If e-mail or even Twitter had been around 50 years ago, Dave Manders may never have played for the Dallas Cowboys.
“At Michigan State in 1961, the only way pro teams had a way of contacting you was through the mail. The phone was expensive and we didn’t have all the electronic devices, so you’d get a questionnaire,” said Manders.
“The year before, we were playing at Ohio State and Herb Adderly (a teammate) was a senior, and somebody said, ‘Herb, you could have made that catch.’ And he said, ‘Man, I’m saving myself for the pros.’ Well, that got back to (head coach) Duffy Daugherty and Duffy held back everybody’s mail in ’61. There were 22 seniors on the team and as a result, none of the pro teams thought anybody from Michigan State was interested in playing pro ball.
“Two people were drafted in the low rounds, but a lot of us signed as free agents. I think out of that group there were about 17 that ended up playing pro ball. The teams just didn’t think we were interested and they weren’t going to waste a draft choice on us.”
Dallas saved a draft choice and signed Manders, who was indeed interested as a rookie free agent in 1962. However, after a brief stay in training camp he decided to return to Michigan State to obtain an engineering degree. But after working two years as an engineer for General Mills, Manders thought about taking another shot at a career in football.
“I called Gil Brandt and he asked me if I still had my speed and if I could snap the ball? And he said, ‘I’ll send you some shoes and a ticket and a football to get in shape.’”
It worked. Making the team in 1964 as Mike Connelly’s backup at center, Manders stepped into the starting role the following season. In 1966, he was selected to play in the Pro Bowl after helping the Cowboys to their first winning season and a berth in the NFL Championship Game, where they lost to the Green Bay Packers.
And then the next year…
“In the second exhibition game, I think it was the fourth play, the knee, it was a total blowout,” Manders said. “That was on a Saturday and I was operated on the following Monday. And the next day, the doctor came in and said, ‘Dave, you’re going to walk with a limp for the rest of your life. Your playing days are over.’
“I didn’t even hear that at the time. I just went and kept working out. I had quickness, but I didn’t have my speed and I didn’t really have the strength to blow people off. But I made my way back in and Tom [Landry] made me the starting center in 1970. He also named me as one of the captains. And that was the first year we got to the Super Bowl [V] against Baltimore.”
While the Colts won that championship title, the Cowboys bounced back the next year and won Super Bowl VI over Miami, 24-3.
“That was just a culmination of so many years of frustration, coming so close, winning the majority of your games, but never closing in on the big one,” said Manders. “I think that was just a big relief as well as a feeling of accomplishment.”
The two seasons Dallas finished in the Super Bowl was also when a rivalry developed between quarterbacks Craig Morton and Roger Staubach. Landry began to alternate them as starters in 1971, and because of the position Manders played, there was literally no one closer to that situation on the field than he was.
“There was a very intense rivalry, but Tom kept it under control. Whatever he said went,” Manders said. “I roomed with Craig for seven years and Roger was a neighbor of mine and I never took sides. But it wasn’t a matter of taking sides.
“When you were a Dallas Cowboy playing for Landry, even Bob Lilly didn’t know if he was going to be a starter every year. Tom never assumed that anybody would be a starter. He evaluated everybody fresh every season. Back then, we just went with whatever Tom said and tried your darndest.”
Manders tried his darndest for a decade of seasons as a Cowboy. He enjoyed the opportunity and took nothing for granted.
“I have no regrets,” said Manders. “I’m just thrilled to death to play, thrilled to death to have the opportunity, and thrilled to be able to play for the people I played for and with. The people like Tom Landry and Clint Murchison and Tex Schramm. You don’t find those kinds of people around anymore.”
Now making his home in McKinney, Texas with his wife, Carole, Manders, who retired from the Cowboys in 1975, went from being a blue-collar player to a blue-collar businessman.
He has owned Dave Manders Inc., a commercial landscaping company, for the past 36 years.
“I do consulting work around the Dallas area. I do some design work, landscaping, irrigation, drainage. I really enjoy that field and I work with a lot of developers.”