MY CHILDHOOD FRIEND GREGG STEWARD, who is a copywriter at one of Dallas’ top advertising agencies, called me the moment he heard that Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was moving the team’s summer training camp to Wichita Falls. “The man is genuinely crazy,” Gregg said.
“Those players are going to revolt,” I replied.
“They’re going to come find Jerry Jones one afternoon, stomp on his cell phone, and then tear him from limb to limb,” Gregg said.
“They’ll hang pieces of his body from the goalposts,” I added.
Gregg and I grew up in Wichita Falls, the North Texas city of 103,000 that most people know as the place to stop for a restroom break when you are driving to or from Colorado on U.S. 287. Let me tell you right now: We love our hometown. It is one of the most wonderfully odd places in Texas, chock-full of eccentric oil millionaires who build mansions the size of Ramada Inns, grim Baptists who try to get books banned from the library, German military pilots who train at the city’s Air Force base, and redneck factory workers who hang out alongside lawyers at the Bar L, the downtown drive-in barbecue and beer joint that specializes in Red Draw (beer mixed with tomato juice). There are no “falls” in Wichita Falls except for a fake concrete waterfall next to a hotel. The local university is mysteriously named Midwestern State University. And hardly a year goes by without something completely bizarre happening up there. Most recently, a flock of emus, let loose by a disgruntled farmer who couldn’t sell them, went on a rampage through the east side of town, tying up traffic, chasing children, and confounding local animal-control officers, who finally got so frustrated that they pulled out .22 rifles and started shooting.
And now come the Cowboys, arriving at the very time of the year when Wichita Falls becomes one of the hottest places in the state, with temperatures soaring above 100 degrees. Wichita Falls is infamous for its freakish weather. A writer for the Dallas Morning News once described the city as “a poster child for meteorological misfortune.” Besides the suffocating summer heat, there are North Dakota—like winters and tornadoes in the spring. When the editors of Texas Monthly ran a story in 1978 on the worst jobs in Texas, they picked such occupations as rendering plant worker, munitions plant worker, blast furnace tender, and finally, full-time resident of Wichita Falls, the theory being that it is practically impossible to live happily somewhere with such miserable weather. To this day, that article makes my fellow Wichitans so angry that I have to remind them that (1) I was not working for the magazine in 1978, (2) we do not run corrections twenty years later, and (3) yes, almost all those rat-bastards who were working for us back then have retired.
Not that anybody in Wichita Falls pretends the summers are easy. When I was growing up, I was told the reason that there are two state mental hospitals there (one on the outskirts of the city and the other down the road in Vernon) was because so many people went crazy during the summer, when the heat is as heavy as wool. After sweating under the sun for an afternoon, you start smelling like roadkill. If you spend too much time outside, the temperature of your blood starts to rise, your vision blurs, and your legs start quivering like dying fish on hooks. And then you faint.
Incredibly, there are people in Wichita Falls who regard the sun as a challenge to be met head-on. In August the city hosts the one-hundred-mile Hotter ’N Hell Hundred bicycle race, which has become one of the more popular long-distance races in the country despite the fact that a couple of people have dropped dead. But, please, we’re talking about cyclists. Cyclists have always been strange: Just take a look at the genitalia-confining shorts they wear. By contrast, modern-day pro football players who make millions of dollars a year don’t quite buy the idea that inner peace can be achieved by working out amid the fires of hell.
When Jones made his announcement, he said he was impressed that officials of Midwestern State, where training camp will be held, had hired a plane to fly a banner over Texas Stadium on Thanksgiving Day reading “Hey, Jerry, Wichita Falls Wants Your Cowboys.” He said nothing about the heat, which probably means that he didn’t quite get around to telling his players what they’re in for. It’s bad enough that the Cowboys will have to spend a few weeks in a city where the dancers in the topless bars are heavier than they are. Wait until they start practicing twice a day in all that equipment. How long before nearly three-hundred-pound offensive lineman Nate Newton collapses from heat exhaustion and is hauled away in an ambulance? How long before his teammates are given emergency saline solutions? By the second day Jones will probably have to hire nurses and doctors to line the practice fields in case any of his players begin to stroke out.
There are varying schools of thought about what Wichita Falls will do for the now mediocre Cowboys, who last year suffered through a 6-10 season. I’m convinced the team will be brain-dead after summer camp. As I write this, it’s only the first week of June, and the temperature in Wichita Falls has hit 111 degrees. I’m sure the state hospitals are getting full. But some deep thinkers, my friend Gregg among them, believe the heat will get the players in shape and toughen them up—maybe even turn them into mean sons of bitches. “They’re going to be so mad about what has been done to them that they’ll rip apart their opponents as soon as they finish ripping apart Jerry,” Gregg said. “Heck, as long as they stay a little rabid from the heat, I think they’ll go all the way to the Super Bowl.”
I hope he’s right. Otherwise, Wichita Falls might have only a single season to celebrate itself as the second home to America’s Team. A rumor has already spread through town that El Paso is refurbishing its stadium and preparing new practice fields to lure away the Cowboys in 1999. “My mother and some of her friends are praying for cooler breezes,” Gregg said. “Of course, the only time it ever cools off in the summer in Wichita Falls is during a tornado.”