Think of Pittsburgh as a monarchy—and Tony Dorsett as its 22-year-old king. On and off its skyscraper university’s campus, coeds pursue him. Children imitate the style that has made him the best running back in college football. Merchants shower him with gifts. And, best of all, pro scouts watch him with greedy eyes.
As a freshman three years ago, Dorsett was so shy he rarely spoke. Now he is intoxicated with all the attention. “People have been nice to me and I accept it with open arms,” he admits. “I like to go out and play the Tony Dorsett role.”
The tough, quick Dorsett is the leading contender for the Heisman Trophy, the most coveted award in collegiate football. Last week he was only 509 yards short of breaking the college rushing record (5,177 yards) held by last year’s Heisman winner, Archie Griffin of Ohio State. “Tony plays like it’s his last day on earth,” says Pittsburgh coach Johnny Majors. “He has the chance to become the greatest running back in history.”
More important to Dorsett, a communications major from Aliquippa, Pa., he is a half season away from a six-or seven-figure contract with the pros. “If I can make it through the other games without getting hurt,” says Tony, “I can jump from rags to riches.”
Although he is small by big-time football standards, 5’11” and 190 pounds, Dorsett has been out only once—as a sophomore, with a sprained ankle. But as his fame grows, he has become a target. He is still wincing from a recent game against Georgia Tech. “They tried to kill me,” Dorsett told his worried mother. “I haven’t been hit that hard in three years.”
Life off the field is, however, velvety. Dorsett, a senior, lives in a two-bedroom apartment with wall-to-wall carpeting and three phones. He drives a snappy green-and-white Monte Carlo and dresses in three-piece double-knit suits with color-coordinated shoes.
Dorsett says he supports this lifestyle with savings—he worked this summer as a truck loader—and a small athletic program allowance. The jewelry he wears (among the trinkets: a diamond-and-gold pinky ring and a digital watch) are gifts from admiring women.
Dorsett’s easy success with locker room groupies was partly responsible for the breakup three months ago of his eight-year romance with his high school sweetheart, who has moved to Hartford, Conn. She is the mother of Dorsett’s 3-year-old son, Anthony, whom Tony wants to adopt. “I’ll probably never find another woman who loves me for myself,” Dorsett acknowledges. “All a lot of women see are dollar signs.”
Tony grew up in Aliquippa, where he was one of seven children born to a steel mill worker. In junior high Tony ran with a gang, tried liquor, marijuana and pills but luckily never got into serious trouble. “My mother,” he says, “kept me on a good foot. She made me punch in at a certain time.” It was Myrtle Dorsett, too, who stopped her son from quitting football his first year at Pitt. “I begged him,” his mother recalls. “I told him a person doesn’t get this chance but once in a lifetime.”
Two years later Tony considered leaving Pitt for the Canadian Football League. Coach Majors, who helped persuade Dorsett to turn down the offer, denies a coolness between his star and himself. But when asked by a photographer to pose with Dorsett, Majors replied uneasily, “He doesn’t talk to me, so what can we do?”
Dorsett will have to carry the heaviest load of his academic career—18 credits a semester—in order to graduate. A C-plus student, Tony admits that a few weeks ago “I was having bad stomach pains.” Finishing the season in one piece remains his primary objective. “I take it one game at a time,” Dorsett says. “I am counting down, and praying that I can stay healthy.”