It’s possible that Tony Dorsett suffered his first concussion on Friday, Nov. 5, 1971. He was then a star running back at Hopewell High, unbeaten in eight games and seemingly unstoppable. His team faced lowly Sharon.
Dorsett carried the ball four times, then left the game. Sharon team doctors took a look at the young man from Aliquippa and determined he’d suffered a blow to the head serious enough to keep him on the sidelines the rest of the game.
Sharon won 19-6, a victory that remains one of the most memorable in the school’s history. As for Dorsett — he was a tough kid, the youngest son of a steelworker. A concussion wasn’t going to stop him.
Dorsett’s three older brothers had played football, too. They were good, but not like Tony. Tony had the makings of greatness. That’s a big deal no matter where you come from, but it’s amplified when you live in a public housing development on the outskirts of a struggling steel town.
He was phenomenal his first year at Pitt, gaining 1, 586 yards and becoming the first freshman in more than a quarter century to be named All-American. This made him somewhat of a celebrity in a city on the precipice of experiencing football greatness. Shortly before the start of his second season, Dorsett was featured in a September 1974 Pittsburgh Press magazine story accompanied by several pictures taken near his home on Mount Vernon Drive. There’s Dorsett posing with his mom in the garden, jogging through the housing development, helping a neighborhood kid fix a bicycle.
Many of the pictures were posed. Dorsett smiled for the camera — he was young and earnest and wanted to accommodate the photographer. Quotes in the story reflect a strong and endearing sense of commitment to his community.
“The whole neighborhood, I feel, is really behind me,” Dorsett said. “They feel good, because somebody they know is in the papers. Somebody from this place is really making it.”
Neighbors called him “The Hawk.” Children on the block looked up to him, something he appreciated.
Part of the story dealt with the problem of Dorsett’s size — he was 5 feet 11, 185 pounds.
“People have said I’m too small for the pros,” he said. “But I know I can run. I might get beat up a little bit doing it, but I can take a beating.”
Dorsett did make it to the NFL — he’s now got a Super Bowl ring and a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And, yes, he did take a beating. Tragically, he’s been diagnosed with signs of CTE, that degenerative brain condition haunting so many former football players. CTE is linked to repeated blows to the head. Dorsett has admitted to periods of paranoia and depression. Sometimes he can’t remember what he did the day before.
Forty years ago Dorsett began his final year in a Pitt uniform. And, oh, what a season — Dorsett graced the cover of Sports Illustrated (“Heading for the Heisman,” the headline accurately predicted in November 1976) and the Panthers finished 12-0 to become consensus national champion.
As a young man, Dorsett realized football was his “bread and butter,” something to be grateful for, a ticket out of Mount Vernon Drive. “If anything was going to change for me and my family, it was up to me,” he said. “I’m hoping I can play pro ball, make some money and get out of here, out of this project.”
These days, Mount Vernon Drive is a very distant memory, if a memory at all. The price of his journey has been steep.
“Some days are good. Some days are bad,” Dorsett said a few years ago when his diagnosis became public knowledge. “I signed up for this when, I guess, I started playing football so many years ago …
“But, obviously, not knowing that the end was going to be like this.”
— Steve Mellon