The author of “America’s Team: The Official History of the Dallas Cowboys,” Jeff also writes a new column each week in Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine and cohosts the “On Air with Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine” podcast. For subscription information, please click here.
This was different. Yes, it was still business, no way around that, but this was also personal.
DeMarcus Ware wasn't other people. He was a face-of-the-franchise guy, one who took that role quite seriously. He was the anti-diva, too, one who almost never declined a charity event or the signing of an autograph. The fans came first.
Ware, as much as any athlete I've covered, never forgot who he was. He was the kid no one wanted coming out of high school, the kid who used to clean out chicken coops. There was no diva in Ware. He just wanted a chance.
Amazingly, Ware was offered just a single football scholarship, that being from Troy. We're talking all divisions, junior colleges and everything in between. Just one school was interested. If not for some former high school teammates already playing there and convincing the Trojans’ coaching staff, who knows what would have become of Ware.
He arrived in the NFL with high expectations and a skeptical head coach in Bill Parcells. It's no secret that the Tuna preferred Marcus Spears or Shawne Merriman with the 11th overall pick of the 2005 draft in favor of Ware, and although the Cowboys were able to eventually land both Spears and Ware, Jerry Jones wasn't budging on that first selection. The pick would be Ware.
There were many times Jones allowed Parcells to talk him into draft picks, but this wasn't one of them. Jones and Parcells even made a little wager on how many sacks Ware would have his first five seasons. Jones won.
Parcells was tough on Ware, even more so than other rookies, which is truly saying something. Ware would bring his coach orange Gatorade during breaks in practice. Any other flavor wouldn't suffice. Parcells would tell him how great Lawrence Taylor was back in his days with the New York Giants and that Ware was no Taylor. Not even close. There were instances Parcells would chew him out, tell him what he did wrong and on the very next snap, Ware would do exactly as Parcells said. Instead of acknowledging the positive result, Parcells would just turn and walk away, a disgusted look on his face. Ware could do no right.
The media would ask a question about Ware, mention a sack in a preseason game or how quick the rookie looked coming off the ball. Parcells would stare as only he could before saying, "Let's not put him in Canton just yet, OK?"
Ware has told me that no one has ever treated him like Parcells did. He broke him down and built him back up and in the end, Ware gives the Hall of Fame coach a lot of credit for how his career turned out. It wasn't easy that first season, though. Lot of tough love.
Reminded of that rookie season at his own Canton induction in 2013, Parcells said, “With this media the way it is nowadays and the internet and the social media, we’re quick to anoint these guys. You know, that’s the last thing he needed to hear, in my opinion, at the time because he really didn’t know what the hell he was doing and that was the truth. But he found out and he continued to do it well. I’m proud of him, and he’s turned into quite a football player.”
The numbers would suggest that Ware will one day join Parcells in Canton. And his career isn't finished. So far, 117 sacks, 32 forced fumbles and nearly 450 tackles. Seven Pro Bowls, four First Team All-Pro nods and a Second Team All-Decade selection for the 2000s. Now, for the record, Ware isn't a lock at this point. Kevin Greene, for example, ranks third on the career sacks list and retired in 1999. He still isn't in. But after a few solid seasons in Denver, where it appears Ware is headed, and the body of work should be more than enough.
This has to rank at the top of the list for most difficult decisions Jones has had to make in his 25 years of ownership, right there with allowing Emmitt Smith to sign with Arizona. This was no doubt in the best interest of the franchise, few disagree with that, but still, it hurts.
Jones adores Ware and vice versa. And they both always hoped Ware would be one of those guys who played his entire career with the same franchise. That is the ultimate honor for any NFL player, to play their entire careers with one team. Ware wanted that, told me on multiple occasions how important that was to him. In a perfect world, one without a salary cap, that would have been the case, too. Jones would have had no problems signing a few checks these last few years when Ware may have been overpaid. Cost of doing business. The cap made that an impossibility, though.
Ware earned all of the $75 million or so he made with the Cowboys. That’s a lot of dough, of course, but he never missed a practice, was never late to a meeting and never big-timed anyone, teammate, reporter or coach. The man worked every day like a rookie trying to make the team, and nothing more can be asked of an athlete.
He played every snap the same way, and he played hurt. There are at least 10 occasions in the last five years when the overwhelming majority of players would have sat. Instead, Ware took the field, most famously against undefeated New Orleans six days after being carted off the field with a neck injury against San Diego during the 2009 season. He literally cried on the field thinking his career was over and he'd never be able to play with his kids.
Then there was the finale against the Redskins in 2012, a division title on the line. Ware could barely come out of his stance, never mind make a play. There he was on the field, though. Whether he should have been or not is a debate for another day. Ware played 34 snaps and while he wasn't credited with a tackle, he somehow, through sheer will, mustered a QB hit and hurry on Robert Griffin III.
Ware is one of those guys who will do anything for the team and on that day, in his mind, all he could do was take the field. Throughout his nine seasons in Dallas, he was always begging offensive coaches to let him take snaps at tight end, H-back, whatever. Let him block someone, throw him the ball, Ware just wanted to help. They never took him up on the offer, but he was willing. He was always willing for the team, for the fans, for the Dallas Cowboys. He was and is a class act.
The reaction Tuesday was rare in sports today. No one blamed Ware for leaving, and at the same time, the majority understood this was best for the Cowboys. Was just one of those situations in life. Not fair, not easy, it is what it is.
This was indeed different. DeMarcus Ware was and always will be a Dallas Cowboy, destined for the Ring of Honor a few years after he hangs them up. He's just going to play for someone else the next few years.
And that sucks. No other way to say it.
Follow Jeff Sullivan on Twitter, @SullyBaldHead, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.