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.

August 1997By Comments

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 game in Green Bay forever to be known as the Ice Bowl. A number of Cowboys were treated for frostbite that day, and all of them have similar complaints. “Anytime the temperature drops below forty degrees,” Jethro Pugh said, “my hands and feet feel like they’re on fire.” Lee Roy Jordan remembered that when the mercury had dropped during a hunting trip a few years ago, the pain got so severe that he actually cried in front of his son.

There were essentially two groups of players in the room—those from the Don Meredith era (1960–68) and those from the Roger Staubach era (1969–79), and they didn’t mingle. A few, such as Lilly and Jordan, bridge the gap, having played under the leadership of both quarterbacks. The difference between the two groups, aside from age, is that those who played with Staubach wear Super Bowl rings, while those who played with Meredith missed out on two rings by a total of two yards. Football, the cliché goes, is a game of inches.

The Staubach group congregated near the front of the party room, where Roger, his wife, and Tom and Alicia Landry sat. Near the back of the room, out of the limelight as always, were offensive linemen Boeke and Liscio, along with Colvin and several other veterans of the sixties. They laughed about the time that Meredith bought drinks for the entire team at a posh hotel in Miami and signed Tex Schramm’s name. Meredith’s enduring popularity and his toughness and resiliency of spirit were the subject of many a conversation, but the key ingredient was missing—Meredith himself. Perhaps it would have been a different party if he had been in attendance, but nobody there had seen him for a long time.

A number of old teammates wrote Meredith a few weeks before the reunion, urging him to attend. But they never heard back. “I question if he ever got my letter,” one lamented, shaking his head in despair. “I’ve heard that his wife Susan pretty much runs his affairs.” Others have heard the same story, that Dandy Don’s third wife is so protective that even agents and movie producers have tired of trying to contact him. In his day the most gregarious and approachable of the Cowboys, Meredith has become a recluse. Financially secure, he lives half the year in Palm Springs, California, half in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He gives out no address, just a post office box and a fax number. When former governor Ann Richards and her friend Bud Shrake visited him last winter in Santa Fe, Meredith appeared in good health, but his notoriously spindly legs were so fragile that he required a pair of $2,000 custom-made shoes to walk straight.

Meredith gives no interviews, responds to no queries, disdains the card-show circuit, and makes almost no personal appearances. But it’s not the physical damage that causes him to shun the spotlight; it’s the damage to his psyche. Nine bittersweet seasons in Dallas apparently have changed him. Meredith made a rare public appearance last December, signing autographs at a Kmart in New York as a favor to his friend, Kmart chairman Floyd Hall. He told a New York Times reporter, “I don’t miss the limelight, not at all. I’m just more comfortable out of it.” He had long since stopped answering to the name “Dandy Don.” “Dandy is somebody else,” he told the reporter, no doubt plaintively. “He wasn’t a bad guy.”

A couple of hours into the party, Landry began to look at his watch, and someone whispered to the photographer to get cracking on the official reunion photograph. When players, coaches, and staff were asked to take their places on the makeshift bleachers prepared for the occasion, the irrepressible Hollywood Henderson nudged his way around several players and slid into the seat next to Landry. Tom tried his best to smile. Henderson threw both arms around the startled coach’s neck and plopped his legs into Landry’s lap. Tom’s face appeared on the verge of cracking, but not into a smile.

My wife and I left just behind Tom and Alicia. I’m glad I went, but I don’t think I want to do it again.

Dandy and Landry

Perhaps the reason that Meredith’s failure to show up cast such a pall on the party—as if the class president hadn’t attended the high school reunion—is that it reminded everyone of his unexpected and premature decision to retire after the 1968 season. It still haunts and puzzles these Cowboys, because it robbed them of their destiny to become the game’s finest team. In 1966 and again in 1967, under Meredith’s leadership, the Cowboys lost the NFL championship to the Green Bay Packers in the final seconds. In retrospect, these two near misses reflected the growing pains of a still immature franchise, but at the time, they devastated the Cowboys and prompted some finger pointing and blame shifting. As usual, Meredith was the designated goat. A hometown boy who twice played to All-American honors at Southern Methodist University, Meredith was the first big name to sign with the Cowboys. He got a five-year contract for $150,000, an enormous amount of money in 1960, and Dallas fans, being rank novices to the pro football experience, assumed that it guaranteed the team and the quarterback instant success. When they realized how dreadfully wrong they had been—that first Cowboys team went 0–11–1—they took it out on Meredith. No athlete in Dallas has ever been so maligned and abused by fans, sportswriters (including myself), and even coaches. John Eisenberg, a sports columnist for the Baltimore Sun who followed the Cowboys as a kid growing up in Plano, writes in Cotton Bowl Days, “Someone had to serve as a laboratory rat as the city developed the harder edge that came with the pros. It was [Meredith’s] destiny to become the sacrificial figure on whom Dallas lost its innocence as a sports town.”

Meredith set the tone for the sixties, playing with pain and an incredible assortment of injuries, shouldering the blame for defeats, deflecting the credit for success, defying and mocking Landry’s somber, bloodless approach to the game. “Meredith had more fun playing the game than anyone I ever saw, and it made it fun for the rest of us,” former running back Dan Reeves, now the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, told me after the reunion.

Landry used to lecture his players on the subject of character, which he claimed was gained through adversity. But time after time, when adversity visited the Cowboys during a game, Landry pulled Meredith from crucial situations. Football stopped being fun for Meredith when Landry removed him from the 1968 playoff game against Cleveland after a couple of interceptions. The interceptions were not Meredith’s fault; he was following the “keys” that Landry had given him—believing that the Browns’ defense would react in a certain way, and if he threw to the right spot, the pass would be completed for a handsome gain. Unfortunately, the Browns failed to cooperate with Landry’s game plan. And Landry rewarded Meredith’s faith with a spot on the bench.

“Meredith shouldn’t even have played in that game,” Bob Lilly told me in a telephone interview following the party. “He had just gotten out of the hospital with a punctured lung. He didn’t have a very good game, but then none of us did. The players felt that Tom should have defended him, but Tom got so focused on a game he didn’t know if a player was hurt or not.”

When Meredith went to Landry’s office to tender his resignation after the season, he fully expected—and desperately wanted—Landry to reject it. The quarterback was only 31, just reaching his prime. After years of building, the Cowboys were finally putting all the pieces together. The offensive line was respectable, the defense was the best in the league, Meredith was comfortable with Landry’s multiple-set offense and had mastered the art of picking apart a defense, and the players loved and trusted him. But Tom made no attempt to change Meredith’s mind. Instead, he said, “Don, I think you’ve made the right decision.” No blitzing linebacker ever crushed Dandy Don Meredith the way Tom Landry did.

As things worked out, Landry was able to replace Meredith the following year with a 27-year-old rookie named Roger Staubach. After a couple of seasons of sharing time with Craig Morton, Staubach got Dallas its first Super Bowl championship. Had Meredith elected to keep on playing, Staubach, as he has been the first to admit, probably would have left for a less-talented team, not content to be a backup. Game of inches, right? Say Landry had made the tiniest effort to talk Meredith out of retirement. Everything might have been different. Meredith might have been front and center at the 1997 old-timers reunion, and Roger Staubach would have been the answer to a trivia question.

Cowboys fans got to know Meredith mostly through the media, and the media often reflected Landry’s point of view. Meredith’s congenital good humor was one of his many unique qualities the Cowboys coach was unable to appreciate. Landry viewed the game of football as a set of physical laws grounded on his own two innovations—the multiple-set offense and the flex defense. In Tom’s scheme of things, players were as interchangeable as the parts of a machine. As long as a quarterback could operate the multiple-set offense, one player was no better or no worse than the other. Even after Staubach took over as the starter, Landry continued to juggle quarterbacks, with the result that the team sometimes panicked and lost confidence. The difference between Staubach and Meredith was that Roger never smiled when he talked back. What Landry found hard to accept in Meredith was exactly what made him so beloved by his teammates: No matter how grave a situation, he refused to lose his sense of humor.

At the reunion the old-timers told stories of how Dandy Don would waltz into the huddle singing a Willie Nelson song. Or he would interrupt the snap count at the line of scrimmage and tell an opposing player like Redskins linebacker Sam Huff, “Hey, Sam, you’re in the wrong position!” It was his way of saying, “Stay cool, baby.” In the 1966 NFL championship game, after the Packers jumped in front 14–0 before the Cowboys’ offense ever got on the field, Meredith looked around at the grim faces in the first huddle and cracked, “Men, we’re in a shitload of trouble!” By halftime the offense had responded with two touchdowns of its own and the score was tied. Latter-day Cowboys no doubt had great respect for Staubach, but the feeling that the sixties Cowboys had for Dandy Don Meredith went way past respect. “We would have done anything for him,” Boeke told me. “Anything!” 

My Savage Beating

I was a greenhorn 26-year-old sportswriter in 1960 when both the Cowboys and the Dallas Texans of the AFL started up business. For the next seven years, I covered pro football, first as the beat man following the Texans for the Dallas Times Herald (1960–1962), then as the beat man following the Cowboys and a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. It was one hell of an education.

My influence on the Cowboys was minimal but not entirely nil. In 1964 I started writing about the Doomsday Defense—for no particular reason except it sounded sexier than flex defense—and the name caught on. My counterpart at the Times Herald, Steve Perkins, and I started a campaign to force Landry to move Mel Renfro from defensive back to offensive running back. Landry believed that Renfro’s slight build couldn’t take the pounding at running back, but our daily reports from training camp so fervently pleaded our cause—we called it MOO, short for “Mel on Offense”—that Landry finally relented. Unfortunately, in the season opener against the Giants, running back Renfro broke a bone in his foot. He subsequently returned to defense, where he made the NFL Hall of Fame, and Perkins and I found something else to write about. When I left Dallas in 1967, the Cowboys gave me a going-away party and a plaque, which is still on my bedroom wall. Mounted on the plaque is a kicking shoe and engraved beneath the shoe are the words “Just for Kicks,” celebrating the time that I kicked a universally despised radio reporter down a flight of stairs at the Cowboys’ headquarters on North Central Expressway.

Although I remain, however grudgingly, a Cowboys fan, my favorite memories of the team are still of those years—not just because I covered the team, but because I felt I was watching an absorbing sports drama. The Cowboys had great potential and great flaws, and you never knew which one was going to win out. When the Golenbock and Eisenberg books arrived, I read them avidly to see if their recollections of the early years matched mine.

Eisenberg’s book, Cotton Bowl Days, paints an accurate and often moving portrait of the team, reflecting both the researching skill of a veteran sportswriter (the author worked at the Times Herald before moving to the Baltimore Sun) and the memories of a boy who grew up believing in God, country, and the Dallas Cowboys. From 1960 until the present, Cowboys football was a family affair for the Eisenbergs. John’s grandfather Pop originally purchased ten season tickets in 1960 and “lorded over them with patriarchal sway.”

Golenbock’s Cowboys Have Always Been My Heroes is a different matter. Though the book is billed as “a definitive oral history” of the Cowboys, the author’s technique of running long, unchallenged quotes from former players, interspersed with just enough writer’s narrative to move the story along, is anything but definitive. The oral history depends on interviews with a relative handful of players. And a disproportionate amount of the quotes on the turbulent 1965 season come from two infamous malcontents, Pete Gent and Buddy Dial. I should know. According to Golenbock’s book, one of the main things they were malcontent about was me.

I remember the 1965 season all too well. It was a gut-wrenching roller coaster ride that carried the Cowboys to new lows and new highs. The team finished with a respectable 7–7 record—the first time in their six seasons that the Cowboys had not had a losing record—and earned a trip to a playoff game, but the ride was seldom pleasant. Landry benched Meredith unceremoniously during a losing streak and compounded his poor judgment by alternating two rookie quarterbacks, Craig Morton and Jerry Rhome. After a fifth straight defeat, in a hushed locker room in Pittsburgh, Landry broke into tears as he admitted to the team that perhaps the fault was his. Bob Lilly recalled the moment for me: “He just started to cry, and nobody knew what to do. But we saw the real man that day. He was crying because he felt he had let us down. We never forgot that moment. It was the turning point for the Dallas Cowboys.” A few days later, Landry pulled himself together and announced that Meredith would be his starter for the remainder of the season. But the team hadn’t yet bottomed out.

The Cowboys moment that will forever live in infamy arrived a couple of weeks later in the Cotton Bowl against the defending NFL champion Cleveland Browns, with the first sellout crowd in Cowboys history looking on. Though the Cowboys were overmatched, they outplayed the Browns most of the game. Trailing by a touchdown with 83 seconds remaining, Dallas owned the ball on the Cleveland one-yard line. Seventy-six thousand Cowboys fans were on their feet; after six seasons of frustration, their team was about to tie or beat the best team in the league.

On first down Meredith dropped back to pass, read the reactions of the defenders as Landry had taught him to do, and threw the ball—straight to the Browns’ middle linebacker. My game story in the Dallas Morning News the following day began with a takeoff on a famous passage written by Grantland Rice about the 1924 Army–Notre Dame game:

“Outlined against a grey November sky, the Four Horsemen rode again Sunday. You know them: Pestilence, death, famine and Meredith.”

Golenbock devotes four pages of his book to the reaction of four Cowboys receivers—Gent, Dial, Frank Clarke, and Pettis Norman—to my “Four Horsemen” story. All of them insist that the interception was Landry’s fault, not Meredith’s, and say that the players were so outraged by the story that in a team meeting they decided to give me a savage beating. Gent recalls, “We had a private team meeting without the coaches over Cartwright. They all wanted to kill him, and Meredith kept saying, ‘You can’t. It’s his job. He’s just doing his job like we’re doing ours.’” Norman says the story was typical of “the sour grape that really made the Gary Cartwright Era in Dallas.” Dial, the onetime Rice All-American, calls me “a wormy little old devil . . . [who] breathed an ill wind.”

There was no Gary Cartwright Era, just as there was no beating. To settle the question of my alleged thrashing and determine once and for all who called the fatal play that November day in 1965, I checked newspaper stories of the time and telephoned several players on the team, including Lilly, Reeves, and Bob Hayes, as well as Landry. None of the players I spoke with remembered a team meeting or talk of physical violence against me. “No, that never happened,” Lilly said. “Now, Landry would come into the locker room with newspaper articles sometimes and say, ‘Here’s a scathing article and it’s true, that’s where we are, right there!’” Reeves, who is now the dean of NFL coaches, remarked that Gent had often reworked facts to fit his own agenda and said of the controversial play: “Really and truly, that play wasn’t Meredith’s fault. He only had three plays to choose from in our goal-line offense, two passes and a wedge where he hands off to the fullback going low over the top.” In that case, I asked, shouldn’t Landry have defended Meredith to the media? Reeves, who still refers to Tom as “Coach Landry,” paused for a moment, then told me, “That’s one of the things a coach has to consider when the quarterback is choosing the play.”

Landry didn’t return my call. But in the dressing-room interview published in the Morning News the day following the game, Landry made it clear that the play was Meredith’s doing. Then he added, disingenuously, “I don’t second-guess my quarterback.” There was a phrase, also borrowed from Grantland Rice, that you used to hear around the Cowboys locker room after a losing game: “It’s not whether you win or lose, but who gets the blame.”

Many of the players quoted in Golenbock’s book (and Eisenberg’s) are critical of Landry, not necessarily for the way he handled Meredith but for the way he handled the entire team. “Even when we won, Tom Landry would go to the media, and you’d think we’d lost,” says Cornell Green. “Tom had trouble saying we played a good game. He had a problem with that.” Even Lee Roy Jordan comes down hard on Tom: “The players always had to take the blame for the losses. If Tom had a bad game plan or if he called a bad play, it was always the players’ fault.”

Looking back, I realize that I allowed myself to become emotionally involved with the Cowboys. My reaction to a game was not much different from that of an ordinary fan, except that I got to talk to the players and coaches before blowing off steam. At a downtown fan club luncheon a few days after the loss to the Browns, a hard-core fan asked Landry why the team allowed me to write such uncensored garbage. Landry replied, “You have to remember, when the game is over and we’re all feeling terrible about losing, Gary is the one with the typewriter.” I’ve always been grateful to Tom for understanding my role.

I don’t regret the Four Horsemen story, but I do regret writing in my column later that Meredith was a loser. I have committed a lot of stupid opinions to print, but none as stupid as that. Timothy McVeigh is a loser. Don Meredith was an extraordinarily gifted and complex man, at once whimsical and introspective, and no one ever worked harder or under more pain or pressure to prove himself as an athlete. Reading Golenbock’s book, I regretted all over again not getting straight my feelings for Meredith.

Several players described flying home from Washington the week after the Four Horsemen episode. Meredith’s daughter, Mary Donna, was sitting in his lap. Apparently overcome with a sense of failure, Don began crying and saying out loud, “I’m not a loser.” I had never heard that story before, and reading it nearly brought tears to my eyes.

After the 1965 season I spent several days talking with Meredith for what was later a cover story in Sport magazine. It was as complimentary as the Four Horsemen had been abrasive. Meredith predicted that the Cowboys would continue to improve until they won more consistently than any team in history. The reason, he said, was Tom Landry. “I’ve learned one thing: Tom is right,” he told me. “You get tired of a guy being so right so often, but that’s the way it is. The hardest thing to do with Tom’s system is believe it.”

After he retired, Meredith went on a binge of self-destruction, literally trying to kill himself. In Cowboys Have Always Been My Heroes, Gent tells Golenbock about a drugs-and-booze-besotted trip that he and Meredith took to Baja California in 1969 as guests of the Jantzen swimwear company. On the trip, Meredith insisted on swimming in shark-infested waters, challenged a cantinaful of bad Mexicans to a fight, and rode his motorbike into a ravine, dislocating his shoulder and fracturing an arm. In a local hospital, he almost died from an overdose of morphine. Until then, Gent says, Meredith and the Cowboys were talking about his coming back for the 1970 season. Instead, Meredith became one of the stars of ABC’s Monday Night Football and eventually made peace with his past.

Land of Cotton

John Eisenberg traces the decline of the Dallas Cowboys as a team worth loving not to the arrival of Jerry Jones or the departure of Jimmy Johnson or to any other recent event, but to the abandonment of the Cotton Bowl in 1971. There is wonderful nostalgia in his recollections of the ratty old Cotton Bowl, “a big concrete tureen, a Depression-era project incorporating none of the amenities that would become standard features.” The bathrooms were little more than outhouses, hot in the summer and cold in the winter, and the stadium’s general-admission seats were separated from the reserved seats by strands of chicken wire. It was a blue-collar stadium, where blue-collar fans watched a blue-collar team, which for five seasons lost many more games than it won.

The concept of pro football as a social event didn’t arrive in Dallas until 1971, Eisenberg reminds us, when Clint Murchison, Jr., defied the civic leaders of Dallas and built Texas Stadium in suburban Irving. “The Cowboys had always cultivated a mildly snobby character with their multiple-set offense, reliance on computers, and Landry’s unemotional approach,” he writes. “But moving to Texas Stadium pushed their elitist reputation to a new zenith.” In 1993, after Eisenberg’s grandfather died, his 74-year-old father somehow forgot to mail the renewal for the family’s season-ticket allotment, which by then had dwindled to a single pair. The old man telephoned the Cowboys’ office, certain that they would forgive the minor oversight from a family that had been ticket holders since 1960. A sharp-tongued assistant eventually renewed the seats but warned him that he was on “probation” and that if this ever happened again, his tickets would be forfeited. “[This] was emblematic of the attitude searing pro football’s soul,” Eisenberg says. “Teams no longer wanted fans: They wanted clients.”

It is impossible to compare the teams of my generation with the present Cowboys. Everything is different—the game, the expectations, the money, the fans, the owners, even the sportswriters. If some of the old-timers thought I was a tough critic, how would they deal with Randy Galloway or the acerbic current crop of Dallas–Fort Worth talk show hosts?

The self-commodification of pro football has bred an atmosphere of nihilism and greed in which players jump from team to team, teams jump from city to city, and fans pay through the nose and damn well like it. The old Cowboys had no agents, no business managers, no limousines waiting to take them to the practice field. After every game they signed autographs for hours—without charge, of course. People felt like they knew them personally, and in some cases they did. Most of the players had regular jobs in the off-season: Landry sold insurance, and Meredith worked for a stock broker. In 1958 the entire payroll of the twelve-team NFL was $3 million, about what Cowboys defensive tackle Leon Lett was making before his drug suspension. There was loyalty to team and teammates unknown today, a willingness to sacrifice, and a devotion to the game itself.

It’s ironic to remember that one of Landry’s last top draft picks was Michael Irvin. Someone at the reunion asked Landry if he could coach today’s game. “I probably could,” Tom said, “but I wouldn’t.” A lot of us know that feeling.

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