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Original Issue

The man who makes the Panther bite

Johnny Majors was never one for lollygagging around. Down home in Lynchburg, Tenn., where Jack Daniel's is the most noted export next to ole Johnny, they used to say that when it came to speedy country tailbacks the Majors' eldest boy was like a blend of sippin' whiskey and white lightnin'—smooth with a good strong finishing kick.

Ole Johnny is 38 now and still doing his fast-stepping number. Take last December when, after five seasons of coaching Iowa State out of a bad case of the defeats, he took the Cyclones to the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, lost a 31-30 thriller to Georgia Tech, then hotfooted it east a few short hours later to begin another revival program at Pittsburgh, assuring everyone within hog-calling distance that he "would do anything that it takes to bring winning football back to Pitt."

The reason for Majors' sprint was that he well knew that in order to win he would need a TD—Tony Drew Dorsett, to be exact. Dorsett, an All-America tailback at Hopewell High School in Aliquippa, Pa., was the state's most sought-after natural resource since the discovery of bituminous coal, and less than 24 hours after he flashed into Pittsburgh, Johnny Lightning went mining.

The new Pitt coach cornered Dorsett and teammate Ed Wilamowski at the dining room table in the home of Hopewell High Coach Butch Ross. Over Christmas cookies and cider, Majors, a kind of backwoods Norman Vincent Peale on the recruiting trail, delivered a two-hour sermon that in essence went something like this: "You boys come to Pitt and you'll have the opportunity to be part of something new. You'll have a chance to be different, to be unique. You can play early. You can play before your home folks. You can play good ole exciting, wide-open, cow-pasture football. And, I guarantee it, you'll play with pride and enthusiasm. Yes, sir, you'll have a calling. You're not going to learn how to lose. You're going to learn how!"

Recalls Ross: "I don't know what Tony and Ed were thinking but I do know that my wife was ready to sign up with Pitt right on the spot."

Nobody knew what Dorsett was thinking. He is so quiet that his full sentence is another's oration. Also, he was being gang-tackled by recruiters from 68 colleges and, he says, "going to all those big campuses and hearing the usual rap was getting tiring." Woody Hayes came around twice on behalf of Ohio State. Joe Paterno put in a pair of appearances, spiriting him off to a distant motel room on one occasion where, as Tony recalls it, he was all but promised the Heisman Trophy if he went to Penn State.

In the end, though, both Dorsett and Wilamowski, a strapping defensive end, signed with Pitt. Tony remains vague as to exactly why he became a disciple of Johnny Majors' Traveling Revival Show, except to say that the playing-before-the-home-folks line got to him a little bit. That and the fact that Majors came to see him 10 times while Jackie Sherrill, the new assistant head coach at Pitt, staged one of the most intensive one-man recruiting drives in history by visiting Dorsett three times a week for six months.

The clincher, however, just might have had something to do with the fact that for Dorsett the worst part of having to talk to all those recruiters at school was that "I was always missing lunch." Knowing that, Sherrill brought his 70-year-old mother in from Biloxi, Miss. to hand deliver a freshly baked rhubarb pie to the Dorsett home. "That pie was gooood," says Tony in a rare show of exuberance. "I had to fight my mother for the last piece. I'd like to get some more of that pie."

Was the payoff worth the pitch? As of last week, after a pussycat 1-10 record last season that was the worst in the team's 83-year history, the Panthers were 4-2-1 and growling. There are several reasons for this surprising turnabout, but the most important is little ole T.D. himself. "We knew he was good," says Majors, "but we had no idea he'd do so well so soon." Hurdling, whirling and just plain whooshing out of Pitt's pro I and slot I formations, Dorsett has run for 100 or more yards in six of Pitt's first seven games to rank among the nation's top six rushers for most of the season. In the rain against Northwestern he not only reeled off a game-busting 79-yard scoring run but ended the afternoon with a total of 265 yards rushing, the highest mark ever for a college freshman.

Harry Jones, coach of Pitt's offensive backs, was more impressed with another T.D. performance. "We were on West Virginia's 12-yard line when Tony took the ball on a sprint draw and there was this linebacker standing square in the hole. Tony put a move on him and the guy was grabbing air. Then up comes the safety for a clean shot on the two-yard line, and Tony showed him a little hip and the guy fell down he was so faked out. I swear that Tony went into the end zone without anyone even grazing him."

Against Navy last Saturday, Dorsett played with a back brace and a battered knee but still managed to produce when it counted. The key series came in the final minutes after the Midshipmen, led by Cleveland Cooper on land and Al Glenny in the air, rallied from 16-0 to lead 17-16. Then Dorsett, hauling in a pass, cracking up the middle, slicing off guard and turning the corner, went on a 26-yard binge in four plays to set up the touchdown that gave Pitt a 22-17 victory. Afterward, Majors said, "Tony had the poise of a senior."

With 105 yards gained for the day, he also had a maturing total of 928 yards for the season, which is already a quadrangle or so longer than any Pitt back has traveled in the past 44 years. Still, Majors and his staff are reluctant to overpraise their prize pupil lest it somehow, retard his already exceptional growth. It is hard to believe, in fact, that Dorsett is fresh out of Hopewell High until he blushingly reveals that his idol is that grand old USC graybeard, Anthony Davis, who at 21 is all of two years older than Tony the teen-ager.

Majors, who was an All-America at Tennessee and finished second to Paul Hornung in the 1956 Heisman Trophy sweepstakes, tries to talk to Tony tailback to tailback. "I remember when I first carried the ball at Tennessee." he says. "Right off I picked up seven yards. The next time I busted through for 14. So after the game I called home and I said. 'Daddy, they hit the same way in college as they do in high school.' That's what I keep telling Tony."

Trouble is, Tony does not always understand Majors' honey pot drawl because "it comes out kind of slurry." Like when the coach cautions everyone not to pop off about Tony or the young team's quick success. "I mean." he says, "I don't want the boys in Jack Daniel's country thinking Johnny has gone high on the stalk since coming east."

He says lots of sayings like that. So do the Southern members of his staff, especially when they are asked about one T.D. Dorsett. Does Tony, at 5'11" and 175 pounds, have the stamina to carry the ball 38 times, as he did in the Northwestern game? Instead of revealing that Dorsett was all-state in high school on both offense and defense, they say, "He's all knotty muscle. You couldn't pinch him with a tweezers." How quick is he? Rather than dwell on the fact that he has been clocked at an extraordinary 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash, they allow, "He moves faster than a small-town rumor." And will he someday be Heisman material? "Is a four-pound robin fat?"

Yet late of a night at the Black Angus cocktail lounge the Pitt coaches turn less evasive. "Listen." they say conspiratorily. "Tony Dorsett is the most complete young running back we've ever seen." Even Majors in a candid moment admits, "I'm slow to say it, but even without four martinis I'd tell you the same thing. He's the most exciting back I've ever seen. He has the most running ability I've ever seen. He's the best young running back I've ever seen—period!"

The kids up on "The Hill," a black section bordering on the drab steel-mill town of Aliquippa, already know that. There Dorsett is still known as "The Hawk" as much for his wide-eyed look as for the way he glides through the line. Last week, on the rocky playground where Tony and his three older running back brothers learned their moves, a ragtag team called the Mt. Vernon Destroyers broke off a free-for-all practice session to expound on the future of Pittsburgh football. "The Hawk is gonna be the best there ever was, man," said Dancing Dee Dee. "The Panthers is gonna be No. 1, too, man," said Big Bad Brent.

If and when that ever happens, it will be rhubarb pie all around.