It’s a gorgeous day in Waxahachie, and Dale Hansen is doing his best to imagine life without the nightly adrenaline rush of live television. He thinks fifty years is enough, but when a man has loved his work as much as Hansen has loved his, change can be unsettling.
“That’s the question,” he said. “I’m hoping quite honestly that I’ve had that rush for so long, it’s probably time to wean myself off. I want to do this before I have to drag my oxygen tank along or be pushed in a chair.” He says this without much conviction, which is stunning for someone who has never lacked confidence. That said, at 73, he swears he’s committed to giving retirement a try.
After 38 years at WFAA-TV in Dallas, where he became an essential and fearless voice on topics few other sportscasters would dare touch, Hansen will deliver what he calls a farewell address on tonight’s ten o’clock broadcast. “I think for my own benefit I have to just step away—for the time being,” he said. “To see what that feels like. I mean, I’ve seriously been thinking and planning for this day for about five or six years.”
He and wife Chris have carved out a nice life for themselves on forty acres of Ellis County that includes a meticulously renovated ranch house, three Longhorn steers, an assortment of rescue pets, and a miniature donkey named Edward R. Burro.
He welcomes me into his home with the booming voice and wiseass persona that has alternately infuriated and charmed viewers. Know this: Hansen off camera is pretty much the same Hansen you see on camera. Perhaps that’s part of his success. He’s one of those gifted broadcasters who is completely comfortable in front of a television camera, who through the years delivered hijinks (Tom Landry is Superman) and ripsnorting opinions (Jerry Jones runs a Mickey Mouse operation).
These days, with the speed and scale of digital media making all news feel national, local TV news has never seemed less relevant, but Hansen has been must-see television in Dallas–Fort Worth up until his final sign-off. When I visited him this summer, he greeted me while wearing one of his trademark Tommy Bahama shirts with a pair of shorts and running shoes. He’s a large, open book of a man—six foot four, a self-described “bald, fat white guy”—and this will not be an interview in the way we think of interviews. Instead, I tossed out topics, and Hansen took them and ran, veering here and there, and quoting himself, local television critics, coworkers, guys in his card games, and anyone else he may have come across over the years.
Dale Hansen pretty much owns whatever room he’s in, be it a Dallas cigar bar between sportscasts—yeah, he lost track of the time once or twice—or chatting up strangers on the street or his buddies on poker night. He’s lost a few of those pals over the years because his commentaries—Dale Hansen Unplugged—on issues including racism, social injustice, gay rights, sexual assault, and the death of his boyhood best friend in Vietnam have rubbed some the wrong way. He’s hoping that in retirement he can repair some of those relationships.
Anyway, the thing everyone wonders is how someone so good on television and someone with so many opinions and a national following (“I’ve learned what `going viral’ means,” he said) can just walk away. CNN has approached him with the idea of doing some commentary work, and a podcast interests him. For now, though, his plans are to retire. “If I wanted a platform, I had a pretty good platform,” he said. “Why trade it in for another platform? And oh, by the way, that other platform probably won’t pay me what that platform paid me. I’ve worked for fifty years, and I’m just ready to get up in the morning and …”
“Chris worries I’m going to sit in that chair and end up weighing five hundred pounds with a ponytail.”
“I’ve always thought a ponytail with a big bald spot looks really good,” he said.
He seriously does have things he’d like to do. “I’m kind of looking forward to a big-ass Thanksgiving dinner,” he said. “Because I’ve never done that. Not in Dallas.” That’s because the Cowboys play on Thanksgiving, and throughout his career Hansen has either done radio commentary on the games or covered them for WFAA. Having been fired from about eight of his ten television gigs, he’s proud to say the Cowboys didn’t fire him from their radio team. He even got Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to admit as much during his final visit to training camp in July. Jones heard that Hansen was going to quit and attempted to beat him to the punch by firing him. Having jousted with each other so many times through the years, Hansen and Jones now laugh that one off.
Most of Hansen’s most searing commentaries—the ones that went viral—have been woven into the fabric of a sportscast. But not all of them. To understand his influence, consider the morning five years ago after a gunman murdered five Dallas police officers on a street a couple of blocks from WFAA. Mike Devlin, the station’s general manager at the time, telephoned to say Hansen’s voice was needed. Hansen resisted, arguing he pegged all his commentaries to sports. And then he began thinking and typing, quickly and angrily. He needed about twenty minutes to finish. His words dripped with anger and sarcasm as he captured the context of one of Dallas’s worst days.
“The Rangers lost to Minnesota last night,” he began, “and I’m almost embarrassed to tell you I know that.” What followed was a scalding three-minute commentary on gun violence in America and how mass shootings have become so commonplace that as all hell broke loose in downtown Dallas, as the studio lights were turned off to keep the station from being a target, Hansen kept watching baseball.
“This is what I have become,” he said. “This is what too many of us have been for a long time now.” He spoke admiringly of the courage of police officers but criticized those who blindly defend them. And then:
“We fail to realize we can’t defend them all, and we shouldn’t defend them all. A white man in America doesn’t die for selling cigarettes on the street corner. He gets a ticket. A white man in America doesn’t die for driving with a broken taillight. He gets a ticket, too. And the officers who abused the badge and the power they have should be punished. And too many times they’re not. But what possible purpose does opening fire on the streets of Dallas do to right the wrongs too many people deal with every day?
“America’s problem has come to Dallas now. And our lieutenant governor blames the peaceful protesters because our lieutenant governor is a fool. It was not just an attack on the Dallas police. It was an attack on our basic humanity and the common decency we used to cherish in America. But that’s all gone now. We lost that a long time ago. The Rangers lost last night 10-1, and I’m almost embarrassed to tell you I know that.”
Hansen created this platform for himself with a 2014 commentary delivered after then–NFL draft prospect Michael Sam came out as gay. Hansen had initially resisted a producer’s suggestion that he respond to the story, which was the biggest sports news of the day. That night, though, as he drove home to Waxahachie, listening to the vitriol directed at Sam on talk radio, he got madder and madder, and began turning over lines in his head.
“You beat a woman and drag her down a flight of stairs, pulling her hair out by the roots? You’re the fourth guy taken in the draft. Caught with drugs? Kill someone driving drunk? Rape a woman? People are okay. You love another man? Well, now you’ve gone too far!”
His favorite line was this one: “I’m not always comfortable when a man tells me he’s gay because I’m not. I don’t understand his world. But I understand he’s part of mine.” Of the thousands of words Hansen has spoken on television, those might be his favorite. “I love that line,” he said. “I’ve had so many people say, ‘Thank you. That’s all we want. We don’t expect you to understand.’ I sweated over that line only because I thought it might be misinterpreted or taken poorly.”
That he would become one of the nation’s most compelling voices defending a young, gay, Black man made the whole affair even more compelling. As the video made its way around the world, he was profiled by the New York Times and the Washington Post and did a hit on Ellen DeGeneres’s television show. He stopped counting the emails he received over that monologue at four thousand, but he answered them all over the next four and a half months.
He didn’t start out with the idea of being a city’s conscience. But after breaking one of the stories that got the SMU football program hit with the NCAA “death penalty” in 1987, he began to see his world from a different lens. “People forget this, but I was a cheerleader when I came here,” he said. “That SMU story changed me, and I have never looked at sports the same way since. But I do think it made me better.”
As brilliant and angry and concise as his Michael Sam commentary was, his tearful tribute to his beloved basset hound, Miss Hailey, was captivating in a completely different way. “I am having one of those horrible days.” Thus began a two-minute, twenty-second commentary that was raw, brutal, and beautiful.
“Now I know there’s probably not a sportscaster in America who would spend any time talking about his dog, but that I’ve never thought I do a typical sportscast.
“I don’t think you know the true meaning of the word love until you’ve been owned by a dog. And Miss Haley owned me for more than ten years.”
Three years later, Hansen wipes away tears as he discusses Miss Hailey. “If you parse that commentary, there’s a message in there for everybody about loving life and the reality that when you choose to love, it’s going to end poorly,” he said. “It just is. But I choose the pain. No relationship is going to end with, ‘Wow! That was fantastic.’ Once you make that commitment to love, you have automatically signed up for the grief that’s going to follow.
“Miss Hailey gave me that opportunity to write that,” he went on. “Most people seem to be stuck on the fact that it was just a story about my dog, which it was without question. But she taught me so much about love.” This answer is delivered off the cuff and seems ready for television. This voice, this booming voice, is why it’s almost incomprehensible that he’s really going away.
Not to mention, who else in television would absolutely destroy the Cowboys for the signing of players charged with domestic abuse, most notably pass-rusher Greg Hardy in 2015? “How do you explain that to your daughter?” he asked viewers. “When you stand up and cheer Greg Hardy … and all the rest of these guys, how do you explain that to your daughter?”
Now, about Hansen owning whatever room he’s in. Former Cowboys coach Barry Switzer found out about that when he announced during a news conference, “You’re either for me or against me.” From the back of the room, Hansen asked the former Oklahoma coach: “Where the hell do you think you are—Norman?” (Jones attempted to patch things up by taking the two of them out for a drink the next night. “It was like two icebergs,” Hansen said.)
Hansen had been the go-to first interview for a string of Cowboys head coaches, but not Bill Parcells. “I never met the man,” Hansen said. “I was told he didn’t do local television.” That didn’t keep Hansen from needling Parcells during a news conference in which the coach said he didn’t allow the filming of practices and mentioned a certain play the Buffalo Bills ran in their Super Bowl XXV loss to Parcell’s New York Giants. The Giants had seen Buffalo practicing the play on the news.
Cue Hansen the following day. “Bill, the Bills ran that play seven times, and Thurman Thomas gained 190 yards and scored once,” Hansen said. “How bad would it have been if you weren’t prepared?”
Another time, with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones standing just off the set, Hansen opened his segment wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt. “I’m wearing this shirt in tribute to a Mickey Mouse organization,” he began. Jones didn’t seem bothered. After the segment, he approached and said, “We’re headed over to BJ’s if you want to get a beer.”
Jones was less amused when he joined Hansen in studio for a segment and got this first question: “Jerry, is there any organization in professional sports that would hire you as general manager—without your checkbook?” After the interview, when Hansen stuck out his hand and thanked the owner for coming into the studio, Jones slapped it away.
Yet hard feelings don’t last for Jerry Jones or Dale Hansen, and when Hansen showed up for his final Cowboys training camp last month, Jones was there for an opening-day live shot. “The last time the Cowboys won a Super Bowl, quarterback Dak Prescott was in diapers,” Hansen said in his closing bit. “If they don’t hurry up and win another, Jerry and I are going to be in diapers.”
Jones had been scheduled for one segment at the beginning of camp, but as befits two men who love to gab, it stretched into two. At the end, Jones thanked Hansen for his charity work and said he’d learned the true measure of a good-hearted man. Hansen knows that relationships like that are rare, as teams more and more keep reporters at arm’s length. Troy Aikman and Hansen became close friends, but Hansen had no relationship with Tony Romo.
He’ll be forever grateful to WFAA management for giving him the forum and freedom to speak his mind on sports, social issues, and whatever was on his mind. But the relationship between station management and their star anchor were strained at the end—perhaps to no one’s surprise, given their partnership’s duration. “I want to be very careful, quite honestly, with how I say this,” Hansen told me. “There were no problems that I couldn’t have fixed if I wanted to fix them. But there have been problems. And I just don’t want to fix them anymore. And that’s about the best way I can explain it.”
He won’t go into details except to say that a commentary on voting rights did not air. “Which had never happened before,” he said. “How do you deal with that? And as I said to all my friends, ‘Well, if I had any doubts about retiring, that’s done.’”
Still, he simply doesn’t know how he’ll deal without the deadlines, highlights, and scripts that have defined his life. “I don’t really enjoy much of what leads up to being on the air,” he said. “Writing a typical sportscast kind of frustrates me and bores me. Then the red light comes on.” That he loves.
He and Chris have discussed a long car trip. He has never seen the Grand Canyon. “Or Big Bend,” he added. He has a friend in Finland he intends to visit. Apart from that, he’s looking forward to simple pleasures.
Like the Cowboys. He’d like to watch one of their games without fretting over interviews and how to put it all in context. “I might even cheer,” he said. “I’ve seen very few Cowboys games start to finish. I usually watch the first quarter or two, then glance at the screen here and there and watch the highlights while we put the show together.
“I’ve worked every Christmas Eve for forty years. I’ve worked every Christmas Day for forty years,” he added. “Because I’ve always felt it was more important for my guys who had younger kids to have that day.”
Hansen made a name for himself in Dallas as the sports anchor at crosstown KRLD. There, competing against WFAA icon Verne Lundquist, Hansen mixed some slapstick into the scores and highlights. When KRLD fired him, he was out of work about 48 hours before he joined WFAA. He toned down his hijinks after joining the gold standard of Texas television news operations. But he still managed to have some fun. Like the time he did a piece he titled “Is Tom Landry Superman?”
In preparing that one, he asked Landry if he could film him walking down a hallway and dashing into a storage room. “What’s this about?” Landry asked.
“You don’t want to know,” Hansen said.
After the segment aired, he received a thank-you note from Landry’s wife, Alicia, that included: “Tommy loved the piece, and Tommy is my superman.”
Another time, Hansen and a cameraman rushed to Landry’s home on a Sunday evening to get the coach’s reaction to a news story. “We didn’t have toll money,” Hansen said, “so we ran through the tollbooth on the way to his house. We thought that might not be a good idea going back.” After the interview, he asked Landry if he could borrow a quarter.
“I swear to you, he turns, goes into his bedroom, and comes out with a quarter,” Hansen said. “As he puts it in my hand, he says, ‘So they’re paying you pretty good down there.’”
Hansen lets loose with another big laugh. Around that time, Chris enters the house followed by a string of pets, including a basset hound named Otis that runs to Hansen. And he’s out of his chair to greet them all, one by one, with a word for each. In this moment, his new life couldn’t look much sweeter.