INDIANAPOLIS – When Eric Dickerson landed in Indianapolis following a blockbuster trade on October 31, 1987, his arrival significantly altered the landscape in the AFC East.
Suddenly, the Colts became contenders. Suddenly, the Indianapolis club gained attention as a marquee team in the NFL.
And with Dickerson running the ball, the Colts went from a 3-3 outfit through the first two months of the season to a 9-6 finisher. It marked the team’s first winning record and first playoff berth in four Indianapolis years. It also resulted in an AFC East championship that few could have predicted when the season began.
“We knew when we got him he'd help us,” Colts owner Robert Irsay said about Dickerson.
“We promised the fans a winner, and now we’ve got a champion.”
The 1987 season began with uncertainty. The Colts had drafted Alabama linebacker Cornelius Bennett, whose contract dispute kept him out of uniform. Bennett wound up going to the Buffalo Bills in the three-way trade that brought Dickerson to the Colts from the Los Angeles Rams.
The uncertainty continued, too, as the NFL Players Association called a strike in late September. The Colts had started 0-2. Indianapolis’ replacement team, including a handful of union members who crossed the picket line, went 2-1.
The work stoppage ended in late October. The stage was set.
Jim Irsay, the Colts’ general manager, worked tirelessly to put together the deal that brought Dickerson to Indianapolis. Counting draft choices, 10 players were involved in the swap. Dickerson and Colts Head Coach Ron Meyer, who recruited the running back at Southern Methodist, were reunited.
With virtually no practice time with the Colts, Dickerson rushed for 38 yards in a November 1 road victory over the New York Jets. One week later, in his first start, he ran 35 times for 138 yards, but the Colts lost at home to San Diego.
Dickerson needed time to acclimate himself to the Colts’ offense – but just a little time. He and the team meshed in a rousing 40-21 win at Miami on November 15. The victory, which came on the strength of Dickerson’s 154 rushing yards, was the Colts’ first against the Dolphins in seven years.
The Colts running back would crack triple digits in rushing four more times that season as the club won four of its last five games.
“I think of Dickerson as our trigger man,” Meyer wrote in a column he penned for the Indianapolis News. “Any time he has the ball, he has the capability of taking it into the end zone. So we’re holding our blocks longer, and our players are taking more pride in their blocks.”
The Colts clinched the AFC East title in the season’s final week, defeating Tampa Bay, 24-6, before 60,468 ecstatic fans in the Hoosier Dome. Dickerson rushed for 196 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Afterward, linebacker Barry Krauss stood in a joyous Colts locker room and credited not only the deal for Dickerson but also Meyer’s impact.
“He changed the attitude,” Krauss said about Meyer, who took over with three games remaining in the 1986 season. “It’s like Santa Claus came to town and brought attitude in his bag.”
In the post-season, the Colts traveled to Cleveland, where they forged a 14-14 tie with the Browns through the first half of their AFC Divisional Playoff game. But the Browns erupted for 24 second-half points and defeated Indianapolis, 38-21, as Dickerson was held to 50 yards on 15 rushing attempts.
Six Colts played in the Pro Bowl after the 1987 season: Dickerson, guard Ron Solt, tackle Chris Hinton, center Ray Donaldson, linebacker Duane Bickett and place-kicker Dean Biasucci.
RECAPPING THE 1987 SEASON
One memorable moment: It came during training camp in Anderson, Ind., when the Colts named their weight training area in honor of local youngster Danny Hulse. Hulse, who was confined to a wheelchair as he dealt with bone cancer, had visited the Colts’ camp many times during the team's first few years at Anderson College. He died in December 1986 at age 14 and was buried with a Colts jersey presented to him by linebacker Barry Krauss. Shortly before his death, Hulse dictated letters to his mother that went to his two best Colts friends, Krauss and tight end Pat Beach. “He thanked them for their friendship, and said he missed them and loved them,” Hulse’s mother, Nancy, told the Anderson Herald-Bulletin.
Best seasonal performance No. 1: Eric Dickerson was not the only Colt who performed well on the big stage in 1987. Place-kicker Dean Biasucci enjoyed his finest season as he hit 24-of-27 field goal tries. And as for that stage presence, Biasucci was a theater arts major at Western Carolina and occasionally took on roles in local productions. “They both require concentration,” Biasucci said about football and acting. “You can’t let things distract you on stage; you have to be into your character. On the football field, you have to be into your kicking.”
Best seasonal performance No. 2: Linebacker Duane Bickett led the Colts’ defensive charge with 113 tackles and eight sacks. “Bickett exemplifies everything you look for in a complete football player,” Ron Meyer said in his newspaper column. “Bickett is probably the most dedicated football player I’ve ever been around.”
Turning point: The acquisition of Dickerson changed the Colts’ outlook and provided an offensive burst. It also took pressure and wear and tear off running back Albert Bentley, who was the team’s unsung hero. Bentley rushed for 145 yards in Dickerson’s first game with the team but wouldn’t reach 100 yards again in 1987 as the run-game emphasis switched to the newest Colt. But Bentley grew in importance as a receiver, totaling 293 yards and two touchdowns on 18 receptions over the final seven games. He also had four catches for 47 yards in the playoff loss at Cleveland.
Significant moment(s): The Colts were never settled at quarterback as veteran Gary Hogeboom dealt with various injuries. It started with the opener, which Hogeboom missed because of a hand injury suffered in the preseason. He came back for three games, sat out four and then played three more. Jack Trudeau replaced him for the rest of the season on November 29 when Hogeboom suffered a dislocated right shoulder on a blindside hit against Houston. Hogeboom always went to the sideline grudgingly. “It just bothers me if people look at me as having a quarterback mentality … you know, that stuff about putting a dress on the quarterback,” he said. “It bothers me because I don’t think I've ever played the position like that.”