Drew Carries On

More than fifteen years after he retired from pro football, former Dallas Cowboys receiver Drew Pearson is back in the game—and he has the WWF's Vince McMahon to thank.

February 2001By Comments

At a North Dallas restaurant, Drew Pearson is talking about the 1984 car accident that injured him and killed his brother Carey. The words don’t come easily. “It felt like a dream,” he says of looking over at his brother’s lifeless body in the passenger seat and then opening the door and slowly emerging into a sea of slow-motion flashing blue and red lights. Rising out of the driver’s seat, he had been oblivious to the fact that his liver had been cut almost in half, his clavicle had snapped, and his thigh had been punctured by the stick shift. The police had been astonished that Pearson had been able to crawl out of the twisted wreckage. As he describes years of guilt and sorrow, he stares blankly out across the tables of the restaurant. “Not a day, an hour, or a minute goes by,” says Pearson, shaking his head, “that I do not think about what happened.”

From behind him, a man in a suit walks up and places his hand on Pearson’s shoulder. “Drew Pearson?” he smiles. “You were great, man. Just wanted to tell you that.” And then the man walks back to his table, having reminded the Cowboy legend that it wasn’t only his brother he had lost but also his football career and life as he knew it. Pearson, a probable future Hall of Famer, was among the best players on one of the best teams ever to play professional football. He helped the Cowboys make it to three Super Bowls in the seventies. He won Pro Bowl honors three times. Pearson was the recipient of the original Hail Mary, the Roger Staubach pass that beat the Minnesota Vikings in the 1975 playoffs. Football had been everything to him, and according to his friends and family, it still is. “There’s a change in his attitude when football season ends,” says his daughter Britni, a senior at Clark Atlanta University. “You can see his energy level drop a little. He looks forward to his football on Sundays and Mondays so much. And he gets excited again at the end of the summer when training camps start up.” He is also clearly pained that he is not still in the game. He seems bothered by the notion that he left prematurely, that he didn’t go out on his terms. “I could have played another three or four years easily,” says Pearson, now an immaculately dressed fifty-year-old with a shaved head and flecks of gray in his mustache. “I was getting ready to sign a new contract.”

Sixteen years later, he has signed a new football contract: as the vice president and general manager of a new professional team called the New York-New Jersey Hitmen in a new league called the XFL, which debuts in February. It had been his dream ever since leaving the Cowboys to work for an NFL team's front office. But no one ever gave him the chance. And so when the XFL brass came calling, he jumped at the opportunity.

At first glance, the XFL doesn't seem at all to be Pearson's style. The league is the brainchild of World Wrestling Federation (WWF) impresario Vince McMahon, who says it will be a return to pro football's "smash-mouth" heyday of the sixties and seventies. While the XFL will be football as we know it (with some slight rule adjustments to add excitement), the presentation will be entirely new. Expect cameras everywhere—in the locker rooms, on the sidelines, and in the helmets—to provide an inside look at football rarely seen before. Expect elaborate and bizarre touchdown celebrations of the type that the NFL strictly outlawed last season. The team names are right in line with the WWF's trademark hyperpromotional cheesiness: the Memphis Maniax, the Orlando Rage, and Pearson's own Hitmen. And expect the cheerleaders to be featured much more prominently and dressed less conventionally than those in the NFL. Ads for the XFL, which have nothing whatsoever to do with football, have been airing on television for months. Some feature a half-clothed cheerleader staring back into a leering camera as a deep-voiced announcer says, "Don't worry, we'll teach them how to cheer."

So what's a classy guy like Pearson doing in a place like this? Exactly what he feels the NFL never would give him the opportunity to do. After the wreck, Pearson found himself out of a job and living in a one-bedroom apartment, having paid a generous alimony to his ex-wife in anticipation of his next big contract with the Cowboys. Knowing that he would never play again, Pearson wanted to work on the business side of the game.

"I told the coach [Tom Landry] that if there were any opportunities in the front office, I'd like to try that," Pearson says. "I didn't care what it was, even the mail room. So he put me in touch with Tex Schramm, and Tex told me that there was nothing available other than coaching, and he wanted me to do that. But when you're a player who did the things I did on the field and all the right things off the field, you'd think they would have seen that and said, 'We've got to bring this guy on.' It ticked me off to the point that I wrote a letter to Lamar Hunt of the Chiefs, explaining that I'd always wanted to do this for the Cowboys and they'd shut me out. Unfortunately I never heard back from Lamar." Pearson ended up coaching receivers for a year with the Cowboys but was disappointed to find that he often had more competitive fire than his players did. Coaching wasn't for him. "Finally I said, 'To heck with it,' and started my own business," he says.

He has been immensely successful. Drew Pearson Marketing, located in Dallas, is now a $40 million apparel business, supplying licensed headware for the NFL, the NBA, the NHL, and Major League Baseball, as well the WWF, Warner Bros., and Disney. It required the rise of baseball caps as a popular fashion accessory for American men, but Pearson steered the company well. It was largely because of his business connection to the WWF and his success in the post-football world that the XFL tapped him for a GM spot.

Nowadays, Pearson splits his time between Dallas, where he runs his company and does television and radio commentary on the Cowboys, and New Jersey, where he attends to the Hitmen. "Running a team is what he's always wanted to do," says former teammate Jay Saldi, who plans to work with Pearson in the XFL. Saldi thinks it's wrong to characterize Pearson's "to heck with it" attitude toward the NFL as bitterness. "Disappointment is what it is," says Saldi. "If Drew is not in the NFL, it's the NFL's loss. And the XFL's gain." Pearson's old quarterback, Roger Staubach, agrees, saying, "Drew is an excellent candidate for any kind of leadership role. He's a very, very sharp guy. I think he would be great in somebody's front office." Both Saldi and Staubach also agree that the Cowboys of the Tex Schramm era would have been a tough crowd to join on the business side. "Family-owned businesses are hard to get into," notes Saldi. "And by the time [Jerry] Jones came along, Drew was well into his own thing."

Pearson uses that rejection as pure motivation. "If I had something to prove, it was that I was smart enough to take this business from the ground up and make it successful, which shows that I had the knowledge, intelligence, and acumen to do it at their level. I could have made that Cowboy organization better by being a part of it on the front office side."

Staubach recalls another Pearson quality: fearlessness. "As far as big catches and clutch catches, there was no one like Drew Pearson," he says. "He could get to the middle of the field and not worry about getting his head knocked off. To have that kind of fearlessness makes a big difference." Obviously, Pearson still has it, because he is now plunging headlong into an enterprise that many in the sports media have deemed a dubious proposition. One article about his participation was subtitled "What were they thinking?" Another, a column in the Wall Street Journal, read "The XFL? Hate it, loathe it, abhor it. Despise it, detest it, disavow it, disown it, debunk it." Pearson dismisses suggestions that the new league may prove to be an embarrassment to the sport. "The two heads of this enterprise are the marketing side and the football side," he explains. "The football side is football, but the marketing side is all that other stuff. My job is to convince people that it is going to be legit, and my involvement already signals legitimacy."

The XFL also has a few things going for it that now-defunct leagues like the USFL and the WFL did not. One is extensive prime-time television coverage. Another is the promotional savvy of McMahon, who is nothing if not a marketing genius. Furthermore, all the teams are owned by the league, which makes managing them easier because of the absence of billionaire owners. Costs are contained too: Players will receive a base salary of $45,000 (except for quarterbacks, who will earn a little more, and kickers, who will earn a little less), with incentives added for winning games and championships. The talent pool will certainly not be as rich as the NFL's, but as Basil V. DeVito, Jr., the president of the XFL, puts it, "There are eight thousand players in Division I college football who don't get drafted by the NFL, but many of them are still very talented." Star St. Louis Ram quarterback Kurt Warner was one of them. Passed over by NFL scouts, he started his career playing in the professional Arena Football League. Last year he won the NFL's most valuable player award. Drew Pearson also became an NFL star after being overlooked in the draft.

And it is his own story that fuels Pearson's fire and gives him hope for the league. More than anything else, he wants the XFL to be good football. "Wherever we level off is going to have everything to do with the quality of football we have out there on the field," he says. "That's the mysterious part, since no one's going to know until the first kickoff. My feeling is, no, we're not going to have NFL-caliber football at first. But you have to start somewhere, and we're going to get better every year. If you want to get NFL quality, you've got to go step by step." Which is exactly what Pearson has proved he can do.

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