To Dallas Cowboys fans of a certain age, Dan Reeves will forever be remembered for a handful of moments of absolute magic he delivered during his years as an NFL running back (and long before his distinguished career as a head coach in the league). If you’re looking for the time and place when the mystique began to grow around this franchise, when the ups and downs of the Cowboys became a way of life for millions of Texans, Reeves’s era was one of the building blocks.

Daniel Edward Reeves, who died at 77 last week, wasn’t viewed as anything special when he joined the Cowboys in 1965 as an undrafted rookie free agent out of the University of South Carolina. Coincidentally, the team wasn’t anything special at that point, either—it had never even had a winning season. College football was king in those days.

His best chance of making the team that first year would be to show the Dallas coaches that he was willing to bust his hump on special teams and possibly find a role as a backup defensive back. His break came when injuries prompted Cowboys head coach Tom Landry to move Reeves to running back. Because Reeves had played quarterback at South Carolina, Landry saw possibilities.

Landry had also been impressed that Reeves picked up the coach’s complex offense so quickly and was willing to accept any role that would earn him a roster spot. “He got the Landry system,” former Cowboy Cliff Harris told the Dallas Morning News, “and Coach Landry knew he got the system.’’

So Landry the master tactician would occasionally have Reeves line up in the backfield, and when the quarterback—often Don Meredith in those days—handed him the ball, he’d head toward the sideline looking for the right moment to turn upfield.

This is a bread-and-butter running play every football fan on the planet has seen hundreds of times. Only Landry sometimes added a twist. Rather than turn upfield, Reeves would simply stop behind the line of scrimmage and gaze downfield. In that instant, the Cotton Bowl—then the Cowboys’ half-filled home stadium—would go silent for the briefest of moments. This split second of anticipation was followed by an explosion of cheers Reeves never forgot.

The ex-quarterback would heave the ball downfield toward a wide-open Lance Rentzel in the kind of play that lingers in the hearts and minds of fans. When the Cowboys began a remarkable streak of 20 consecutive winning seasons in 1966, the allure wasn’t just in winning, but in winning a certain way and with a certain kind of character. They scored points in bunches with Dandy Don, the Mount Vernon kid who’d starred at SMU, tossing long, majestic touchdown passes to The World’s Fastest Human (Olympic 100-meter gold medalist-turned-NFL wide receiver “Bullet” Bob Hayes).

Reeves was crucial to those teams’ appeal. Halfback passes were not unique to the NFL in the sixties and seventies, but Landry wove them into the fabric of the Cowboys’ offensive game plans. Plenty of fans of Dallas at that time are probably surprised to learn that Reeves threw just two touchdown passes over the one hundred regular-season games in which he appeared.

Those plays were so exciting that in memory they seem more frequent than they actually were. Never mind that he completed just fourteen such passes in his career—that moment when he’d stop behind the line of scrimmage and cock his throwing arm was electric. Both of his regular-season touchdown passes came in 1967, one a 74-yarder to Rentzel against the Cardinals and another a 45-yarder versus the Eagles.

He threw another in a 1969 exhibition game, and one more in arguably the most famous playoff game in NFL history—the Ice Bowl at Lambeau Field on New Year’s Eve 1967. Reeves’s fifty-yard strike to Rentzel gave the Cowboys a lead over the Green Bay Packers early in the fourth quarter. With temperatures hovering around zero, the field frozen rock solid and footing nonexistent, neither team managed even two hundred yards of offense. But with the Cowboys trailing 14–10, Landry dialed up the Reeves-to-Rentzel magic. Had Packers quarterback Bart Starr not plunged across the goal line in the closing seconds to win the game for Green Bay, Reeves might have been responsible for the single most famous moment in Cowboys history.

That play endures because of the arctic circumstances under which it was executed and the impact it had beyond that specific game. Reeves helped make the Cowboys interesting before they were good, and marketing has always been one of the things that this franchise did better than almost anyone.

Amid the flood of warm tributes to Reeves upon his death, his playing career—and those halfback passes—have been barely a footnote. Appropriately, he has been saluted for his integrity, decency, and creativity during an NFL career that spanned four decades: 8 seasons as a player, all with the Cowboys; 11 as an assistant coach in Dallas, including 3 as a player/coach after suffering a severe knee injury in 1968; and 23 as a head coach for the Denver Broncos, New York Giants, and Atlanta Falcons.

“He was just a good man,” Hall of Fame defensive tackle Bob Lilly, a teammate of Reeves’s on the Cowboys, told the Dallas Morning News

Reeves’s transition to coaching began after the knee injury, and at some point, he was widely seen as Landry’s successor in Dallas. Only Landry, who coached the Cowboys for 29 seasons, including 20 straight winning years, never retired. By the time Jerry Jones bought the Cowboys and fired Landry in the spring of 1989, Reeves had been the Broncos’ head coach for eight seasons and led them to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances in 1986 and 1987.

Reeves’s 190 regular-season victories spread out over 23 years with the Broncos, Giants, and Falcons are the tenth-most in NFL coaching history. He took Denver to the Super Bowl three times and led Atlanta there once. He was 0–4 as a Super Bowl head coach, but only Bill Belichick, Don Shula, and Landry made it to more Super Bowls as a head coach.

As a player and coach, Reeves appeared in nine Super Bowls. Only Belichick, the New England Patriots head coach with twelve appearances, and Belichick’s former star quarterback, Tom Brady (ten appearances), have been in the big game more.

Upon learning of his death, Reeves’s former teammates were effusive in their praise of his competitive will and his commitment to being a good teammate and friend. “He was an honorable, straightforward, no-nonsense guy who spoke the truth,’’ former Cowboy Charlie Waters told the Morning News. “He was very bright, smart and clever. His game plans were fascinating, and he would make sure you really did flourish.’’

Reeves was fired by the Broncos in 1992 after clashing with quarterback John Elway. Those wounds had long healed, and last week Elway responded to Reeves’s death with heartfelt praise. “Dan was a winner; I owe a lot to him,” Elway said. “The football world lost a heckuva coach and a man.”

Denver Post columnist Mark Kiszla wrote of his own occasional battles with Reeves and how the coach with the deep Georgia drawl struggled to pronounce his name even as he critiqued his writing. But that wasn’t what stuck with Kiszla. “What I remember most about Reeves was a letter published in the Denver Post not long after he was dismissed from the Broncos,” Kiszla recalled. “A woman wrote of being stranded on the highway with a flat tire. Car after car passed her until a stranger stopped, changed the tire, and followed her car to make certain she got home safely. The good Samaritan was Reeves, the gruff coach with a heart of gold.”

Kiszla also wrote of the day his daughter was baptized in the early nineties. As the family left the church, they were surprised to see Dan Reeves waiting at the back.

“Well,” he said, “maybe you know more than I give you credit for because you certainly have a beautiful family, Mark.”