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Spagnola: Looking Way, Way Back 25 Years

Posted Feb 28, 2014


IRVING, Texas – Man, 25 wild and crazy years, zigging and zagging, laughing and crying, running and running faster, trying to keep up with the Joneses.

         Never, ever – ever – a dull moment, from the one win of 1989 that kept the Cowboys from an unprecedentedly poor 16-game NFL season to the eight wins – again – of 2013, one short of acceptable for the third straight year.

         Who knew 25 years ago this past Tuesday, Feb. 25, 1989, sitting in the Dallas Cowboys team meeting room out here at what we then were referring to as Cowboys Ranch late that Saturday night, that so many lives would irrevocably change when the then-Arkansas stranger Jerral Wayne Jones was being introduced as just the third owner of the world-renowned Dallas Cowboys.

          His life, along with those of his wife Gene’s and their three kids: Stephen, Charlotte and Jerry Jr.

         The lives of so many who had worked for the Cowboys – made the Dallas Cowboys – from Day One or for the majority of those first 29 years of the NFL’s first expansion franchise’s existence.

         The lives of those who would follow the Joneses to Dallas.

         And our lives, too, those of us in the media crammed into a room big enough to house a team of football players but bursting at the seams with nearly everyone already on deadline when the long-awaited announcement began sometime after 8 p.m.

         Mine especially.

         Me, I have mental snapshots of that evening, seeing on one hand the pure joy and excitement laced with some anxiety of the Jones Family and all of Jerry’s partners when he was introduced as the next owner of the Dallas Cowboys. But on the other hand, there was basically the team’s godfather, Tex Schramm, standing off to the side, with the glum look of a man attending his own funeral, realizing then the fact he no longer had a seat on center stage was symbolic of what was to come.

         Hey, if Tom Landry was no longer needed, and he wasn’t since Jimmy Johnson was coming along with Jones in a package deal and had already been told by Jones what previous owner Bum Bright should have since he more or less resented Landry, surely the appropriately named Tex was not long for his world of 29 years either.

         There was Jones, with almost preacher-like enthusiasm, rapidly talking of immediately winning with the 3-13 team he was inheriting, emphasizing his positivity with a fist pounding the air.

         There were the arched eyebrows of the skeptical media, wondering what in the world … realizing the 29 years of Cowboys stability was being rattled as if the ground beneath an Apollo capsule launching into space.

         A new day was dawning at dusk.

         The last snapshot: After the final 30 was put on however many stories we could pound out by midnight, several writers gathered in Tex’s office, soon to be Jerry’s and still is. Sitting-on-the-floor room only. Again, a day of celebration on one hand, and rightfully so when you pledge $140 million you didn’t really have for an NFL franchise and accompanying stadium that were losing money hand over fist, and on this other hand a somber gathering, reminiscing about the good old days that were mostly great but now suddenly just good and old, growing more feint by the minute in the rearview mirror.

         It was as if with these stories Tex was giving away his final possessions over drinks – stiff ones I might add – with the very people he had heartily laughed with yet angrily sparred with oh the many years.

         “This is a very sad night for me,” Tex said needlessly.

         And I distinctly remember this too: My Dallas Times Herald teammate, Frank Luksa, who had covered the Cowboys and Tom and Tex from nearly their 1960 inception, a man who thought he had seen it all, sitting on the floor next to me. He began to rise, held up his near-empty drink in a toast, saying unbeknownst to the rest of us, “Well, time to go home to celebrate what remains of my birthday.”

         Will never forget his birthdate, singed into my mind.

         And this, too, I’ll never forget, ever. A few days later, March 1, my life, as I perceived at the time, was turned upside down. A guy who was the sports department’s general assignment writer, handling an assortment of jobs, from helping out on the Cowboys to the Rangers to the Mavericks, college football, basketball and baseball, writing lengthy features and having just come off the previous year of covering the Olympics in Calgary and then Seoul, was told the Dallas Cowboys and Jerry Jones were your beat, buddy.

         You have been chosen to inherit the tradition set by such esteemed writers as Sherrod, Perkins, Luksa and Dent. No way, I said, not me. I’m not cut out for this. They told me I was perfectly fit, having helped out since the middle of the 1984 season and having covered nearly every game over what turned out to be the final four and a half seasons of Landry’s coaching career.

         So there I went kicking and screaming, into what seemingly was a daily towering inferno. Every day – every day – there was something, starting with Johnson’s introductory press conference on Monday, the Port Arthur native apologizing with hat in hand if he somehow had danced on Landry’s coaching grave, saying to those who had perceived so, “I’m sorry,” and me finishing my story that night with one line:

         And so the Cowboys new era begins apologetically.

         Then there came all the coaching changes. Jimmy’s new assistants being hired. Tom’s old assistants being fired.

         Then there was Jerry, armed with the first pick in the NFL Draft saying, “Troy Aikman should play for half the price” just to get to be a part of the Dallas Cowboys organization. Oh my.

         Next day having to do a long profile on Jimmy.

         Next day Cowboys lower ticket prices for end-zone seats.

         Then the start of Plan B free agency.

         Then the owners meetings, along with the start of implementing instant replay and the league’s initial crackdown on steroids.

         Then there was no vote on approving the Cowboys sale to Jones, leaving the deal hanging.

Then 29-year NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle’s retirement, he having just compared Landry’s dismissal with “the death of Lombardi.”

Then Jimmy’s first minicamp, along with the real possibility of Randy White and Danny White not being back with the team, which eventually came to fruition a few months later. Then the contract struggle with quarterback Steve Pelluer.

Let’s see, then Too Tall staying, Doug Cosbie leaving, Jimmy playing coy on Aikman being their No. 1 pick, Mike Sherrard leaving, Nate showing up at 358 pounds for offseason workouts, Barry Sanders challenging the NFL’s draft rules, petitioning as an unheard of underclassman for the draft. Landry throwing out the first pitch at a Rangers game. A Landry parade downtown Dallas. The schedule released, at New Orleans becoming the new era’s opener.

Tex Schramm resigning to head up the NFL’s Worldwide American Football League. Cowboys vice president Joe Bailey resigning to join him. Then eventually business manager Billy Hicks, too, to head across the pond. Then the NFL at a meeting in New York finally approving the sale to Jones. Then negotiations began with Aikman’s agent Leigh Steinberg. Then Aikman signing a six-year, $11 million deal, the richest contract for an NFL rookie to date as the Cowboys No. 1 pick. Then the draft.

Oh, we’re just getting started, and these moves were expected, Jerry wanting to get his own people in place, people he could trust not relying solely on those with allegiances to Tex and Tom. Sort of like if you’ve ever been to an Italian wedding or seen an old-day Italian restaurant run. Only the immediate family handles the money, you know, and immediate means wife, husband, kids, mother, father or grandparents. Seriously.

Then longtime Cowboys employees being let go: Day-Oner Gil Brandt, treasurer of 18 years Don Wilson, public relations man of 18 years Doug Todd, 22-year ticket manager Ann Lloyd. All hard to watch.

Gosh, and it wasn’t even May yet.

And remember, back in those days there were three daily newspapers in the Metroplex: ours, The Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The competition was fierce. And remember, too, no internet. Ha, internet. No social media. No cell phones. Dimes and quarters were important commodities for payphones. You had one shot to get every story every night. And if you were a competitor you wanted the impossibility of every story every night, so that meant working to 11 nearly every night. Anxiety filled your sleep.

Then, well, mornings were hell. You were scared to death to grab those other papers for fear of getting beat in black and white. Remember, too, no updating if you didn’t have it all until the next day. Trying to keep up with Jerry and Jimmy was exhausting. They weren’t letting any grass grow under their feet. Blowin’ and goin’ I think was the slogan. Theirs was an immediate program, not some three-year plan.

By the first of June, felt as if my head was being centrifuged. We had a meeting of sorts, me and the sports editor, who told me I was doing a fine job. Maybe, I said, but I want out. I want my old job back. This is going to kill me. He said no way. I said I can’t. He said we’re eliminating your old position anyway.

I said, well, of course I’ll cover the Dallas Cowboys. Who wouldn’t want to, right? But again, not before agreeing kicking and screaming, having wanted desperately to run for cover.

So here it is 25 years later, and still covering the Cowboys in some form or fashion every single day since, and well, let’s see. By my count, the last game I missed was the season finale in 1988, 23-7 loss to Philadelphia. And swear, I’ve never done this before, so hang with me, that’s 25 seasons times 16 regular-season games a season, equaling, no way, an even 400 straight, along with the majority, but not every preseason game during that span of time.

Seen 1-15 and 13-3. Seen three Super Bowl victories and three consecutive seasons of 5-11. Seen a plane ride home from Philadelphia in 1991 after the Cowboys clinched their first playoff berth in six seasons – first winning season, too, in those six – that barely needed jet fuel to get off the ground, and now three consecutive seasons of 8-8.

Seen a losing franchise, both financially and athletically, become the richest in the United States and first to win three Super Bowls in a four-year span. Seen Hall of Fame coronations and the Jerry-Jimmy spat. Seen Switzer make me laugh until I thought I’d cry and Bill leave me in stitches even when he wasn’t trying to be funny. Seen Jimmy cry How ‘bout dem Cowboys! and smack those lips hard as he could losing those opening two games in 1993.

Seen triplets born to Bill Bates and Triplets land in the Ring of Honor. Seen Dave Campo come and go, and then come back again. Seen a free-agent quarterback rise into becoming the head coach and another rookie free-agent quarterback rise out of nowhere to become the franchise’s all-time leading passer. Seen Texas Stadium come crumbling down and AT&T Stadium rise from that gigantic hole in the ground.

Watched every carry of the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. Saw Michael Irvin the day he arrived hugging the life-sized cardboard cutout of Tom Landry and similarly hugging Jerry Jones the day he retired. Seen tragedies and attended funerals. 

 Seen it all for 25 years, every step of the way only because someone forced me to take that first step running after a guy I had never met until 25 years ago this past Tuesday. Exhausting, yes. Exhilarating, you bet.

Who knew?

And maybe the best part: 25 years is but a milestone. Got a feeling there’s still much more to come.

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