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.

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

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