My first memory of football was after we moved from Phoenix to Dallas in 1969 and while the whole family was taken on tour of the city, I recall the certainty and denial when we were asked if we would ever become fans of the Dallas Cowboys. We said, “No, no way.” Being new to the city, we were stunned by the social importance put on the team. At that time the emerging Dallas Cowboys were led by quarterback Don Meredith, his favorite target “Bullet” Bob Hayes, and the original coach, Tom Landry. I knew very little about football at age nine. But I was as old as the team, which played its first season in 1960.
My second “first” memory of the game was watching a local news clip on television of Meredith being swung around in full circles by a defender who had fully grasped his face mask. From that point on, I became curious about the game, about how much fun it might be to tackle my brother that way, and from then on endeavored to become (being somewhat big and brutal for my age) the next Bob Lilly, the Cowboys’ Hall of Fame defensive tackle to be.
My mother, noting my newfound fascination for Dallas Cowboy stickers, freebie drinking glasses at the gas stations and throwing neighborhood children across the front lawn, Bob Lilly style, decided to start giving me teen-read books about football. I read every one. Perhaps my mother wanted to channel my industries toward something less threatening, because I was very good at picking kids up and throwing them across the lawn, but at any rate I was taught to read by the run-for-daylight firelight tales of Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packer dynasty, of Gale Sayers and why it was important to get all verklempt about football with his book, “I Am Third.”
By 1972 (at the age of 12), I was reading the books about the Cowboys being written by the sports columnists for the Dallas Times Herald and Dallas Morning News, left to puzzle out the adult fundamentals about why Cowboys’ running back Duane Thomas was “personna non grata” in terms of our dinner table discussions, despite his being a star, for refusing to speak to the press for an entire championship season, and why, exactly, receiver Lance Rentzel, my favorite player because he was married to Joey Heatherton, had exposed himself in public to a child at great scandal when he had such a pretty wife.
At any rate, perhaps pulling back from whatever other scary thing the world of the opposite sex had in store for me as a young teen, I decided to retreat instead to the safety of my bedroom, playing Sports Illustrated board games based on playing-card, play-calling tendencies interpretable by dice and colorful team charts. Then more football strategy games with whole playbooks of offenses and defenses, formations, deep routes, z-patterns, y-patterns, blitzes and zone schemes at my fingertips. With neighborhood friends by 1970 I was running entire proto-fantasy leagues on my own, keeping up to date stats and all, and maintaining newspaper, photo and cartoon clip file on the Cowboys by 1972.
I was well past those electric boards that simply shook plastic pieces around. I was obsessed, and, quite good at certain kinds of limited math. And strategy. Football was clearly like warfare, especially the Civil War, with its and facing fronts, and I loved military history. That, and, as I’d learned from my football books, how to look one way, move the hips the same, then shift fast to the other, running for daylight, leaving the neighborhood kids without socks, became my passion in life.
By the time I had graduated from high school in 1979 I was perhaps the last teen quarterback of my era to be able to call my own plays in the huddle, knowing fully well, as any team that tried to upset the Cowboys always did throughout the 1970s, to run to the weak side and baby, throw on first down. Short of that, run around like Roger Staubach. I was no longer larger than my peers. Getting tackled or touched on the field was inconvenient, if not downright terrifying.
The third great “first” memory of football was growing up in Dallas during the Age of Aquarius as Texas Stadium was appearing before our eyes. First as a frame, then as an unofficial state religious monolith missing its roof. By the time the 1971 season had come around for its unveiling, the Cowboys had lost a Super Bowl to the Baltimore Colts, the strangely forgotten “Blooper Bowl,” which ended 16-13. More importantly, the psychic catastrophe of that sudden loss with a field goal at the end crushed my 11-year-old dreams about the goodness of the world.
The loss to the Colts pushed me into an era of magical thinking, and, superstition, about being interrupted while any Cowboys’ game is on television. From then on, I was branded. That’s because my parents had left to go to a Super Bowl party at halftime, and the ‘Boys ended losing a lead to the Colts in the second half. I still haven’t forgiven them for breaking the family concentration on that bloody afternoon. In the years to come, they would say the reason they left the hole in Texas Stadium was because God could watch the team from above. They mad the new stadium the same way for the same peculiar reasons. Don’t believe otherwise. That God watches football from above is, of course, completely true. Although, in more recent years, it has become suspect for actually being God’s gauge for signs of the looming Apocalypse, there was certainly something magic about Texas Stadium (since torn down) for myself as a teen.
And the Cardinals? My earliest Cardinals’ memory was a Monday Night Football whipping of the Cowboys by a 38-0 score. This made the Cowboys 4-3 in 1971. Their chances of returning to the Super Bowl were slipping away. Then, Texas Stadium opened, and the team caught fire, finally winning their first Super Bowl, defeating the Miami Dolphins. But the Cardinals were never much good in the 1970s, not until the Don Coryell years, when there was always a very good chance that, unlikely as it might be, St. Louis would just ruin the magic during one of those strange Sundays when the the evil redbirds could figure out how to pull off an upset.
Then, we moved back to Phoenix in 1972. I was a world a way from the Cowboys, but not really. That’s because Phoenix, despite being closer to Los Angeles, was a key TV market for the Cowboys’ roping of the entire sports media market for the Southwest, including Mexico. Living in Phoenix, until those pesky Cardinals came to town, was even easier to become a full-time Cowboy fan capable of watching most of the regular season games, then to warm up the family table at the holidays at the talk of their chances in the playoffs.
Thanksgiving dinners were scheduled appropriately. My best men wore Dallas Cowboy silver at my wedding, shifted into position at the nod of the groom, their old quarterback and insane Cowboys’ fan, all scheduled on a day when my heroes were not playing, as we all went merrily along living within the safety net of fan psychosis and superstition about a team about as likely to fail us as a sunrise. We had a Dallas Cowboys’ shrine with autographs and photos of Roger Staubach. When necessary, I prayed to it. Came in handy for the “Hail Mary” pass to Drew Pearson to beat the Vikings, as well as Clint Longley’s miracle pass to Pearson, again, to keep us from getting sick at Thanksgiving … such as the case when Leon Lett … Leon Lett … No Leon! No Leon, No … (sorry, can’t go there right now) …
Clearly, the most powerful talisman I had acquired was a piece of the original Texas Stadium “astroturf,” which I rubbed furiously in key playoff moments against San Francisco. Yes, I had the Cowboy magic dialed in. Indeed, I personally conjured an entity from the sky to aid in an improbable Monday Night Football come-from-behind victory against the New Orleans Saints, in which the spirit entered the body of Randy White, who personally made it his mission for the rest of the game to go get the quarterback, take the football from him and score as often as time allowed.
If such prayers weren’t answered? Well, of course, we had to atone. Weren’t living right. Renewed our vows: did our daily best to be better Dallas Cowboy fans. And, just like those interplanetary worlds before Spock and Kirk arrive to reveal how everything is incredibly FUBAR, it all seemed to work out fine. For a couple of decades, almost, total bliss.
Because, for a long time, the idea of the Cowboys missing the playoffs was almost unthinkable.
This broadband of magic cast from Dallas was completely destroyed, though, when the Cardinals came to Phoenix. Not because they were a good team … to think they could be in a Super Bowl, of all things, ever, was just as unthinkable. But the Cowboys’ magic now had to contend with the question always brought in by the sudden appearance of a challenger to any belief system: Would we ever become Cardinals’ fans. Sure, by the time I was a newspaperman in Phoenix, I could stand on the sideline with a press pass a few feet from Ed “Too Tall” Jones. See Emmitt Smith disappear into the hole for the first time through my photo lens. But those early Dallas games against Phoenix, with the Cowboys’ empire under Landry crumbling and the Cardinals being a kind of joke that nonetheless gave the silver star.
These were games where half the people in at Sun Devil Stadium wore blue, the other half, red, for two decades consistently bringing that question, that split decision, to the forefront. But over the years the Cardinals could never create the magic, the sense of youth lost, or any kind of connection at all, by failing to produce any sign of anything you could actually believe in. Other than failure.
But then they lost a Super Bowl in the most spectacular way possible, and a tragic, self-imposed sense of history made me a fan of the Cardinals. By the end of the Cardinals’ first Super Bowl season many new Cardinals converts found themselves branded by these same sort of superstitions. The first you have it, then you don’t, bug. The essence of love and, religious experience, most likely. That dream of getting the one dream of happiness you deserve back. With the Cardinals appearing to win, only to lose, to wake us from that impossible dream, is suddenly converted into the faith, the hope, for new possibilities. Of such cracked madness, inspired by last-second jolts of NFL electricity, emotional converts are made.
Now I find myself once again hoping the Cards’ can replace that Cowboys’ riff that’s as old as I am. I’m not a politician. I can change my mind. Though there’s still a chance that God only gave the Cardinals the power to move, mechanically, 120 yards of turf from inside their new stadium merely in order to fry their field in the flames of hell, that hole in the roof that gave God such a good view of Texas Stadium is no longer for rent by the team of my youth. Time to leave that old temple, head off to the desert, and pray for the best, again. Heaven, please help me! At least these two teams don’t play each other during the regular season this year.
~ Douglas McDaniel is the author many books, but not one of them about football.