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After a blockbuster trade brought in Eric Dickerson (29), improved Indianapolis looked even tougher than usual

The Indianapolis colts bring to mind Mike Campbell in The Sun Also Rises, who, when asked how he lost his fortune, said, "Gradually and then suddenly." That's just how the Colts have regained theirs. While losing 67 of 89 games from 1981 through '86 and finishing far back in the pack every year, Indianapolis built up a store of high draft choices who, this season, are beginning to come into their own. Now, after orchestrating perhaps the biggest trade in NFL history, the Colts also have Eric Dickerson, the best running back in football. Suddenly, last year's laughingstock seems awfully well stocked.

Three teams were in on the Dickerson deal, which involved a damnably confusing realignment of talent, the repercussions of which are sure to affect the league for years and years, or at least until Mark Gastineau's next sack. The mastermind behind the blockbuster was Jim Irsay, the 28-year-old general manager of the Colts, who also happens to be the son of owner Robert Irsay. Follow this: Indianapolis traded the rights to rookie linebacker Cornelius Bennett, a No. 1 draft choice out of Alabama whom it had not been able to sign, to Buffalo for running back Greg Bell and the Bills' first-round draft picks in 1988 and '89 and their second-round pick in '89. The Colts then sent all they'd received from Buffalo, along with their own first-round draft pick in '88, their second-round choices in '88 and '89 and running back Owen Gill, to the Los Angeles Rams, who in turn packed Dickerson off to Indianapolis.

Counting the draft picks as bodies, eight players were traded for Dickerson. The NFL hadn't seen a deal approaching this since '59, when the general manager of the Rams, a rash youngster named Pete Rozelle, sent the rights to nine players to the Chicago Cardinals for Ollie Matson, a future Hall of Famer.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the trade is that Indianapolis hasn't really needed Dickerson lately. The Colts beat the New York Jets 19-14 on Sunday, after having thumped the New England Patriots 30-16 the week before. Now Indianapolis is tied with the Pats for the lead in the AFC East. The Colts are 4-3, their first winning record since the franchise left Baltimore in 1984. To be sure, it was great fun seeing Dickerson take flight on Sunday with blue horseshoes on his helmet, rather than yellow horns. He teased the 60,863 fans at Giants Stadium with glimpses of brilliance, carrying 10 times for 38 yards and catching a pass for 28 more. But the truth is, Indianapolis would have beaten the Jets without him.

Five first-round picks are among the Colts' front seven on defense: linebackers Duane Bickett (1985), Johnie Cooks ('82) and Barry Krauss ('79), plus linemen Jon Hand ('86) and Donnell Thompson ('81). Each helped make New York look inept. Ask Jets quarterback Ken O'Brien, who was sacked seven times. Or ask Roger Vick, the Jets fullback. Vick was supposed to block Bickett whenever he rushed the passer. Vick might as well have brandished a red cape and shouted !Olè! Bickett had four sacks.

True, the Colts could use a corner-back or two, they're quite ordinary at tight end, and the offense tends to sputter around the goal line. Indy got four field goals from Dean Biasucci on Sunday. But who's complaining? These are mostly the same Colts—just older and better—who were outscored 63-13 before they played a home game last season and who were 0-13 when the Colts fired coach Rod Dowhower and brought in Ron Meyer on Dec. 1. Meyer promptly guided Indianapolis to three victories in its final three games. Under Meyer—whose five-year contract states that if he wins at least half his games in any of the first three seasons, the last two will be guaranteed—Indianapolis is 7-3.

Despite his success, whenever Meyer would mention the Colts in the same sentence with the Super Bowl, as he has been wont to do, he always sounded a tad ludicrous. With No. 29 in his back-field, no màs. The seeds for the Dickerson deal had been germinating since last summer, when Dickerson began sulking in earnest about the money he wasn't making. The Rams weren't willing to pay Dickerson, the world's best running back—just ask him—what he calls "quarterback money." The Colts were, but they were having a deuce of a time signing Bennett, who was demanding Bosworth money. (Buffalo signed Bennett to a five-year contract worth a reported $4 million; in August, Brian Bosworth reportedly signed a deal with the Seattle Seahawks that pays him $11 million over 10 years.) The Nov. 3 trade deadline loomed.

After Robert Irsay had discussed Dickerson with Rams owner Georgia Frontiere at the NFL owners' meetings in Kansas City early last week, Jim Irsay called Meyer on Friday morning. "Do you want to take a run at Eric Dickerson?" he asked.

"I love it!" blurted Meyer. Indeed, other than the price (a reported $5.3 million over four years), what's not to love? Dickerson, whom Meyer coached at SMU, ran for 1,808 yards as a rookie in 1983. The next year, he broke the NFL single-season rushing record with 2,105 yards. In 1985 he had 1,234 yards, and last season, 1,821. He is 6'3", 218 pounds, durable and, at 27, in his prime.

Jim Irsay had a tentative agreement with the Rams by Friday afternoon. But he had yet to come to terms with a third team, one that would give a king's ransom for Bennett so Indianapolis could send two king's ransoms to L.A. "We opened it up to the entire league," says the younger Irsay. Actually, he ruled out playoff-caliber teams because their draft picks would be lower. Houston and Buffalo were the finalists, with the Bills winning the Bennett derby.

On Friday night Dickerson was dressed not as a Ram or a Colt, but as a chief, an Indian chief, on his way to a Halloween party. "I had a great big headdress, feathers, everything," he says. Then his phone rang. It was Meyer, who told him he was a Colt. Dickerson took a rain check on the costume party and caught the red-eye to Indianapolis. On Saturday morning he met some of his new mates, attended team meetings and walked through a few basic plays in street clothes. Says quarterback Jack Trudeau, "When we first heard about the trade, we were saying, 'Can you imagine Eric Dickerson in a Colts uniform?' No one could."

Which is understandable. Until after the strike, the Rams swore they would never let him go. But Dickerson is as proud as he is talented. He wore management down with sheer determination and, well, petulance. He compared himself to a stallion whose spirit had been broken. He insisted that he was being underpaid at $682,000 this year and that Los Angeles refused to renegotiate his contract to pay him what he was worth. This is the same contract he had renegotiated after holding out for 46 days at the start of the 1985 season—when he also had agreed in writing that he would not ask to renegotiate until it had expired.

Dickerson implied that his dispute with L.A. had taken such a toll on him that he might not be able to give his all on the field. In a Monday night loss to the Cleveland Browns on Oct. 26, Dickerson didn't start for the first time in his pro career. After scoring on a 27-yard run in the second quarter, he left the game, claiming he had aggravated a sore muscle in his thigh. Three days later, Rams coach John Robinson put him on the inactive list for last Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers, saying that Dickerson was "physically and mentally unable to play."

"Their expression, not mine," said Dickerson before the Jets game. "Don't get me wrong, I know $975,000 [what he says was the Rams' final offer] is a lot of money, but not for what I do. I gave them so much, and they didn't want to thank me for it."

A reporter asked Dickerson if he thought he would need to renegotiate this contract. Negative, Dickerson said. "This one's fat!"

Fat, yes. "But look at it this way," says an Indianapolis veteran who asked not to be identified. "Five-point-three million is a lot of money, but now the old man [Irsay] doesn't have to worry about signing his top picks for the next couple years. That was kind of an annual aggravation for him anyway."

Many observers think that the senior Irsay's biggest mistake as an owner was his failure to sign John Elway, whom the Colts made the No. 1 pick in the 1983 draft. Elway had vowed before the draft that he would never play in Baltimore. A week later, Irsay traded the rights to Elway to the Denver Broncos.

The loss of Elway has stung less and less as Chris Hinton has developed. A massive yet explosive offensive tackle, the 285-pound Hinton came to the Colts from Denver as part of the Elway deal, which also included a first-round pick. Indy used it to select Ron Solt, a fine guard who's not far behind Hinton in talent. Center Ray Donaldson is, like Hinton, a Pro Bowl performer. Against a flat Jets defensive line, Hinton & Co. cleared gaping swaths of daylight for Dickerson and Albert Bentley, who, in what may have been a last hurrah, ran for 145 yards on 29 carries. Next week he'll probably be returning kickoffs.

On the sideline, Dickerson seldom strayed from the side of Meyer, whose future, like that of the Colts, is suddenly brighter. Meyer's hiring last year was greeted with horselaughs around the NFL. This was the guy who had arrived in New England from SMU with a whip and a chair in 1982, a year after the Patriots had lost 14 of 16 games. "I'd heard it was a country club," says Meyer. He went 18-15 in New England but was unpopular with the players for his iron fist, so he was fired after 2½ seasons.

In Indianapolis, Meyer has gone easier on the spit and polish. "Of course, I've learned," he says. "I'd do some things differently, sure."

"While he was in New England, our coach was Frank Kush," says wideout Matt Bouza, a sixth-year Colt who has caught TD passes in each of the last two games. "You want to talk about drill sergeants. Frank Kush makes Ron Meyer look like a candy striper."

Meyer was hired on a Monday and activated quarterback Gary Hogeboom that Wednesday. "No doubt about it, he's the bell cow," says Meyer. You remember Hogeboom. He used to back up Danny White in Dallas. Every time White got knocked silly, this bean pole with a cannon would come in and try to save the day. More recently he crossed the picket line and led Indianapolis to two victories during the strike.

"He's something special in my book," says Meyer. In the first week of scab ball, Hogeboom threw for five touchdowns in a 46-6 rout of Buffalo. But against the Jets a week later, defensive end Marty Lyons put a lick on Hogeboom that punctured a lung and cracked a rib. When Hogeboom comes back, Trudeau, who on Sunday completed 14 of 23 passes for 192 yards and a TD, will fade into the background.

As will Bentley. After he had enjoyed the second-best day of his three-year career, a measly handful of reporters gathered to talk with him. Fifteen feet away, around the locker of the newest Colt, there was a media circus with fights, cameras, mikes, the works.

Eric, did you get any sleep on the plane?

Eric, do you miss your friends?

Eric, is that the same mouthpiece you used with the Rams?

"Get used to it," a teammate said to Bentley.

The Colts—with the possible exception of Bentley—will be happy to.

With the more relaxed Meyer pointing the way, Indy has won seven of its last 10 games.

Jet Johnny Hector made two happy landings. His first score came on this 12-yard dash.

"I know $975,000 is a lot of money, but not for what I do. I gave them [the Rams] so much."