FRISCO, Texas – DeMarcus Ware played nine seasons for the Dallas Cowboys. Appeared in 141 of a possible 144 games. Recorded 117 sacks on his way to 138.5 (counting his three years in Denver) – the eighth-highest total in NFL history.
I covered Ware's first NFL training camp practice on his 23rd birthday in Oxnard, Calif., through his first seven seasons in Dallas. He announced his retirement Monday, and when I think about his Hall-of-Fame worthy career, two images juxtaposed within a week of each other stand out most.
One was horrifying. The other was defining.
First, there was the stretcher.
Dec. 13, 2009:As he glides through the pocket from the right side of the defensive line, Ware's helmet rams into the waist of San Diego Chargers lineman Brandyn Dombrowski. His body contorts awkwardly as he lies on the AT&T Stadium turf, his arms stretched the opposite direction of his legs. The entire stadium is hushed, fearing the worst. With the assistance of medical staff and the Cowboys' athletic training staff, his facemask is unscrewed from his helmet and he's carefully loaded into a stretcher. Fortunately it turns out to be a neck sprain, not more serious. He has feeling in his extremities and he gives the home crowd a thumbs-up as he's taken off the field to a local hospital for further evaluation.
Then, the return.
Dec. 19, 2009: Six days later, Ware's back on the field for the Cowboys' late-season showdown in the Superdome against the 13-0 New Orleans Saints. Though he didn't practice, he felt better throughout the week and was medically cleared to play. It's the only time in 141 career Cowboys games that he doesn't start; the team limits him to clear pass-rushing situations. The Saints enter the Sunday Night Football matchup averaging 35.8 points per game, but Dallas holds them to a league-low 17 points, and Ware makes the deciding play with six seconds left. He bull-rushes Saints offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod from the right side and sacks Drew Brees. The ball comes loose and Cowboys defensive tackle Jay Ratliff recovers to preserve the season's biggest upset to date: Cowboys 24, Saints 17. Dallas goes on to win the NFC East and advances to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.
That single play, more than any other, was vintage DeMarcus Ware: physically tough, sure, but also supreme mental toughness in overcoming the most harrowing moment of his NFL career.
Ware's teammates could always count on him. He played in 128 straight games before injuries piled up and sidelined him for three games in 2013, his final season in Dallas.
He remained productive in three years the Broncos and helped solidify a dominant defense that won a Super Bowl in 2015. But his accomplishments with the Cowboys – seven Pro Bowls, seven All-Pro selections, the franchise's all-time sack record – laid the foundation for his likely enshrinement in Canton, Ohio, a few years from now.