NFL Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson recently wrote his autobiography entitled Watch My Smoke. We spoke with him about his new book and much more.
Eric Dickerson is an NFL legend. One of the greatest running backs of all time, his 2,105 rushing yards in 1984 remains the single-season record nearly 40 years later. However, not everything about his playing days is a fond memory for Dickerson.
In his new book, Watch My Smoke, Dickerson tells his life story in full, recounting not only his successes but also the problems he faced as an NFL player from teams unwilling to compensate him fairly to the racism he encountered. I recently had the chance to speak with Dickerson about his book and his love for football as well as his passion to make the NFL a fairer, more equitable place for its players was evident throughout.
Micah Wimmer: What made you want to tell your life story?
Eric Dickerson: People have always talked to me about doing it. The big thing was that my oldest daughter would always say, “Dad, you’re such a great storyteller. You tell great stories.” I got younger kids now, my younger daughter she’s 16, and I’d tell her stories taking her to school every morning. I make them up for her. She’d say, “I want to hear a story about a horse.” Okay, I’ll make up a story about a horse. People would ask me about certain things in my life and say, “You should write a book, your stories are so interesting.”
In your book, you call the NCAA “a cartel that exploits the free labor of young, mostly Black kids” and that the real scandal of your college career wasn’t how much you got paid, but how little. In light of that, do you think the current NIL rights that players have is a step in the right direction and what further steps need to be made moving forward?
Dickerson: I think it’s most definitely the right direction. I would like to see the school pay the players a salary, a stipend, whatever you want to call it. These schools make so much money off these athletes, especially football players. The sport that runs most universities is the football team. People say you get a free scholarship. I tell you what: I don’t think any scholarship cost me a hundred million dollars. You can’t find a scholarship that costs that much, but football generates billions of dollars.
I’m not the person to say what they should do next, but this is a step in the right direction because kids have been exploited for so long. The coaches can switch teams and go to another team and coach that same year but a player has to sit out a year or two. And these are young kids. He’s not sure what college he wants to go to. The recruiting process is almost unfair because pretty much all of them lie. [Coaches say] “Oh we need you, you’re the guy to take us over the top,” [then] go to the next kid and tell them the same thing. A lot of these kids have nothing and a lot of them are hoping they are gonna play professional football or baseball or basketball but it doesn’t happen like that. A lot of them aren’t gonna take their education seriously because they think they’re gonna be the next coming. Some guys make it and some kids don’t but the majority of them don’t so if they got something to start off with – just a jump start – I think it’s good. And I’m not just talking about black kids; I’m talking about all kids.
Yeah, because the current situation kind of forces students to make a choice. Do you want to pursue your education or pursue your dreams?
Dickerson: That’s exactly it. How can you play football and also concentrate on your classes? Football is like a job. It really is. It’s a full-time job. College football is like professional football. It’s around the clock.
You say that the Trans Am that you got your senior year of high school is still what people ask you most about today. What do you think it is about that car that has captured the imagination of so many people?
Dickerson: It happened 40 years ago and they thought I got away with something, like the big ‘A-ha! We got him.’ When I got that Trans Am, [an NCAA representative] came to my house so much he was like a family member almost. It was no smoking gun. My grandmother bought that car and she got the money back. They paid her the money back and I didn’t find out until I was playing professional football, or maybe out of football how the car came about.
SMU was certainly not the only major school to pay players or offer benefits so why do you think you and the rest of the Mustangs were made such an example of?
Dickerson: Because we were not University of Texas. We were not Alabama. We were not Texas A&M. We weren’t that big school. I came from a little small town, 2A football, and they said you can’t make it in college football, you’re from a small school. It was the same thing with SMU. We were a smaller school and we weren’t supposed to have those kind of athletes. Why would you want to go there and not come to Texas or USC or Oklahoma? Almost ‘how dare you!’ Still today, the NCAA, in the National Championship Game they don’t want Baylor; they don’t want TCU or SMU in those national championship games. They want Alabama; they want Clemson; they want Texas; they want USC; they want the big schools. It’s the same thing.
Joining the Rams out of college, you had the best start to a career that any running back has ever had. What enabled you to transition to the NFL so well?
Dickerson: I’m not saying this to be braggadocious or nothing like that. My thing was I had a gift that was second to no one’s. God gave me an outstanding gift as an athlete. I was big, 6-foot-3; I was fast; I could cut; I could do anything a little guy could do and they hadn’t seen anything like that. I’m not bragging, but my talent was exceptional. And I worked at it. It wasn’t just given to me. I worked out hard and I wanted to be the best. My dad always said ‘All that you do, do with all your might because things done by half are never done right.’
You write a lot about your contract disputes and the Rams’ refusal to renegotiate your contract after your record-setting first two seasons. Why do you think the franchise was so unwilling to compensate you more fairly?
Dickerson: I found out later, the Rams didn’t have a lot of money. That being said, they could get away with it back then. There was no free agency. We had no power, the players had no power. And the writers, whatever they wrote, they were believed. Most of the writers wrote for the teams so there was no way for me to tell my story. They didn’t know what was going on with the negotiations. They just wrote what the Rams said, what their side was. People believe everything they read in the paper. It’s gotta be true it’s in the paper. Well, it’s not always true. I know how they lie in the paper.
How did this conflict affect the way you viewed the NFL?
Dickerson: The NFL is what the NFL is. The NFL is an entity that has done some good things and some bad things. And some of the bad things they’ve done, it’s not just the NFL. The NFLPA, our leadership is a joke. We have the worst union there is, if you want to call it a union. We can get nothing done. The players get screwed all the time and it’s not always on the NFL. We don’t have any guaranteed contracts. How is that possible in this day and age? Because the players don’t stick together. It’s all about sticking together and that comes from the union. I said the NFL gave me a life I never had. I was able to play a sport I loved so much at one point, but at the end, because of all the bullshit and the politics, it was hate.
Do you think the NFL pits players against each other as a way to fight solidarity?
Dickerson: 100 percent. A white writer said this to me a couple weeks ago. He said the NFL is 80 percent black and I hope you write it just like he said it. ‘If the NFL was 80 percent white you would have a good pension and good healthcare.’ I said ‘I agree!’ We as black folks know that. We know what’s up. We aren’t trying to get something that we don’t deserve, that we didn’t work for. It’s all about fairness. And I think the sad thing is that when it’s all said and done, there’s the people who are stuck with us, our wives and girlfriends, our broke down asses, when you can’t remember who you are, can’t get around, got a bad back or got cancer and the young wives and women are stuck.
I hear the women speak up much more than the players. It’s amazing how the women are like, ‘Hey we need better benefits.’ But they don’t get the publicity, no one talks about how broken the system is. And I’m not saying it’s an easy fix, but I believe it is an easy fix. By just doing right, just making us proud of the sport that we played, that we played so hard to make it what it is today. That’s all it is. Just fairness.
You write about the NFL’s recent gestures towards social justice and say that though “the NFL’s messaging may have changed… the underlying reality has not.” What do you think it would look like for that underlying reality to change?
Dickerson: I’ve always said this and I’ll keep saying it over and over. The only way it’s gonna change is when we have black ownership. I won’t see it in my lifetime, but we have to have more than one black owner. And I’m not saying Hispanic, I’m not saying Indian, I’m saying black because it’s a black and white issue. One day if we have a black commissioner in the NFL that’s not selling out to the owners, that’s how things are going to change. We need black leadership. Until then, nothing is going to change. But look, if I’m the white man I might not want change either! I don’t blame him!
If you were hired to replace Roger Goodell as NFL commissioner what are the first things you would do?
Dickerson: One of the first things I’d want to do is have a meeting with retired players. I want to hear what retired players have to say. What can we do to make it better for you retired guys? Let’s start with that first. The way that they negotiate, you have to have someone who has some real negotiating power and has nothing to gain by it. You’ve got to have someone that is, I hate to say it, smarter than you and smarter than the guys they’re negotiating with, because the guys who have done the negotiating for us, they’re not that smart. I’m not calling them a bunch of dummies, but they don’t have the experience in negotiating and if I were that guy that’s what I would do.
So better, more aggressive player representation for the player union, you think, is a crucial thing?
Dickerson: I think it’s very crucial. I think it’s the most important thing at all. You have to have the right people negotiating for you. That would be like me saying I’m a running back but I’m going to coach the offensive line. My lineman aren’t going to be adequate because I won’t know how to coach them.
Looking back at your career, what are you most proud of?
Dickerson: How hard I played in spite of the things I dealt with when I was playing. A lot of people don’t realize I always had something going on, whether it was negotiations here or I’m hated over here or I’m the bad guy here. I wasn’t in trouble doing drugs or any of that stuff but I would just like to play football and not have to worry about my finances or am I getting screwed or am I getting traded, all that BS. I wish I could have just played the sport that I love like I did when I was in high school and college and my first two years of the league. When I say I loved it, I loved it. I’ll never forget a player told me, ‘You’re going to find this is a business son. The best players don’t always play, they don’t always keep the best players,’ and I found that out.
One thing about your book, I’ve read a lot of athlete autobiographies, but I’ve rarely read any that capture the joy and thrill of excelling at a sport so clearly.
Dickerson: When I tell you I loved it, man, I loved it. I loved the smell of the air, breaking in the open field, the long runs, playing with the guys. I just loved everything about it. The sad thing is when they start taking that away from you. I watch my son play sports now and it’s fun watching him play because it reminds me of myself. He has no worries. We have all the worries. I just want him to enjoy it. There will come a moment when it becomes a little more serious but I don’t want him to have the same pain I had playing sports and they take the fun away from it. Somebody asked me about Tom Brady. I said ‘he’s going to come back.’ It’s hard to stay away. He’s still talented, he can still play. What is he going to do with his life? He’s got plenty of money but nothing can replace it. It’s hard to replace something you love so much and I know he still loves it. I wasn’t shocked he came back and I’m glad he came back. At one point when I retired because I hurt my neck I wished I could have kept playing but I’m glad I couldn’t play anymore because they took the joy out of it, the love that I had for it.
Are there any running backs or players today whose style reminds you of yourself?
Dickerson: No. It’s not that I’m bragging, but I don’t see anyone who runs like me. I don’t see anyone who runs like Earl Campbell or Jim Brown either. Every player has their own unique running style, like Barry Sanders. Everybody just has different movement and guys that are 6-foot-3, 225, that run like me, I don’t think there’s one in the league right now.
As a longtime Los Angeles native and a Rams legend, what was it like to see them win a Super Bowl this year?
Dickerson: Man, it was the best feeling, it really was. I’m happy for the team, I’m really happy for the players. The organization, that’s a whole another animal. They don’t understand what it’s like to play, being out there, to lose a game and the disappointment, the heartbreak. I was so happy for Aaron Donald, OBJ, Matt Stafford. I’m happy for him because he deserved it. Aaron Donald deserved it. Cooper Kupp, all those guys, they deserve what they got. I’m glad they were able to win because, if they would not have, people would have said, ‘See! They tried to buy a Super Bowl and couldn’t get one.’ But they did. They pulled it off.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.