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Forever a Cowboy; Walt Garrison passes away at 79


An NFL player simply couldn't do today what Walt Garrison did back when he was a star fullback for the Cowboys from 1966-74. 

Garrison played 119 regular season and 13 playoff games for the Cowboys over nine seasons and still ranks fourth on the club's all-time list for average yards per rush (4.32) and is ninth in career rushing yards (3,491) He was also a cowboy in the literal sense, performing in rodeos during the offseasons and even, for a while as a rookie, the night before home games.

From nearby Denton, Texas, Garrison became hooked on rodeo at a young age and excelled at steer wrestling in particular (or 'bulldogging' in the vernacular). In fact, Garrison, who passed away last night at the age of 79, was almost as good at rodeo as he was at football and actually enjoyed it more.

With the high-stakes money involved in the NFL these days, there is no way any team would allow one of their players to engage in such a pursuit. And with the amounts of money at stake now, no player would likely want to.

Of course, that's not to say the Cowboys were all that happy about Garrison's extracurricular activities back then either.

"I rodeoed in the offseason. I steer wrestled. I roped some calves, but mostly steer wrestling," Garrison once stated. "And Coach Landry pointed out that there was a clause in my contract that if I got hurt doing another sport, that my contract would be null and void, and I said, 'OK.' I didn't think rodeo was that dangerous." 

While Landry didn't stop Garrison from rodeoing in the offseasons, he did put an end to Garrison's participation in a nearby rodeo during his rookie year in 1966 once he found out about it. Even though Garrison, the Cowboys' fifth-round pick (79th overall) in the 1966 draft out of Oklahoma State, was serving as the backup fullback that year, he did return kickoffs, gaining 445 yards on 20 returns (22.3 average). He figured since he had a minor role, being in the rodeo wasn't a problem.

Garrison explained how the players would stay at a local Holiday Inn the night before home games. After a brief team meeting at 6:30 p.m., they were free to do their own thing until an 11 p.m. curfew. So he would drive out to nearby Mansfield, compete in their rodeo and get back in time before 11. 

"That worked good for a couple of times," Garrison said. "And then somebody called Coach Landry and said, 'We think it is so nice that the Cowboys let Walt come over here and bulldog the night before a game.' So then I had a meeting with Coach Landry the next day, who told me, 'Don't do that any more.'

"But I wasn't starting, Don Perkins was starting. I was returning punts and kicks and covering on the kamikaze squad, that's all I was doing. And hell, you could get hurt worse on them than you can rodeoing. I didn't think much about it, but the Cowboys did."

Of course, the irony of it all is that a knee injury Garrison suffered while steer wrestling in 1975 ultimately ended his NFL career. But Garrison wasn't bitter or apologetic about it. Instead, he believed it made what could have been a difficult decision an easy one.

"That injury is what actually ended my football career – that and my ability probably had as much to do with it," said Garrison, who was 30 at the time of his retirement. "Nine years as a running back is a long time in the NFL, but I did tear my knee up bulldogging at a college rodeo. I did a match bulldogging against one of the college kids and I tore my knee up. But that gave me a good way to retire without someone saying, 'Well, you're too old and you're too slow.' I could say, 'Well, I'd still be playing if I hadn't hurt my knee.' 

"That's probably one of the best things that happened to me because it gave me the opportunity to go work for another company and to start a new career, rather than hold on for another year in a career that would have lasted one more year at best. So it turned out to be a good thing." 

Soon after that, he began his association with US Smokeless Tobacco, so the injury set up the rest of his life's work, although interestingly enough, it was his football career that led to the opportunity.

"Oddly enough, NFL Films got me the first job with them and that's no lie," Garrison said. "NFL Films did a film on people in the NFL that had weird offseason occupations. So they came out to Mineral Wells, Texas, to a PRCA rodeo that I was entered in bulldogging and they filmed me for a couple of days. They had me brushing horses and doing all kinds of stuff you do around a rodeo.

"And during the process of this filming, I did snuff. I'd been doing it since I was in college. It showed me dipping snuff and had me talking about a spittoon I had in my truck. Anyway, one of the ad agency guys in New York – US Tobacco was looking for a spokesperson at that time, because they'd never been on TV – they saw the NFL Film and they called me about doing a commercial for them. So the NFL got me into television. It's strange how things happen." 

While they may seem like very different sports, Garrison's preferred event, steer wrestling, isn't that far removed from football. The cowboy rides a horse alongside the steer, jumps off the horse and essentially tackles the steer and pins it down. Speed counts, so the fastest one to get all four feet off the ground wins.  

"There's a lot of similarities between rodeo and football," Garrison said. "Steer wrestling probably takes, depending on the size of the steer, the time is anywhere from three and a half seconds to six seconds. And a football game lasts a lot longer, but if you take an individual play in football, a regular play is three or four seconds. And the amount of energy and the amount of focus you need to have in bulldogging is the same as in football."

Garrison freely admitted that rodeo really was his first love and if it had been the nationally televised sport that paid its performers a lot more money, he likely would have stuck to it full time.

"If you could have made the money – and I didn't make a lot of money playing football, but the money was better in football than it was in rodeo," Garrison said. "Yeah, that was my first love. I'd been doing that a lot longer than I'd been playing football. And I still do it. I still ride horses and I still do a little team roping."

He earned a reputation in rodeo circles as a good steer wrestler, not just as an NFL star trying to rodeo.

"I knew the competitiveness of Walt and any time there was something to compete on, he liked to do it," said Neal Gay, original founder of the Mesquite Championship Rodeo. "But football playing and steer wrestling were his two favorites. Of course, he made a hell of a lot more money playing football than he did wrestling steers. He did the steer wrestling because he loved it. He liked to do it and he was good at it."

It's a credit to Garrison's character and abilities as a football player that he was so effective for the Cowboys when it wasn't his primary passion. Simply put, Garrison was more successful on the gridiron than he was at rodeo.

At 6-0, 205 pounds, Garrison was a versatile back, able to block just as effectively as he could run the ball or catch it. He actually led the Cowboys with 40 receptions in 1971, earning 396 yards and one touchdown. He earned his only Pro Bowl selection in 1972 when he rushed for 784 yards and seven touchdowns (averaging 4.7 yards per carry) while also registering 37 receptions for 390 yards and three scores.

As expected, he pointed to the Dallas triumph in Super Bowl VI, a 24-3 domination of Miami following the 1971 season, as the highlight of his NFL career. 

"We went to the Super Bowl the year before and Baltimore beat us in the last seconds with a field goal," Garrison said. "And I think that makes a big difference. I mean, getting to the Super Bowl is great, but our goal was to get to the Super Bowl since when I was a rookie, and this was my fifth year. Well, we did get there, but we should have had a goal to win the Super Bowl. 

"So the next year our goal was to get to the Super Bowl and win the Super Bowl. It made people concentrate a little bit harder and a little bit longer. The first year, you're all caught up in the media attention and all the glamour and glitz and there're people everywhere. But the next year, it was kind of a serious week before the Super Bowl. We didn't want to get beat again, so I think we were a little bit more focused that year and Miami probably wasn't as focused. And the next year, I'm sure they were, because they went 17-0."

As for his rodeo career, his pinnacle in that sport might not sound like much to the rest of the world, but Garrison seemed to get even more excited discussing his outstanding performance at the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo in 1973, than he did talking about the Super Bowl victory. 

"Cheyenne happens the last full week in July every year, so I just entered the rodeo, went to the rodeo and placed in the bulldogging," Garrison said. "I placed in two rounds, and won like fifth in average. That was a highlight of my rodeo career. I mean, I won some rodeos, but to go to what they call 'The Daddy of them all,' which is Cheyenne Frontier Days, and compete against the best bulldoggers in rodeo and to actually win some money and place in a couple of rounds and win something in the average – I was just tickled to death." 

Needless to say, he remained a Cowboy – and a cowboy – at heart until the end.

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