Jet (October 28, 1985): 48-49.

Zimmerman, Paul. "Goodbye, Big D, Hello Denver." Sports Illustrated (August 1, 1988): 36-40.


"Tony Dorsett." Dallas Cowboys Fan (December 28, 2002)

"Tony Dorsett." Pro Football Hall of Fame. (December 28, 2002)

Sketch by Kari Bethel