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Remembering Gil Brandt

Spagnola: Gil Brandt Meant So Much To So Many


FRISCO, Texas – The stories, there sure were a slew of them. Good ones, too.

So many years, needing a multiplier to reach those working for the Dallas Cowboys and the NFL. Great, innovative ones, too.

All of this came flooding home on Thursday, the day Gil Brandt passed away at the age of 91, those in the organization close enough to him and the family knowing this was coming upon departing for training camp July 24.

Doesn't make it any easier to accept, no matter the years he lived, and certainly he did so long enough to make many of us old enough to wish for a similar existence on this earth.

For me, Gil has been my Cowboys historical source, the guy you called, and by gosh he would always answer or call you back, to fill in some blanks. Like how did the whole deal go down for the Cowboys to acquire Chuck Howley? Or what was the behind-the-scenes story on how the Cowboys ended up with Ralph Neeley when initially seemed heading to the AFL? Or just why the Cowboys decided to draft Randy White with the No. 2 pick on the 1975 NFL draft instead of Walter Payton?

Now who? Who do I call that's been with the organization, that's been here since the 1960 origination? Tom Landry is gone. Tex Schramm is gone. Don Meredith is gone. Don Perkins is gone. Off the top of my head, two of the lasting credible resources would be Bob Lilly, having arrived in 1961 out of TCU as the Cowboys' very first draft choice, thus Mr. Cowboy, and Joe Bailey, Schramm's right-hand vice president man, though started his association with the Cowboys in the early 1960s as a kid since his dad had been a Cowboys team physician growing up until Tex hired Joe right out of college.

But after that, Gil had been the last man standing for someone arriving in 1984 to help cover the Cowboys for the now-defunct _Dallas Times Herald_. In fact, my first interaction with Gil came in like 1982-83 while working for the _Jackson (Miss.) Daily News,_ taking a shot in the dark calling this guy named Gil Brandt with the Dallas Cowboys for a piece I was working on prior to the draft. Had to leave a message and figured this would be a long shot hearing back from Gil. Nope, he called me back, not knowing me from Adam.

That, though, was Gil. He might have been working for America's Team but he was actually America's Scout. Seems as though everyone in college football knew Gil. Case in point, my good friend from my _Daily News_ days, Rick Cleveland, is retired, putting out a newsletter throughout the state of Mississippi. He called me to see when I'd be writing my column on Gil. He knew all about Gil and wanted to include the column in the newsletter.

And this, too, from long-time friend Steve Richardson, currently president of the College Football Writers Association. He remembers back to 1975 when just out of college working at the _Shreveport Times_ and meeting Gil. Said the last time running into Gil, he not only remembered his name, but also that he went to Mount Vernon (Ill.) High School. And how about this, also remembering who the high school's head football coach was at the time he was there.

That was Gil to a T. Photographic memory. No one ever again a stranger.

And the stories, enough to fill multiple book volumes.

Like the one about delivering part of 1963 first-round draft choice Lee Roy Jordan's signing bonus to him back in Alabama. A fancy Cadillac that Lee Roy always wanted. But to save the Cowboys money, Gil, and he had been known as famously tight with the Cowboys money, decided he'd deliver the car himself to Lee Roy, driving all the way to Alabama himself.

Well, somewhere in the backwoods of Mississippi at night, Gil plows into a cow in the road. Basically totals the car. Kills the cow. Well, he gets help from having known the head coach at the time at Mississippi State, though next thing he knows, the owner of the cattle ranch the cow belonged to has the county sheriff looking for the guy who killed his cow. Well, Gil had a connection, right? Coach smoothed things over. But then had to call Lee Roy to explain part of his signing bonus would be delayed.

Or the one about signing Bob Lilly to his contract, the team's first ever draft choice, the 13th pick in the 1961 first round. He called Tex with the good news. First thing Tex wants to know is for how much. Gil proudly said, one-year, $12,000 with only a $4,000 signing bonus. Tex was aghast. And in so many words, including those not in proper English language, Tex screams at Gil, "We're going to go broke throwing money around like that."

This is another one of my favorites. Gil's, though unfortunately, too.

"Well one of the things that probably was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, and I had never experienced it before," Gil began during an interview.

This occurred after the 1960 College All-Star Game. Gil was returning to Dallas from Chicago with Don Perkins, the New Mexico running back they acquired on a personal services contract since they were unable to participate in that year's draft, along with SMU's Don Meredith on a Friday night since the Cowboys had a preseason game at home on Saturday.

"And we went to the Highland Park cafeteria," Gil began. "And we walked in and got in line, and all of a sudden somebody came up to us and said, 'He's not allowed to eat here.' He being Perkins," a Black man in 1960s Texas.

"And so, you know, I don't know what you say to someone in that situation," Gil said. "Thank god Meredith was with us because he usually had the right answer to everything. And we just went to another restaurant and had no problems. And yeah, I think Perkins was taken aback and shocked and saying (to himself), 'You know, what am I getting into?'"

That being Perkins' introduction to Dallas, the first time he had stepped foot into his new home.

"It was a shock to me," said Gil, a relative newcomer to Dallas as well at the time. "It was embarrassing to me really. Because growing up in Wisconsin, there was never a problem. I mean there was never 'This is where you eat, there is where you eat, and this is where you go to the bathroom.' None of that was there."

Also, Gil signing guys back in the day to contracts is legendary. They would recall him showing up with contract in hand – nobody had agents back then – and would pull a wad of bills from his pocket to immediately pay the signing bonus, you know, like a big shot to impress, especially the undrafted free agents who were getting peanuts back then. Well, multiple guys would point out that wad of money basically consisted of $1 bills, Gil never known to be a big spender.

Gil seemed to know everyone, and sure didn't matter what color your skin was. Bottom line with him, could you play? Black, white, where you came from, didn't matter one iota. He might have been known for revolutionizing scouting and how to treat the draft, but to me, this might have been his biggest breakthrough working in, at the time, the segregated South.

"I don't think a lot of guys here appreciated what Gil Brandt did for the Cowboys," said Everson Walls, one of the undrafted free agents Gil unearthed and signed in 1981 out of Grambling State. "He was able to change the game itself the way he recruited, the way he scouted and also how he got cheap labor. I always tell people that all the time. But he was a guy that was legendary for the NFL game, and during his last years, he was also very involved in the Black College Hall of Fame. He was on the board of that organization."

But Walls, growing up a Cowboys fan in suburban Richardson, Texas, also knew how Gil Brandt unlocked the NFL doors for players form Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

"The HBCUs were major for the Cowboys back in the day," Walls pointed out. "I had a lot of company there, had a lot of support from guys like Mike Hegman, guys like 'Too Tall' Jones, of course the great Bob Hayes. These are the kind of guys Gil Brandt was out looking for. And when he was scouting, he wasn't just up there picking things out of the air. He did a good job of scouting, and he understood what we brought to the table.

"I still don't know that he thought I'd make the team, but the fact he signed me was a feather in his hat as well."

Not just Walls. Think about these guys Gil brought to the table for the Cowboys: Pettis Norman (J.C. Smith University), Bob Hayes (Florida A&M), Rayfield Wright (Fort Valley State), Jethro Pugh (Elizabeth City), Duane Thomas (tiny West Texas State), Harvey Martin (tiny East Texas State), Ed "Too Tall" Jones (Tennessee State), Thomas Henderson (Langston), Herb Scott (Virginia Union) and other undrafted guys like Butch Johnson (Cal-Riverside), Cliff Harris (Ouachita Baptist), Drew Pearson (Tulsa), Bill Bates (Tennessee), Nate Newton (Florida A&M by way of the USFL), Mark Tuinei (Hawaii) and Cornell Green (Utah State), a basketball player, not to mention trading for Preston Pearson, a University of Illinois basketball player by way of the Steelers, just to name a few.

But here is another scouting tool Gil used. He realized his scouting department didn't have long enough arms to reach every nook and cranny where these HBCU schools were located. So, he chatted up some of the HBCU coaches in the various areas of the country. And the Cowboys would bring in this sort of committee once a year for a lunch or dinner to pick their brains on the best HBCU players in their area. Those connections paid off. Big time, so to speak.

Here is one "big" example. Gil had made friends with Tennessee head coach John Merritt (1963-83), who tipped the Cowboys off that Too Tall was actually eligible for the 1974 draft, not a year away as most of the NFL teams thought. And that was one of the reasons why the Cowboys shocked a lot of people in more than one way by making Ed "Too Tall" Jones not only the No. 1 pick in the 1974 NFL Draft, but the very first HBCU player honored with the first pick in the draft.

"The Dallas Cowboys probably did more to make this a racially free, open city than anybody else," Gil said during one of our interviews for a Deep Blue documentary titled _Black And Blue_, going on to say, "I think the Cowboys did more to create and help race relations in Dallas and probably in the state of Texas than anybody else could've possibly done."

So there, maybe a little deeper insight into just what Gil Brandt meant to the Cowboys, to the NFL, to the city of Dallas and to the opening of the HBCU school doors into the NFL. To say he basically was vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys from 1959 – actually hired before the NFL granted the Cowboys the franchise – until he was relieved of his duties by new owner Jerry Jones after the 1989 draft is to sell him short. Way short.

That is why I'm sure Gil, if I can speak for him, his family and the ja-gillions of people he touched over all these years, like my friends Rick and Steve, must be so thankful he was inducted into the Cowboys famed Ring of Honor in 2018 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2019. His name will be preserved for ever more.

And so will so many of these precious stories, too, hopefully to be passed on into eternity when those of us who won't be around to tell them anymore.