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A former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback finally hits 'Paydirt'

TAMPA — They call him "Paydirt."

Parnell Dickinson, the first African-American quarterback drafted by the Bucs (not Doug Williams), got his nickname from his teammates at Mississippi Valley State University for his touchdown making.

Saturday night, Paydirt hits paydirt.

Dickinson, 63, a Tampa resident since his one and only NFL season — the first Bucs season, in 1976 — will among those inducted in the Black College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta on Saturday.

"It's as good as it gets for me," Dickinson said.

"Everybody loves Parnell," said former Bucs quarterback Doug Williams, who co-founded the Hall in 2009 with another pioneering black quarterback, James Harris. "You're not going to find a better human than Parnell Dickinson."

"I think of the quality and goodness of him," said former Bucs linebacker David Lewis.

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Dickinson's only regret is he won't be looking out on his parents. Matthew and Rebecca Dickinson died about 40 days apart about a year and a half ago. Dad was 93. Mom was 89. Rebecca worked in Parnell's high school cafeteria. Matthew worked in the steel mill. They were always strong and proud and were coming up on 74 years of marriage when they passed.

But Ernestine, Dickinson's wife of 39 years and his college sweetheart, will be there, as will their two children and six grandchildren. And a lot of his friends.

PHOTO PROVIDED

Parnell Dickinson, 63, a Tampa resident since his one and only NFL season – the first Bucs season, in 1976 – will among those inducted in the Black College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta on Saturday. Dickinson is being inducted for his career at Mississippi Valley State.

"Parnell was a guy always there for you," said Anthony Harris, who played tight end for "The Valley," who caught Dickinson's first college pass and who now lives in Brandon. "Parnell brings people together. When you've got a problem, you go talk to Parnell."

Oh, and the guy could play.

"There are a lot of guys who played at historical black colleges who have never gotten the recognition that they deserve," Williams said. "Some of them need to be recognized."

Dickinson starred at Brighton High School in Brighton, Ala., near Birmingham.

"Jameis Winston grew up about three miles from where I grew up," he said. "I knew his grandfather. I could see his house from mine."

For college, "Alabama and Auburn were out," Dickinson said. Those schools weren't recruiting black quarterbacks. So in 1972 he traveled to tiny Itta Bena, Mississippi, home of the Delta Devils of Mississippi Valley State. Dickinson recalls a campus surrounded mostly by cotton fields.

But The Valley had history. Pro Football Hall of Fame sacker Deacon Jones had starred for The Valley a dozen years before Dickinson arrived. Pro Football Hall of Fame Jerry Rice amazed at The Valley from 1981 to 1984.

In between, there was Paydirt.

The 6-3, 185-pound Dickinson started all four seasons. He was a four-time all-Southwestern Athletic Conference selection and left as the SWAC's all-time yardage leader. Dickinson could throw and run, accounting for 89 touchdowns. His number, 18, was retired in 1976.

PHOTO PROVIDED

Parnell Dickinson, 63, a Tampa resident since his one and only NFL season – the first Bucs season, in 1976 – will among those inducted in the Black College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta on Saturday. Dickinson is being inducted for his career at Mississippi Valley State.

"The one who reminded me of him later was Randall Cunningham," said Davis Weathersby, Dickinson's head coach at Mississippi Valley State.

"Parnell was the leader," said Larry "War Horse" McGill, an offense lineman on those Valley teams. "We had been struggling. He came in and changed the whole attitude."

"Parnell kept everybody in the mix," said former Valley receiver Robert Gaddis, who lives in Tampa.

And Dickinson inspired Doug Williams, who played for Grambling.

"I was a redshirt freshman the first time I saw Parnell throw it," said Williams, a senior personnel executive for the Washington franchise he quarterbacked to Super Bowl victory. "How good was he? If you could go back in time and bring Parnell out of college today, we'd be sitting in meeting rooms looking at Parnell at the top of our draft boards."

Dickinson was drafted in the seventh round by the fledgling Bucs in the 1976 draft.

"When I came to Tampa for my first mini-camp, it was so pretty," Dickinson said. "Tampa was paradise. Something said to me, 'I'm going to make my home here whether I play football or not.' "

And so he did.

He made the team and was Steve Spurrier's backup. Dickinson downplays any bigotry that existed for a black quarterback in a southern NFL city.

"I'm sure there was, but Parnell would never say a thing," Williams said.

PHOTO PROVIDED

Parnell Dickinson, 63, a Tampa resident since his one and only NFL season – the first Bucs season, in 1976 – will among those inducted in the Black College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta on Saturday. Dickinson is being inducted for his career at Mississippi Valley State. Pictured here with his wife, Ernestine

For a man who was beloved by his Bucs teammates then and now, Dickinson's career was startlingly brief, just eight games. 1976 was it. And no wins.

"It was a horrible season," Dickinson said. "We had no chance."

His big chance — and only NFL start — came in the seventh game of the season against the Miami Dolphins. Bucs coach John McKay sat Spurrier, who had been struggling. Dickinson got the start. He got off to a great start, completing all four of his passes, including a TD throw to Morris Owens.

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"Then I was scrambling and Nick Buoniconti grabbed me from behind and pulled me back and I cracked my foot," Dickinson said. He left the game for good. He never started again, and in the season's 11th game, "Jerry Sherk crawled up on my leg and tackled me, hit on my knees," Dickinson said. Torn ACL.

And that was Parnell Dickinson's NFL career. He was among the Bucs' final cuts before the 1977 season. The club brought him back during the season because of injuries, then released him again. Dickinson was signed by New England in 1978, but the Patriots wanted him at wide receiver. Dickinson briefly tried the Canadian Football League before retiring. He was 26.

PHOTO PROVIDED

Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Parnell Dickinson poses with the football championship trophy for historically black colleges and universities in Atlanta in December. Dickinson, a star at Mississippi Valley State in the 1970s, will be inducted in the Black College Football Hall of Fame on Saturday in Atlanta.

He made a good life. Dickinson started his own insurance agency. He and Ernestine owned and ran a day care. They never left Tampa. Years ago, Parnell and Ernestine led the fundraising to build a cathedral for their church, Bible-Based Fellowship Church on Ehrlich Road.

Dickinson never forgot The Valley, either. He is a key fundraiser for the school and holds an annual golf tournament in Itta Bena every year to raised money for scholarships. He never misses the annual team reunion. Just about runs it.

"Parnell keeps us together," Robert Gaddis said.

Dickinson is still around the NFL. For 23 years, he has been a uniform inspector at Bucs games, checking on players to make sure their attire conforms to code and rules. He works the sideline.

"It's as close as you can get without being hit," he said with a laugh.

"He's the same guy every day, always smiling," Doug Williams said. "Same guy every day."

And a Hall of Famer come Saturday.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.

A former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback finally hits 'Paydirt' 02/20/17 [Last modified: Monday, February 20, 2017 1:19pm]
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