Do you remember? Tony Dorsett does. 

In that Monday night game against the Minnesota Vikings, Tom Rafferty’s and Herb Scott’s blocks bought Dorsett 10 yards. After that, it was up to him. 

He outran two Vikings and shrugged off two more, breaking through their arms as he moved diagonally across the field, continuing to his right. At the 20-yard line, he cut up the field again, running on the yard markers.

“Look out, he’s got great speed!” Frank Gifford yelped on the Monday Night Football broadcast.

“Ah, nah, 99 yards and a half,” former Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith followed. He already knew where this was going.

“It was like, make the guy miss, make another guy miss, and now we’re going down the sideline,” Dorsett says from his chair in Frisco, smiling inwardly, staring into the middle distance, seeing those moves. 

By midfield, that’s where Dorsett was, the ball in his right hand just like his coaches told him, keeping it out of reach of any Vikings. There were only two left that had a chance—cornerback Willie Teal, who had sprinted from the other side of the field, and strong safety Tom Hannon. 

Teal and Hannon were slightly ahead of Dorsett, trying to find an angle to cut him off. But wide receiver Drew Pearson was in their way. As they crossed midfield, Pearson dove forward, trying to block Teal—he missed, but took out Hannon anyway.

There was one man left to beat. 

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The youngest of Myrtle and Wes Dorsett’s five boys was known as Anthony until he arrived at the University of Pittsburgh in 1973 and the athletic department persuaded him to go by Tony, giving him those perfect, marketable initials: TD.

When he was a junior at Pitt, his Panthers played a road game against the No. 1-ranked Oklahoma Sooners. In the second quarter of what turned into a lopsided loss, Dorsett was coming around the left end on an option play, trying to convert on fourth down. He had a blocker in front of him, but Sooners safety Scott Hill leaped over the Pitt fullback, flying almost four yards in the air. Hill was sideways when he collided with Dorsett head high.

“He hit me like a torpedo,” Dorsett says. 

He staggered back a few steps, then dropped to the field ass first, then flat onto his back, his arms falling to the ground above his head. He says he remained conscious, but watching a clip of the collision and its aftermath makes that difficult to believe.

tony_dorsett_6 Dorsett’s brain scan.

“When I went to the sideline, I said, ‘Coach, it’s gonna be a long day,’ ” Dorsett says. “I said, ‘They droppin’ ’em out of the sky now.’ ” He laughs and bends over to pull up his socks.

That was just one hit, relatively early in Dorsett’s football career. He didn’t even leave the game. How often did that happen? He ran for a then-record 6,082 yards in college, another 12,739 yards as a pro, which was second only to Walter Payton when Dorsett retired. Anyone can look that up. But who knows how many wrecking-ball shots he took during that time? Even if doctors can’t be certain Dorsett has CTE, should anyone be surprised he is having trouble remembering things? 

His teammates aren’t. They don’t want to believe this is happening to their former teammate, but they aren’t surprised. Doug Cosbie played tight end for the Cowboys with Dorsett from 1979 to 1987. He was there. He knows what his teammate went through, what he played through. “I remember specifically a game in Philadelphia where he was knocked out in the first half and then played the whole second half, and ran for, like, 100 yards,” Cosbie says. 

The Philadelphia game. Dorsett isn’t where he is now just because of the hit he took from safety Ray Ellis during that 1984 game, a helmet-to-helmet shot in the second quarter that knocked him out. It wasn’t a single hit that did this. It was a career full of those hits, sustained during a time when the rules were looser, the equipment was weaker, and age 59 was a long way off. But it’s the best example, the one he talks about, the one that has been played and replayed as B-roll footage during most of the stories about him. He has said it was “like a freight train hitting a Volkswagen,” and the image of Dorsett, helmet twisted around from the impact, hits just as hard 30 years later when placed in its new context. As Cosbie says, Dorsett stayed in that day, too, running for 99 yards in the second half.

He was going the wrong way on every play. 

Dive 30 and Dive 31 were two of the Cowboys’ standard running plays—straightforward rushes up the middle, either to the right or left of the center, depending on the number called. But no matter which play came in from the sideline during the second half, Dorsett would take a step in the opposite direction before receiving the handoff from quarterback Danny White. He couldn’t keep it straight, and the Eagles couldn’t keep up.

“Philadelphia had never seen that, seen me take that counter step, so it was throwing them off,” Dorsett says. “And every time I went to the sideline, Coach Landry and them were like, ‘You’re not supposed to take the counter step.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, okay.’ But every time they called that play, I did a counter step—boom. I would get 15, 10, 20 yards a clip.”

Despite suffering a head injury—despite being knocked cold—Dorsett wasn’t held out of the Cowboys’ next game. Nothing changed. Except for one thing.

“That play—Counter 30, 31—became part of our arsenal,” Dorsett says. He laughs. “Yeah. I invented a new play for us.”

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