Turn Out the Lights

My night at the Dallas Cowboys old-timers reunion is over, but it left me wondering why Don Meredith didn’t show up, whether Tom Landry deserved his reputation as a coaching genius, and where America’s Team went wrong.

I recognized Alicia Landry as soon as she walked into the party, but I had to get closer before identifying the man with her as her husband. Tom Landry seemed to have shrunk; either that or the floor was tilting. The 72-year-old founding coach of the Dallas Cowboys appeared surprisingly frail and stooped, as though he carried on his back the wreckage of countless careers and ambitions. For the first time in the thirty-odd years I had known him, Tom looked his age. So did a surprising number of people at the Dallas Cowboys old-timers reunion.

The idea for the reunion had originated with the wives of such former Cowboys as Lee Roy Jordan, Tony Liscio, Don McIlhenny, and Jerry Tubbs. For me, the party came at an auspicious time. Once, the Cowboys had been a big part of my life. From 1963 to 1967 I covered the team on a regular basis for the Dallas Morning News, and since then, I have written dozens of magazine articles about them. Like so many fans, though, I’ve had about all I can take of the Jerry Jones–Barry Switzer–Michael Irvin–Leon Lett follies. It was easy to love the teams of the sixties and seventies. They had an unspoiled innocence, even a certain nobility. That began to degenerate in the eighties and nose-dived into abject depravity by the nineties. Apparently others have the same feeling. Two new books looking at the early Cowboys ( Cowboys Have Always Been My Heroes, by Peter Golenbock, and Cotton Bowl Days, by John Eisenberg) are scheduled for publication in August, just as the current team will be staggering into its uncertain future.

Still, when I got my invitation to the reunion, I wasn’t sure that I should go. Some of the things I had written about the Cowboys were critical and some complimentary, but I knew from experience that while the players and coaches might forget the criticism, the wives never would. Sure enough, shortly after I arrived, Alicia Landry approached me while Tom stopped to chat with a couple of old players. “I hope you’re not going to write anything nasty about us,” she said in a stage whisper. Before the evening ended, two more wives made remarks similar to Alicia’s. Sorry, ladies. One of the predictable things about reunions is that everyone falls back into old roles.

A Game of Inches

The old-timers reunion was limited to players, coaches, and staff—and a few sportswriters—who had been part of the coming-of-age years, 1960 to 1980, two decades in which the team emerged from a ragtag group of castoffs that nobody took seriously into the most fabled franchise in sports. The site was The Ranch, a party barn near the Dallas Convention Center, decorated for this occasion with blue and white balloons and banners that looked curiously dated. So did the players themselves. Most of them wore the same kinds of boots and Western-cut shirts they had worn thirty years ago, in keeping with the country and western theme. This was strictly a family affair, with children and grandchildren predominating: Nothing makes you feel as old as meeting the grandchild of a contemporary. One section of the room was lighted as a makeshift photographer’s studio, where family groups took turns posing for pictures. On the opposite side of the large, open room, a Western swing band played tunes that were familiar and easy for dancing. Families helped themselves to generous heaps of barbecue, beans, and potato salad. The cast of characters whose nighttime escapades led teammate Pete Gent to write North Dallas Forty could not have been more sober or low-key.

In the dim light of the party room, worn eyes squinted to read name tags, arthritic hands reached out to greet old friends, and reconstructed knees tried gamely to do the cotton-eyed Joe. At every table and in every group, tales of small defeats, near misses, and glorious triumphs gained nuances with each telling. At the bar, I ran into Tex Schramm, the executive who put together five Super Bowl teams and created the image of America’s Team. Over the years I’d run into Tex countless times at countless bars, and our conversations had been unfailingly stimulating. But tonight, for some reason, talk was flat and awkward. We were forced to confront how much has passed—not only time but also the Cowboys’ magic. Yet I heard not a word about the current Cowboys at the party; there was no common bloodline.

Looking around the room, I allowed random memories to surface in my consciousness. Pettis Norman, an unknown second-year tight end, deeply absorbed in a Bible, taking a solitary stroll at twilight across the campus of the training camp in Marquette, Michigan. Defensive tackle Rocky Colvin pounding his fist into a steel locker in the Cotton Bowl dressing room, getting mentally ready for a game against the Giants. Bob Lilly, the Cowboys’ first Hall of Famer, and his morning dove-hunting parties: drinking cases of beer and firing at dragonflies or anything else that moved. That charter flight home after a big win in New York in 1965, when rookie Bob Hayes’s two touchdown receptions gave Dallas the right to participate in its first postseason game, in Miami—and the stricken look on Landry’s face when Hayes, fortified by champagne, got on the airplane intercom and sang “Moon Over Miami.”

Watching Tex return to his table, I noticed that he walked with a slow shuffle, his dancer’s poise gone with time. I spotted Lee Roy Jordan, the great linebacker, across the room: Most of his hair had turned silver. Most of Jim Boeke’s hair had vanished. Cornell Green, in my memory the ultimate warrior—a cornerback lithe and ribboned with muscle—had gone to lard. It’s the fourth quarter for all of us.

Even the great Lilly appeared somewhat enfeebled. “When there’s a chill in the air,” Lilly complained, “my lungs ache and my fingers sting like someone is driving nails through them.” This is a legacy of playing in the  thirteen-below-zero conditions of the 1967 NFL championship

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