Sometimes, the hardest thing of all for Tony Dorsett is being plain Tony Dorsett.
"It can be a lonely life, man. Your privacy is snatched away. Anything you do -- no matter how trite -- is going to be magnified. You're always wondering if somebody has an ulterior motive. Why's he doing this? Why's he doing that? Somebody's always out to burn you," Dorsett says.
Dorsett ended his holdout late last week and returned to the Dallas Cowboys' training camp, like Caesar returned to Rome. That he needs only 475 yards to join names like Payton, Brown, Harris, Simpson and Riggins as the league's only 10,000-yard rushers no longer is the focal point.
Instead, the world zeros in on the debts Dorsett, 31, has accumulated. Dorsett won't talk specifics about his contract or his financial troubles, but he will say, "For a guy to have problems like these and have them become national, worldwide news, evidently the guy must be pretty popular, huh?"
These financial problems follow painfully close to the death of Dorsett's father late last season and a divorce that reportedly cost the Cowboys' gifted running back $250,000 and a 1981 Mercedes.
"The last six months have been enough to drive someone to a psychiatrist. You just pray to God that you can hold yourself together and go out and play," Dorsett says. "There have been a lot of ups and downs, a lot more downs than ups. The downs have been really low. They take you way down, so low, in fact, that the high points don't equalize everything. Fortunately, I've been able to maintain."
Prayer has helped, Dorsett said. So has his mother's lifelong example of enduring life's storms. "We come from Aliquippa, Pa. She had seven children," the former Heisman Trophy winner says. "Let's face it, man, life ain't been that easy for us black people in this world. She's been through it all and has been able to deal with it."
Dorsett's holdout has been a media bonanza, perhaps even more so than holdouts of years past by Cowboys stars Randy White and Everson Walls.
Dorsett's financial problems have led to burning interrogations and spotlights from both the local and national media. These are the facts: Dorsett owed the Internal Revenue Service more than $400,000 in back taxes when a tax shelter straddle that commonly was used in the '70s was disallowed. The IRS also placed liens on Dorsett's two houses in Dallas.
Dorsett also reportedly lost nearly $600,000 on an oil deal in which he had cashed in the deferred payments on his contract hoping for the big, quick hit. Dorsett's key adviser on the deal, an agent named Witt Stewart, reportedly has said he will pay the entire amount back to Dorsett.
The First City Bank of Richardson, Tex., filed suit against Dorsett for payment on a $175,000 outstanding loan. Dorsett also has to cope with a loan reportedly worth more than $400,000 from the Cowboys to help pay for his divorce settlement and tax problems.
The holdout, nearly three weeks long, became ugly and mean. Dorsett claimed that Cowboys President Tex Schramm had promised to renegotiate his contract, which Schramm denied. Then Dorsett became furious when Schramm made public his financial troubles when asked why Dorsett hadn't reported.
Furthermore, Stewart claimed that the team vice president/personnel, Gil Brandt, had said Dorsett would be offered a deal similar to the reported $6.4 million contract given to White, the all-pro defensive tackle. Brandt denied making the promises.
Dorsett said at the time that he was "double-crossed" by Schramm and Brandt. He was quoted as saying that he expected to be traded and wanted to be dealt either to Pittsburgh, because it is close to his home, or to Miami, because he always wanted to play for Coach Don Shula. People wondered what was wrong with playing for Thomas Wade Landry, who has a pretty good record, too.
During his holdout, Dorsett parted with his agent, Howard Slusher, who is renowned for advising his clients to hold out for extended periods. Dorsett's image took a mud bath.
At last, a deal was struck. The new contract reportedly maintained Dorsett's salary over the next three years at about $500,000 per year (about the same as the previous contract) and added two extra seasons for about the same amount. Dorsett also received a real estate deal reportedly worth about $800,000. He apologized to Schramm, Landry and Brandt.
The reaction from the Cowboys has been what you might expect. Businesslike at the top, understanding and fellowship in the locker room.
Schramm: "I don't see any carryover from this whatsoever. I think anybody that's been in this business for a long time expects things will be said (during holdouts)."
Landry: "It's part of business. It will always be something else every year. No, I didn't talk with Tony (when he reported). I knew the problems. He resolved them with management."
Cornerback Walls: "All that was said in our spare time (during Dorsett's holdout) was, 'Anybody speak to T?' When I heard he was coming back, I screamed and shouted and looked for somebody to party with."
Drew Pearson, former Cowboys receiver who is a training camp coach: "Athletes know athletes are human. We don't live perfect lives. We make mistakes. And athletes have no problems with holdouts. They understand that careers are a short-lived thing."
Brandt elaborated on the subject, saying, "Tony's biggest problem is that he can't say no. Because of that, he does some things that he shouldn't do . . . I don't think that's a character flaw. It's not a malicious thing. It's just that he doesn't want to hurt people's feelings. He's hopeful that the problem will go away.
"And Tony is extremely smart. Tony doesn't have any problem with intelligence at all. That's the least of his problems. There's a lot of doctors and lawyers that have income tax problems simply because they were probably into some (bad) investment, and you don't read or hear about them. But you do hear about Tony."
This is precisely why it is so difficult being Tony Dorsett. Sure, he's a superior running back. He feels he can play four more productive years and notes pridefully, "(I'm) about to go over 10,000 yards rushing. The roll call is very short with 10,000-yard rushers."
Brandt figures Dorsett can play five more years, pointing out that Dorsett knows when to hit the turf or go out of bounds and that he's not like the former Green Bay Packers runner, John Brockington, who was pounded while he ran relentlessly for three years in the early '70s, then saw his productivity plummet and his career end.
"Tony's importance to us," Brandt says, "is that when he rushes for 100 yards, our record is amazing (39-2)."
Even more amazing is that Dorsett has run for more than 1,000 yards in seven of his eight seasons, missing only during the strike-shortened year (745 yards). If he avoids serious injury and averages, say, 750 rushing yards per season over the five years of this contract (which will end when he is 36), Dorsett probably will rate second to Walter Payton on the league's all-time rushing list.
But that's not what makes it so tough being Tony Dorsett. The hardest part? "Being yourself," Dorsett says. "People expect you to be a certain way. They expect you to not be human when, in all reality, you are.
"People watch you. You bring joy into their lives on the field and you're expected to do the same thing off the field. It's like a nonstop deal. It's like the only time you can be yourself is when you sleep or when you lock the doors.
"I would just love to go somewhere where if I wanted to have a beer, I could. Or if I wanted to go to a certain club, I could, or just be able to scream and know that it wouldn't be in the paper the next day . . . People won't turn you loose. They are still watching. If you step out of line -- zap!"
"The biggest thing Tony will have to overcome is how people will perceive him," Brandt says. "I'm not sure Tony will be greeted with a loud ovation at Texas Stadium. Tony came in and apologized to me, which took a big man. I don't know how he'll apologize to the fans (for his holdout). If letters to the editor mean anything, fans (in Dallas) resent the tactics used by players to gain a larger salary."
Through it all, Dorsett seems to use lessons of the past to erase clouds on his future horizons.
"My father worked in the steel mills for 30 years before he retired," Dorsett says. "He told me, 'Son, you don't never want to go in there.' It's a place I never went into. Not even for a summer job. You never knew if you were going to come back out or not.
"It was dangerous, man. A lot of people lost their limbs or were killed. It's a dirty job. Football used to be a dirty job, too, when they played in the mud. Now, they don't play in the mud anymore."