Grambling State University plays eight of its 11 games this season on the road, so coach Eddie Robinson is fortunate to have a star back who answers to the nickname American Express. As Robinson sees it, the Tigers should never leave home without Walter Dean, because he just might be the best runner produced by a predominantly black college since Walter Payton came out of Jackson State in 1975.
Last Saturday, Grambling, which is 4-0, used its gold card in Dallas, where Dean gained 137 yards on 15 carries in a 67-3 victory over Elizabeth City. The week before, Dean rushed for a career-high 232 yards in a 22-3 win over Hampton University at the Meadowlands across the way from New York City, and this week the Tigers have a date with Alabama A&M in Indianapolis. That's a lot of big-city exposure for a Division I-AA program, but then Grambling is sort of a watch-pocket version of Notre Dame in that it has a national constituency, especially among black Americans. Robinson thinks rambling for Grambling should earn Dean, a 5'11", 205-pound senior, consideration for the Heisman Trophy. "It would be hard to find a back who does as many things as well as Walter does them," says Robinson.
However, Robinson knows down deep that Dean won't win the award because I-AA schools don't rate with most Heisman voters. Although Grambling has sent more than 250 players to the pros during Robinson's 48-year career with the Tigers, the closest any player of his has come to winning the trophy was quarterback Doug Williams, who finished fourth in the balloting in 1977.
But Dean doesn't much care about awards or TV exposure, and he proved that by picking Grambling over Nebraska, LSU and the other major powers that expressed interest in him when he played at Grambling State University Laboratory High. "I wanted to go to a college where everybody I knew wouldn't have to sign up for a frequent-flyer program in order to see me play," he says. Today, Dean has no regrets about his decision, even though, as the leading rusher in Division I-AA (174.5 yards per game), American Express doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves.
Dean grew up in Grambling, where his mother, Betty, was an administrative secretary at the university for 30 years before retiring recently. His father, Walter, is a dispatcher for a concrete company in nearby Ruston. The younger Walter blossomed last season, rushing for a school-record 1,269 yards. One of his most ardent fans is Paul (Tank) Younger, the former Grambling fullback who went on to star for the Los Angeles Rams. "You take one look at him," says Younger, "and you think, Hey, he doesn't look that tough. He isn't the huge, muscle-flexing type of back, but once you see him run the ball, you want to check out his scrapbook."
Just don't mix up Walter's scrapbook with his younger brother Keith's. A junior at Grambling Laboratory, Keith is one of Louisiana's leading schoolboy running backs. "It's crazy around the house on Sunday," says Betty. "Walter and Keith are both scrambling for the newspapers to see which outdid the other. There's a good-natured rivalry between the two, and it brings out the best in both of them."
Walter has maintained a B average in business management, preparing to enter the job market should he fail to make the NFL. That possibility seems remote, however, to anyone who saw him gain 217 yards against Tennessee State this season. State coach Joe Gilliam was so impressed that he called Dean "the best back we'll face this year."
Such compliments are nice, but they don't turn Dean's head. "I don't get too carried away with all that stuff," he says. "Sure, playing in the NFL is something I've dreamed about. But all I want to do right now is help Grambling win."
Because Dean's college career ends this season, Grambling will have to learn how to leave home without him. However, Keith says he may follow his brother to Grambling. So hold on, Coach Robinson. You still might be a long way from your limit.
Walter (right) has a friendly running rivalry with his kid brother, Keith.