IRVINE, Calif. – This is one of the happiest, saddest tales you will ever hear.
Former Cowboys six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Chuck Howley, the only Super Bowl MVP from a losing team, a five-time All-Pro and the fourth player to ever be inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor, has finally, at long last and way, way overdue, advanced to the final precipice of Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement as one of three Senior Committee nominees.
And in this day of age, rarely, if ever does a Senior Committee nominee get rejected by the 49-person Hall of Fame Committee. And all three Senior nominees, Howley, along with defensive back Ken Riley and defensive lineman Joe Klecko, can be certified for Hall status.
The sad part?
For the past eight years, Howley's son Scott Howley says, this NFL stalwart of 15 seasons, the last 13 with the Cowboys (1961-73), has been suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
"He's in the final stages of dementia," Scott Howley said of his 86-year-old dad. "When I told him yesterday about being a finalist, all I got out of him was a whole lot of silence, then, 'OK, you be good. Bye.'"
That is a shame, a dirty rotten shame. One of the best linebackers in Cowboys history – some of the old-timers covering the Cowboys from inception would insist the very best – and one of the best linebackers in NFL history has been overlooked since he first became eligible five years after playing his last game with the Cowboys in 1973.
He was passed over during his 20 years of modern-day eligibility. And only one other time since becoming a Senior eligible candidate did his name come up for discussion. And that occurred in 2007 when he had advanced to the final 17.
But finally, at the insistence of two retired newspaper writers on the Senior selection committee, John McClain, formerly of the Houston Chronicle and Rick Gosselin, formerly of The Dallas Morning News, Howley will surely find his rightful spot in Canton, Ohio.
"We are beyond thrilled," Scott Howley said. "It was a dream come true for dad. I know it's been something he's always hoped for, and I know, I guess, in the back of his mind I think he resigned himself that he would never get there.
"The family of course is very proud of him, and very proud to have the opportunity to be considered in that regard. I think if he was in his right mind, he would be over the moon."
Unfortunately, this insiduous disease is somewhat muting a much-deserved celebration.
Don't recall ever meeting or interviewing Chuck Howley but do remember seeing delivery trucks for his uniform rental business around the Dallas area, where he and his family have lived since first coming to Texas in 1961. Howley did attend the Cowboys Ring of Honor Walk unveiling out at The Star in Frisco and was able to stand on a second-floor overlook for a picture with the rest of the Ring of Honor members attending the celebration almost exactly five years ago to the day on Aug. 21, 2017.
Scott Howley says he remembers when he was a kid, "I wrote a letter to the Hall of Fame at one point and I got a response, and they said he's always had enough votes to stay on the ballot, but he never really advanced beyond that."
That has always been a mystery. See, the Hall of Fame is not all about statistics or awards. The Hall's mission should be about preserving history, the stories of the National Football League and special people who made the league what it is today. Like, why not induct the only man to ever earn Super Bowl MVP honors from a losing team. That is history. That is a story to be cherished into perpetuity.
And Howley earned that distinction the 1970 season when the Cowboys lost to the Baltimore Colts, 16-13, in Super Bowl V. In the expansion Cowboys' first Super Bowl appearance, Howley intercepted two passes and forced a fumble, becoming the first defensive player and non-quarterback to win the MVP honor.
And it was "big play Chuck" in Super Bowl VI, when the Cowboys won their first of an eventual five Super Bowls by beating Miami, 24-3, recovering a fumble and returning an interception 41 yards. Howley also shares the Super Bowl career mark for most interceptions with three, along with former Cowboys cornerback Larry Brown and Raiders linebacker Rod Martin, his three all coming in Super Bowl XV.
"That's unbelievable," was the reaction of Cowboys Hall of Fame safety Cliff Harris upon hearing it appears Howley's bust is all but joining his in the Hall of Fame rotunda, gladly pausing on the 15th hole of his round of golf on Thursday to talk about his former teammate. "A great player, a great leader. Big-play guy.
"So glad to hear that. He was a great leader, quiet, but really knew the game so well. He was late in his career, not that much younger than Coach Landry. He would come into the morning meeting with his tie on. He had already been to his business."
Plus, his 15-year story through the NFL is rather remarkable, too. Howley was drafted out of West Virginia in the first round by the Chicago Bears in 1958, the seventh overall pick. Played just two seasons there when suffering a severe knee injury in the summer of 1959, able to play just three games that season. He figured his playing days were over, prematurely retiring back to Morgantown, W.Va., to run a darn filling station.
But as the story goes, after appearing in a West Virginia alumni game in 1961 and subsequently approached by Cowboys president and general manager Tex Schramm, Howley figured he should give football a second chance. So, the Cowboys traded a third-round pick to the Bears for Howley's rights.
And the rest is history.
"He told me, it was a weird story, blew out his knee, and owned a gas station in West Virginia and he thought, \_OK that was my one shot\_, and he went back to work at the gas station," Scott Howley said. "I guess he thought, and this is where it gets kind of fuzzy, but I guess it was Tex Schramm that came and talked to him, and asked him, 'Hey we got this expansion team. You interested in trying out?' and he said, 'Yeah, well, I'll give it a shot.' That's the way the story went."
Back in those days, players rarely returned after having a knee rebuilt, unlike today when players return nine months later after having reconstructive knee surgery for a torn ACL. And Scott Howley reminds that his dad had his other knee reconstructed after suffering an identical injury on Dec. 9, 1972, when Washington receiver Charley Taylor cut Howley down on a crack-back block eventually outlawed. Though he missed the playoffs that season, he did manage to return for one more game in 1973 before calling it quits.
"So, he basically blew out both knees and had them rebuilt and went on to have a great career with the Cowboys," Scott Howley said. "Dad didn't really know how to quit. He had a singular focus. He was pretty much determined to come back better than he was before."
Howley isn't doing interviews these days, and Scott said his mom, Nancy, the same age as her husband, isn't far behind his father with dementia, too. Tugs at the heart. The family is hoping Chuck will be cleared by his doctors to attend next summer's induction ceremony, assuming the final 49-member election committee sanctions the Senior Committee's work.
"It would be amazing, yes, it would," Scott Howley said for the Howley family to participate in the induction ceremonies.
Chuck Howley giving an acceptance speech is probably out of the question. Sort of takes me back to the 2007 Hall of Fame inductions when Michael Irvin was enshrined. So was former Cleveland Browns offensive lineman Gene Hickerson, who at age of 72 also was suffering from dementia and barely could stand to receive his golden jacket at the Friday night dinner ceremony. Fortunately for Hickerson, he received the honor just a little more than a year before he passed away in October, of 2008. Hopefully he was aware.
Hickerson's son Bob Hickerson gave the acceptance speech that same year Howley had advanced to the round of 17 candidates, saying at the time, "We all wish Gene could be speaking with you, but unfortunately due to his circumstances he's unable to do so."
The Howley family knows the feeling.
Asked Chuck's son Scott if he would be the one to deliver a long overdue acceptance speech for his dad, hopefully not being too presumptuous since 80 percent of the 49-member selection committee must sanction his enshrinement.
"We have to have a family discussion," said Scott this past Wednesday after those final three Senior nominees were announced earlier in the day. "I'd certainly be honored to do that."
Hopefully Chuck Howley can cherish the long-deserved moment, too.