INDIANAPOLIS -- In Los Angeles, Eric Dickerson was wooed by Johnny Carson and Joan Rivers. He lived in a million-dollar house in Malibu Canyon, was adored by Hollywood stars, drove a Ferrari Testarossa. And he was miserable.

Here in the heartland, the most glamorous television show Dickerson may find himself on as a guest could be the morning grain report. There's a Dairy Queen not too far from the Indianapolis Colts' practice complex if he gets thirsty for a milkshake and mostly Chevys in the parking lot. But it's been a long time since Dickerson was as happy as he has been since arriving here on Saturday morning, just after dawn.

"I hadn't smiled much in the last month," Dickerson said today after his first full practice with the Colts since being granted his wish to be traded away from the Los Angeles Rams. "I hardly even talked. The last time I felt this good? You have to turn it back to my rookie year. I'm really excited. I like the game of football again. I feel relieved."

Dickerson's unhappiness is where this story begins. He says he had been unhappy with the Rams since after his second season, 1984. That's when it was apparent that Dickerson, who holds the NFL single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards, could be as good as any running back who ever played the game. And it was also when Dickerson began to feel he wasn't fully appreciated.

"I didn't want to be there," he said today. "I hated it, really hated it. I hated practices, meetings. I liked the players but I hated going there. It was like a job you don't want to go to, like picking cotton, and that would certainly be a job I'd hate. I was worried I'd get an ulcer.

"I was willing to do anything for the team. They asked me to carry the load against the Bears, I carried the ball 38 times . . . That's a tough job but I didn't mind. I just wanted to know I was appreciated."

Dickerson renegotiated his contract with the Rams in 1985 "but the salary was not outstanding and I told the Rams that," he said. "I let 'em know it was going to be a problem."

And it was, even though Dickerson was making a reported $850,000 a year in the three-year deal (including prorated signing bonuses). He reportedly wasn't even the highest-paid player in the Los Angeles area (Rams and Raiders combined), and wanted to renegotiate again -- even though reportedly his contract contained a provision forbidding that.

"All the bickering and talking about money, after the second year I just got tired of it," he said.

During the recent players strike, Coach John Robinson had heard that several players were considering crossing the picket line. Robinson, hoping to have as many of them eligible to play as possible, submitted a list of names to the NFL office even though those players hadn't officially told Robinson themselves. Dickerson's name was one of those.

All of it kept piling up. There was little if anything that could be done, he said. The way he felt it would be difficult to give 100 percent.

Many people doubted the Rams would trade Dickerson, who at 27 years old should be in his prime for at least four more full seasons. "It has to go down in the annals of the league as one of the all-time big-name trades," said Ron Meyer, Dickerson's college coach at Southern Methodist and now the head coach of the Colts.

Few backs with Dickerson's impact have ever been traded in their primes. After all, the Rams had been 2-7 in the strike-shortened 1982 season, then drafted Dickerson and went to the playoffs four consecutive years with him leading the league in rushing three times.

Colts vice president and general manager Jimmy Irsay, son of owner Robert Irsay, had inquired about Dickerson in Kansas City at the NFL owners meetings early last week. Still, as Meyer said, "It didn't dawn on me, the feasibility of him being here."

Even when the Colts showed they were serious about acquiring "You need a certain element of great players, of greatness. And he gives you that . . . I think they're very excited here. The stigma attached to this ball club is bottom line. But in one quick move, they've dispelled that notion."

-- Ron Meyer

him, there was skepticism. The Irsays are notorious for squeezing a penny until the copper rubs off.

"I never thought it would happen," Chris Hinton, the Colts' perennial all-pro tackle, said today. "We all were shocked when it did. We didn't think Irsay would pay that much money."

But Irsay did, and it averages out to more than $1.3 million per year, about triple the reported salary of Hinton, previously the team's highest-paid player.

In that three-way deal, the Colts wound up giving up 1987 first-round draft pick linebacker Cornelius Bennett (who was unsigned) to Buffalo, and the Rams got two running backs and a passel of first- and second-round draft picks.

To say the Indianapolis Colts are happy to have Dickerson is a massive understatement. If there is envy directed at him, it's under cover.

Ron Solt, another lineman and once a Maryland Terrapin, said, "If he could have gotten double that, God bless him. I make about one-fourth that, but I'm happy for him. If he was joining a winning team, like the Giants or the 49ers or Bears, I could perhaps see some animosity or resentment. But we want to win so bad, it's not a problem here. Maybe five years from now, guys will be walking around saying, 'That overpaid sonofagun . . .' But wouldn't it be great for us to get to that point?"

Hinton, who has never played for a winning Colts team, in Baltimore or Indianapolis, said, "It's been so long since this club has been successful, anybody who can help us, we'll welcome into this room with open arms."

There are people who wonder if Dickerson's desire to renegotiate contracts will continue here. They also say Dickerson can't run forever from problems, such as the paternity suit that was filed against him in California, his breakup with agent Jack Mills, and the general perception that Eric Dickerson fit in with the atmosphere of greed at SMU and grew into a greedy man who was perfect for Hollywood.

Dickerson says, hogwash. Of the paternity suit, he smiled slyly and said, "Hey, in L.A., how many guys aren't sued?

"I'm a personable guy. I adapt easily. I'm a pretty down-to-earth guy. I'm from the country. I just want to live comfortably. I'm not the kind of guy who has to have a lot of diamonds or dress real fancy. But I do want nice things. Cars? Yeah, I like cars."

Dickerson said earlier in the week he understands an organization's point of view about its employees, but added, "If I had a lawyer who was the best in the firm, I'd take care of that lawyer. I wouldn't let him go to the law firm across town."

Dickerson feels he is the best, and says, "Look at the numbers. I have the stats to prove it." The numbers say it's not wise to argue with Eric Dickerson: an average of 1,742 yards and 14 touchdowns per season, while not missing a single game due to injury.

There certainly won't be as much happening here around Dickerson off the field. The Dairy Queen closes pretty early and he left the Italian sports car at home, where he will return in the offseason. Dickerson is reunited with Meyer, who couldn't be happier. And the Colts, who haven't had a great team this decade, in Baltimore or Indianapolis, have a player almost certain to further upgrade an already improving team.

"You need a certain element of great players, of greatness," Meyer said. "And he gives you that. At this time, going off what he did last year, he is {the best back in the league}. I think they're very excited here. The stigma attached to this ball club is bottom line. But in one quick move, they've dispelled that notion."

The Colts have put out approximately $5.6 million over four years for Dickerson's services and now he has a promise to keep. He furnished an appetizer of 38 yards on 10 carries Sunday against the New York Jets, and now is ready to get on with serious yardage starting this week against the San Diego Chargers in the Hoosier Dome. He will be appreciated. He has already said, repeatedly, that he is not a savior and grew tired of being overburdened with expectations in Los Angeles.

It has been warm here the last few days, about the same temperature as in Los Angeles. But Eric Dickerson went out and bought some snowshoes in anticipation of his first real winter (he grew up in Sealy, Tex.). The people here are warmed by the thought of him being around. On his first night on the town, restaurant employes at Friday's asked Dickerson to autograph their shirts and hats, the kind of requests reserved for stars back in L.A.

"Nobody even knows who a football player is in Southern California," Dickerson said. "I'm happy to be here, the people are nice. What are they called, Hoosiers?"