Dan Reeves never thought about becoming a football coach. After his playing days came to an end the plan was going home to Georgia, likely working for his father's construction business before retiring to a farm. That life would have suited him just fine.
Instead, Reeves, who passed away at age 77 on New Year's Day from complications from dementia, became one of the winningest head coaches in NFL history, one of just nine to win more than 200 combined regular-season and postseason games. The former Cowboys running back and assistant coach also took part in nine Super Bowls as a player or coach, the third most in league history behind only Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
Reading those two sentences makes it difficult to fathom why Reeves isn't in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Legendary head coach Tom Landry saw something in Reeves early on, making him the league's last official player-coach at just 26 years old in 1970. A knee injury had all but ended his playing career, which was better than most realize, highlighted by his league-best 16 touchdowns as a second-year halfback in 1966. A feat that was all the more remarkable considering Reeves wasn't even drafted after playing quarterback at South Carolina.
"Coach Landry saw something in me that I didn't see in myself," Reeves said in 2018. "I knew my career was coming to an end. I got to thinking, I've heard of players getting cut, but I've never heard of players getting fired. I've heard of coaches getting fired but not cut. So, when he asked me about becoming a player-coach, I have two chances here for a job.
"And I couldn't have been in a better place working for Coach Landry, learning from one of the best of all time."
Reeves spent 10 seasons on Landry's staff and won a pair of Super Bowls. While some this week have referred to him as an offensive coordinator, Landry still called the majority of plays, although he never relied on assistant coaches more than Reeves and Mike Ditka. The duo were offensive assistants together for eight seasons until Reeves became the league's youngest head coach, at 37, for Denver in 1981. Ditka quickly earned his own top-dog opportunity with the Chicago Bears the next year.
The two of them were nearly inseparable as Landry's top lieutenants, not only watching countless hours of film and creating game plans, but also playing cards, cribbage and golf. In addition they were both fierce competitors, with Ditka once reaching such a point of frustration that he ripped every card in the playing deck in front of Reeves' face. They also routinely joined Landry on the golf course where the teacher often beat them both.
"Mike and I got to see the side of him that other people didn't see," Reeves said of Landry. "He had a great sense of humor. You know, he would come up with some lines that would absolutely … you'd go where in the world did he come up with that? Just a tremendous sense of humor.
"Coach was a competitor too. Whatever we did, ping pong, golf, cards, he wanted to beat us like it was a game. We asked him to play golf one time in the offseason and he said he couldn't, was too busy. Mike and I get to the pro shop and he's out there with the pro taking a lesson. He wanted to make sure he was hitting the ball well enough before he played with us."
Somewhat incredibly, after Reeves took the Denver job, his relationship with Landry remained close. The two spoke every week during the football season, sharing notes and thoughts on matters both on and off the field.
"He became more of a mentor to me when I became a head coach," Reeves said. "He was always available even though we'd be competing. Neither Mike nor I would have become a head coach without him. We know he was telling teams we were ready for the opportunity. He just wanted what was best for us.
"I think being a father and a head coach is interchangeable. They're a lot of things that make you a good father that are going to help you become a good head coach. The players are like your children. You have to teach them and help them be the best they can be, but you also have to care about them. I know when Coach Landry coached me he cared, and that was one of his most important lessons I took."
When Landry passed away in 2002, Reeves was at the last of his four head coaching jobs with the Atlanta Falcons. The last time the two spoke, Reeves wanted to tell his mentor how much he meant to him how much he loved him like a father. The words just never made their way out.
"I look back on that and wish so much I was able to tell him. I mean, I think that's true in life," Reeves said. "The older I get, I've learned you need to say those words because you may never get that chance again. I think he knew, though, how much I loved him, how much I cared for him. But you know, I do wish I would've told him.
"There's no question, as tough as losing him was for me, there was a great sense of celebration because we knew where he was going. There's no question. That he's sitting at the right hand of the Father now."
May Reeves be with them both. Rest in Peace.