Spagnola: One Mighty Long Road To Canton

Spagnola-One-Mighty-Long-Road-To-Canton-hero

OXNARD, Calif. – One phone call nearly 60 years ago dramatically altered the life of a then 26-year-old Gil Brandt.

Forever.

That phone call also created the very first Triplets in the now 60-season history of the Dallas Cowboys – Tex Schramm, Tom Landry, Gil Brandt, the triumvirate responsible for constructing and maintaining the foundation of the NFL’s first expansion franchise in 1960 that would go on to set an NFL record with 20 consecutive winning seasons while advancing to five Super Bowls during that time.

And that phone call also led to Brandt and the Cowboys revolutionizing how teams began scouting college players and the amount of resources – financial and man power – teams began investing in the art of vetting players heading into the NFL Draft.

All of this is why the now 86-year-old Brandt will be presented his Pro Football Hall of Fame gold jacket Friday night in the annual Gold Jacket Dinner in Canton, Ohio, preceding his official induction into the Hall on Saturday evening – Gil becoming the 18th member of the Dallas Cowboys to have a bust displayed in the revered rotunda.

Gil isn’t one for formalities, saying during his two-day stay here at Cowboys training camp earlier in the week he was glad all this lead-up was almost over, though “my emotions are off the charts . . . but I’m so happy it’s come about.”

Sure he is, and this highest honor bestowed upon those involved in the NFL has been a long time coming. Think about this: Landry was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990, just one year after his 29-year head coaching tenure with the Dallas Cowboys came to an end when current Cowboys owner Jerry Jones bought the team in 1989.

Schramm, the team’s first president and general manager, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1991, two years after his initial 29-year reign ended with that ownership change on Feb. 25, 1989.

But Gil, well, somehow he had been left out, even after the PFHOF initiated in 2014 a yearly contributors category, defined as someone making “outstanding contributions to professional football in capacities other than playing or coaching.”

So it’s about time after all these years.

This 60-year journey began in the fall of 1959 when Brandt received that memorable phone call from Schramm, a Dallas ownership group headed by Clint Murchison, with Schramm, the one-time GM of the Los Angeles Rams, and Landry, the New York Giants defensive coordinator, already on board, petitioning the NFL for an NFL franchise.

“It was really funny how Tex hired me,” says Brandt, who at the time was doing some low-level scouting for the Los Angeles Rams on the side of his “baby photography” business while Schramm was working for CBS, putting together the first live winter Olympic television broadcast being held at Squaw Valley, Calif., in 1960. “He called me in October of 1959 and said, ‘Got a job for you.’ I said, ‘Tex, I don’t know anything about television.’ He said, ‘No, we’re going to have a franchise in Dallas and said I want you to be in charge of player personnel.’

“And he said, ‘Before you come, be sure to steal everything you can from the Rams’ scouting files.”

The rest then is history.

A long road, though, since Brandt remembers his first NFL draft (1961), where the 12 teams met in basically a downtown Philadelphia hotel conference room, with their Street & Smith college preview magazines in hand to make selections, then the drafting team notifying the selected players by depositing quarters in the hallway pay phones to make the calls. And get this: 20 rounds.

And to think now, all these years later, the draft is televised live, the first round in prime-time TV, for seven rounds over three days, one of the most-watched sporting events in the nation. And to think, the NFL has followed the ground-breaking Cowboys efforts to process information on computers. And to think, scouting and player personnel departments no longer are one-man shows, ranging into the 20s.

But Brandt became the trailblazer developing these scouting departments, the Cowboys becoming the first to utilize computer probabilities, forerunners to today’s analytics; the Cowboys becoming the first to hire a scout (Dick Mansperger) to solely scout the small-school, predominately black colleges; the Cowboys notoriously wheeling and dealing to make trades into the top or near the top of the drafts, realizing the importance of employing young players.

Brandt began making a name for himself nationwide, working to make connections with college coaches and never not one to return phone calls to members of the inquiring media.

In fact, must have been like 1982 or ’83 when I first made contact with Gil. I was working at the Jackson Daily News in Jackson, Miss., and had a question about where a certain Ole Miss player was stacking up in the draft. Called his office in the Cowboys’ just-off downtown Dallas headquarters, figuring this ain’t going to happen. And of course, there was no answer, but took a shot at leaving a message.

Much to my surprise, the Gil Brandt called little ol’ me back. Gave me the time of day. Thoroughly stunned, remember getting off the phone and saying to my co-workers, “You aren’t going to believe this . . . .”

Who knew end of the summer in 1984 I’d be hired by the Dallas Times Herald to help out covering the Cowboys. And now I’ve known Gil for 35 years. And I’ve been gifted by all his many stories, you know, about the time he bought that inline horse trailer as part of Walt Garrison’s signing bonus to the time he was driving Lee Roy Jordan’s signing-bonus brand-spanking-new Sedan from Dallas to Alabama when on the way through Mississippi totaling the car hitting a cow crossing the road.

From taking the chance drafting Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Roger Staubach in the 10th round of 1964, knowing he still had to serve a four-year Navy commitment, to taking a flyer on USFL running back Herschel Walker in the fifth round of 1985, anticipating the new league would eventually fold, which it did one year later. To drafting basketball players who had never even played college football, like Cornell Green, to dipping into those small historically black colleges and universities for the likes of Ed “Too Tall” Jones from Tennessee State, basketball and football player Rayfield Wright from Fort Valley State and Jethro Pugh from Elizabeth City State. And scouring for players at such small schools as Ouachita Baptist for Cliff Harris and East Texas State for Harvey Martin.

Taking chances on, not just football players, but pure athletes, from Out-Of-Nowhere U.

But know Gil wasn’t in the charity business. You talk to those former players, and they’d tell you how tough a negotiator Gil was when it came to contracts. How he’d squeeze them, and so hard, Gil knows that former cornerback Everson Walls, an undrafted free agent from Grambling State in 1981, recently said of one contract negotiation, “I considered hiring a hitman to take care of him because he’s the toughest guy I ever had to negotiate with.”

Yet, there will be a slew of his former players in Canton this weekend to help commemorate his induction.

“It’s like having 200 children,” Gil says of these finds. “I’m so proud of the Jethro Pughs and Cornell Greens, just everybody we had on our teams. The Staubachs, the Danny Whites, the Tony Dorsetts. We had a lot of great players.

“I don’t know of any franchise that really has had as many great players name-wise as we had.”

Such a major part of the Dallas Cowboys’ 60-season history, Brandt finally recognized as equal part of the franchise’s success over those first 29 years as Schramm and Landry during the weekend’s annual three-day festival in Canton.

“I always thought there was a possibility of it happening,” Brandt said of his Hall of Fame selection, “but when you realize there are only 326 people in the Hall of Fame, the odds are not very good.”

But heck, the odds were not very good 60 years ago when in October of 1959 he took what turned into that eventful call from Tex, Brandt remembering thinking at the time, “I was just worried about being there for one year.”

Now his memory, his career, his stories enter into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year, and will now reside there for eternity.

Just where they belong.

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