The Hall of Fame running back and franchise icon for the Rams and Colts joins Boardroom Book Club to discuss his new memoir, Watch My Smoke.
In a time when an NFL record gets smashed just about every season, there’s a notable one that has remained completely untouched: Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson’s single-season record of 2,105 rushing yards set in 1984. Dickerson will tell you adamantly he doesn’t want anyone to break it. And he doesn’t think anyone ever will.
And although his numbers remain legendary, there were more than a few moments in his professional career that were not. Dickerson came to feel that he was being shortchanged by the Los Angeles Rams; after breaking the NFL single-season rookie rushing record in 1983 and topping that feat the following season with his single-season milestone, Dickerson felt he deserved to be paid more.
The Rams did not oblige.
According to Dickerson, the team told him he had to prove himself. And with free agency not yet a thing in the NFL, Dickerson held out. What followed after was the running back receiving hate mail from fans and harsh criticism from the media. Dickerson remained solid, eventually being traded to the Indianapolis Colts, which at the time was considered biggest trade in NFL history.
He’s now reflecting on it all with his new book, Watch My Smoke.
In the memoir, Dickerson touches on relationships with his family, his college days at Southern Methodist University (and his thoughts on NIL), his time with the Rams, being traded to the Colts, and much more. He gave us the inside story in his own words on the latest edition of “Boardroom Book Club.”
RANDALL WILLIAMS: Why did you decide to write this book now, and what is the significance of the title?
ERIC DICKERSON: This book has been in the making for a couple of years; at least three. So it just happened to come out this time of year, which seemed to be the right time to release with all the stuff that’s going on with racial tension in the National Football League and in college.
This book is paying homage to a guy that was like a father to me. His name was Stanley LeBlanc, and he guided me through my career and certain things. He had a saying when stuff would happen. He would say, “Boy, watch my smoke.” He told me many years later before he passed away, “You gonna write a book one day.” And I said [that] if I ever do, I’m gonna call it Watch My Smoke. This book is really an homage to him.
RW: How did you meet Greg Hanlon, and why did you choose him to help you bring this book to life?
ED: I met Greg Hanlon through a friend of mine. We looked at several other writers and it just didn’t sound like me. And finally, when that friend said, “Eric, I have a guy — he had written something that wasn’t very interesting but he made it interesting. So he said I’m going have him talk to us and possibly write a couple of pages and see how you like it,” and that’s what he did. Greg wrote a chapter and we talked to him for a couple hours at a time. And when he wrote a couple chapters, it sounded just like me.
RW: One of the stories in the book is that after you broke the single-season rushing record, a record that still stands today, one of your sponsors, Adidas, got you a carrot cake in celebration. But you actually couldn’t eat it?
ED: My friend Walter Payton had got a Lamborghini for breaking Jim Brown’s record. I knew Walter well and I was getting close to breaking OJ [Simpson]’s record. And so I saw all those guys, saw the Lamborghini on TV, so they said, “Man, you’ll probably get a car, too, or something like that.”
I was with Adidas and sure enough, when I broke the record, they had this little ceremony with this at the facility and they had a cake — a carrot cake — and I’m allergic to nuts. And I’ll never forget one of the guys, Dennis Harrah, said,” Man, what the hell is this? We’re not a bunch of kids! Is there a key in this cake?” It was still just embarrassing. I’ll put it like that.
RW: Have you ever thought about going back to Adidas and asking for something since that record still stands?
ED: I never even thought about it. I just talk about it, because it’s like everything else, you know? Like I always say, I never got anything, nothing’s ever given to me everything I ever got I earned it.”
RW: Two key themes from the book are loyalty and self-worth. Tell us about how you stayed true to yourself and your worth in a time when NFL free agency didn’t exist?
ED: Well, one thing with me is I’m very loyal. My mother would say, “one thing about you, you have a problem, son. You’re loyal to yours [and] you’re going to find out people are not as loyal as you.” And that’s true.
As far as my self-worth, I knew that I was a good football player; I just saw what other people were getting paid. I wouldn’t watch people’s contracts, but John Elway was the first pick in the draft and he was making a million dollars. I was the second pick and I was making $150,000. There is something wrong with that picture.
The next year, I ran for 2,000 yards, and I think I was making $220,000. And it was almost always like a slap in the face, [almost] like I was never good enough. And then I think after I led the league in rushing yards my fourth year when I had 1,821 yards, they told me I still had to prove myself. This is my fourth year. I had 2,000 yards, 1,800 yards, and another 1,800 yards and they told me I stillI had to prove myself. From there, it just broke down with the Rams.
RW: You received hate mail and heavy criticism from the media when you held out. Take us back to that time and how it felt to stand up for yourself.
ED: I was like 25 or 24 years old. That’s tough. I didn’t really read articles. My college coach told me that. He said, “Look, never read them articles in college, because one day they love you and one day they’ll hate you.” But my mother would read the articles and she would call me and say, “I hate this stuff they write. It’s just a bunch of lies.”
And back in those days, we had no outlet. We had no social media. We had no way of telling our story. When these mostly white writers wrote a story about you, people believed it. And they painted me in this manner that I was basically a Black, money-hungry Negro — really, it was the n-word — and that’s what it was. And it was so far from the truth because all I wanted to do was just be paid right. I think that’s fair. That’s what it was all about for me.
ED: This has been going on for years. It ain’t nothing new. When you read the book, I opened the book up by talking about a story, when I was in Indianapolis playing for the Colts. The owner, Bob Irsay, comes over to me drunk with two guys, basically his handlers. He proceeds to tell us a joke. I said, okay, Mr. Irsay, tell us a joke. Now, the party was in his barn at his house. And he says “you got a k***, you got a n*****, and you got a w******,” and that’s how he starts the joke off.
I said, “fuck that.” And I left.
And they said we’re sorry about Mr. Irsay, he was just drinking. They called me in the next day to talk to me about it. I said that’s inexcusable, but what was I gonna do? I mean, I didn’t go to the media. I’m not that kind of snitch. But it’s something I never forgot.
You never forget it. There were so many incidents in the National Football League like that. They want you to forget it. They don’t want you to talk about it. They don’t want you to tell. But this is the truth, I’m not making this up. This ain’t nothing made up. And I’m sure there’s other players that have even worse stories than I have.
RW: Did the act of writing this book give you the opportunity to clarify any misconceptions about you and your career?
ED: Most definitely, I never liked the media; it started back in college when I was a freshman and I struggled my freshman year and the media wrote that they should take my scholarship. ‘Cause I was the No. 1 recruit in the nation. I was the No. 1 guy. And I came from a small town, small school, and they wrote about how I was a bust and they should take my scholarship.
Now, think about that. I’m a 17-year-old kid and [they’re] talking about taking my scholarship. That’s scary, to think about that. And my white predecessor, Craig James, he’s a good friend of mine and they never said anything like that about him, which really kind of made me turn on them, too.
From that point on, I just never had a relationship with the media. I never liked them, never trusted them. And the things that were written about me when I was with the Rams — that I was money-hungry. “Malcontent.” I didn’t know what the hell a malcontent was. They vilified me because I wanted to be paid correctly, not that I was trying to do something that was wrong.
We didn’t have free agency, [but] if you do a job, you wanna be paid, right? It was the only thing I was trying to do. And you know, I’m glad that I did it the way I did it because it changed things.
It changed the way that the running back was paid. Guys started making a million dollars, you know? And I didn’t know this until a writer told me years ago, “Eric, I don’t know if you knew this. They had a rule in place in the NFL. They called it the Dickerson rule. No running back could make more than Eric Dickerson.” So I never knew that, but you know, when I heard that — I won’t forget it, Rocket Ismail came to me and said, “Eric, man, I saw your “30 for 30” [and] I just wanna say thank you for the things you sacrificed.”
RW: How do you think your college career at SMU would have played out differently if you were able to benefit from name, image, and likeness laws?
ED: I’d [have] been making millions of dollars.
Look, I’ve always thought the NCAA was nothing but a bunch of pimps. It’s a travesty that you take the young athlete, a lot of them are black, some are white, too, and exploit them. You make money off of ’em you say you got housing and you’ve got, you know, education. That’s like, that’s like saying that’s like being an indentured servant or a slave. Basically, I put my slaves in a house and I feed them and I make ’em work their asses off and they gonna make me rich, but the players aren’t reaping any of the profit. So what is that?
That’s slavery. don’t care how you try to cut it.
RW: One of the things that you said when Adrian Peterson was closing in on your single-season rushing record in 2012 was that you didn’t want him to break it. You’re one of the few guys to go out and say it — why?
ED: Let me tell you something: If you ask me a question and you don’t want the truth, don’t ask me the questions. I’m big on telling the truth. Do I want somebody to break my record? Hell no! I’m not saying, “Oh, man. Wow. Get out there and break that record! You know, break that record from me.” No, I want to keep my record.
I mean, if you break it, cool, but I’m not out there cheering for them. If my son breaks my record, that’s different, but no. And I think any player that says that is full of you-know-what.
RW: If you could give advice to NFL running backs today, what would you say?
ED: It’s hard to give advice on money. All I can say is with me there was times where I was not happy with the organization but I played hard no matter what. I’ll always say no matter what, play hard, because one day you’ll be sitting here and you won’t be a young football player. You won’t be 20 years old anymore.
There are no do-overs. There are no 45-year-old running backs out there. You’re going to look back and want to see that you always gave 100%.