CANCUN, Mexico — Sitting at a dinner table last month in Houston, Tony Dorsett stabbed a piece of pecan pie with his fork and told one of his favorite football stories.
It goes back to Dorsett’s freshman year at Pittsburgh in 1973. Dorsett weighed just 160 pounds and often didn’t want to return to the field after getting badly battered in games by much bigger opponents.
Despite his protests, Pittsburgh assistant coach Jackie Sherrill made him go back to the beatings.
“We need you to get back out there for us,” Sherrill told him.
More than four decades later, Dorsett, 61, still believes this kind of coaching made him into a better player and describes it as a blessing. But there’s also a chance it was a curse. A day after he shared this happy memory at dinner with Sherrill in Houston, Dorsett traveled here to improve health problems that might have resulted from moments just like it.
Dorsett, a Hall of Fame running back, has suffered memory loss associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease linked to football head trauma. Sherrill, the longtime college football coach, also has had a torn rotator cuff and two bum knees he attributes to “age and butting your head on that football field for a long time.”
Seeing no better options for relief, they both recently visited a modern hospital in tropical Mexico to receive stem cell injections that are not approved for use in the U.S. — a development that was ripe with legacy and paradox.
As a player at Alabama in the 1960s, Sherrill learned at the knee of legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, who famously refused to let his players have water on hot days and even encouraged them to practice with broken bones. Sherrill in turn passed along a similar ethic to Dorsett, proudly bucking the warning signs of pain. Even now, both men credit this standard of mental toughness for their success despite the physical havoc it might have wreaked later.
“I’m an old-school kind of guy,” Dorsett told USA TODAY Sports. “My whole mentality was if I can walk, I’m going to play. … If you got on the field and you get in a collision and, bam, you see stars, supposedly that’s a mild concussion. How many times does that happen to guys? Quite a few for me.”
Before Sherrill helped him win two national championships at Alabama in the mid-1960s, Bryant had coached the “Junction Boys” at Texas A&M. Author Jim Dent wrote a book about it, describing how two team buses left for preseason training camp in Junction, Texas, but only one returned after a brutal culling process marked by heat strokes, broken bones and blood.
“I see your broken hand,” Bryant tells a player in the book. “I feel your pain. But, son, I played a game in college with a broken leg once and nobody gave me no pity.”
He told the player that he could still suit up and practice.
Similarly, Sherrill, 72, recalls Dorsett’s freshman year at Pitt, when the team held preseason training camp in the woods of Johnstown, Penn.
“We took five buses to camp, and three came back,” Sherrill said.
Sherrill beamed with pride at the memory, because that’s how you whipped a team into shape back then, especially one that finished 1-10 the year before, in 1972. Sure enough, Pitt soon turned around and went 12-0 in 1976, Dorsett’s senior year.
But Sherrill knows times have changed with advancements in science and medicine.
Today, if a team left for training came with five buses and only came back with three, “that coach probably would be fired,” Sherrill told USA TODAY Sports. “Unless they won.”
Sherrill later became head coach at Washington State, Pitt, Mississippi State and Texas A&M, where he followed in Bryant’s footsteps again. He credits Bryant for teaching him to never give up and believes Bryant, who died in 1983, would still succeed today even if medical standards and NCAA rules would forbid many of his methods.
“Kids still want discipline,” Sherrill said. “If you get kid today, you’ve got to make him do things he doesn’t want to do.”
Asked if he regrets pushing players back into games under questionable health conditions, Sherrill said, “To answer your question, we didn’t know anything. I’ll say this: Every player out there who played, they’re going to tell you the same thing about not being aware.”
After being recruited to Pitt by Sherrill, Dorsett became one of only three players in football history to win a national championship (1976), Heisman Trophy (1976) and Super Bowl, which he won the with the Dallas Cowboys in 1977.
In 1994, Dorsett entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where he thanked Sherrill during his enshrinement speech.
“I remember … sometimes coming to the sidelines so beat and bruised up I didn’t want to go back out there and Coach Sherrill would be there,,, and say, ‘Oh come on. This team needs you. We need you to get back out there for us,’ ” Dorsett said in his speech. “Coach, I just want to tell you, you helped toughen me up. You helped me deal with pain, pain I took for being so small. You also helped me understand that if I wanted to succeed, I had to put the pain behind me and keep going.”
A day before getting treatment in Cancun last month, Dorsett said he has no regrets.
“If you ask me if I’d play again, I’d say, ‘Hell yeah, I’d play again,’ ” Dorsett said. “But I would play it again and be a little more careful.”
Dorsett also said he’d let his grandson play football someday “if he wanted to,” noting that knowledge about head injuries and medical care have advanced since his playing days.
“Now if you got knocked out, you’re not getting back on the field,” he said.
Dorsett’s grandson, Hawke, recently celebrated his first birthday. His name derives from a nickname Dorsett’s father gave Tony — Hawk, as in hawk-eyed, because of his vision and intense eyes as a youth.
Sherrill still calls him that, too, and has been a father figure to Dorsett throughout his adult life, including now. Sherrill recruited Dorsett to try these stem cell treatments, which are derived from their own fat tissue and then processed by Celltex, a company in Houston.
The treatments are not allowed to be injected in the U.S. because they haven’t yet gone through expensive and lengthy testing to prove their safety and effectiveness.
After first receiving the treatments here last year, both Sherrill and Dorsett have reported improvement, though Dorsett said he’s not endorsing any stem cell products at this time and said in September the effect on his memory problems wasn’t lasting. Sherrill believes he just might need more regular treatments.
So the journey continues. Together.
“As a coach, the greatest thing is knowing the relationships you had with your players,” Sherrill said. “You always question if you did the right things, and then you see how they grow up.”
He said he only had about three players who “went off the road” in all of his years coaching. “The rest of them have been really successful,” he said.
That includes Dorsett, his star pupil, who still believes in the truth of his lesson.
“If you came out every time you got hurt and felt some pain, you’d never get back out on the field,” Dorsett said.