Spagnola: These Ranch Memories Really Do Light The Corners Of My Mind

IRVING, Texas – This is virtually impossible, and been contemplating what to say and how to say any of it for the past two weeks.

            Look, you don't come to the same place for work 31 years and sum up the highlights in a thousand words or two, and seems as though every time I think I've got this complete list, something else pops to mind. You don't come to a place far more days than not for the past 16 years, having even slept here on the floor or on an air mattress many a time after night away games on the East Coast, and then easily tie a nice bow on what seems as though the package of a lifetime.

            Have I spent more time here or at wherever I've called home since Aug. 27, 1985, when the doors swung open to a lifetime of memories for those who have passed through, creating more world-wide commotion than maybe New Year's Eve on Time Square?

            Seriously. Here for the past 31 years is Valley Ranch, never meant to be the name of the Dallas Cowboys practice facility in far north Irving since that was the name of this particular budding subdivision, from which back in the day I swear you could see Oklahoma with a pair of binoculars.

But it was like one of those things when someone asked you, "Where you going," the answer "Valley Ranch" was so much easier than saying "out to the Cowboys practice facility."

And a year or so in, I tried to make the name easier than even that, calling the sprawling, state-of-the-art facility in my Dallas Times Herald articles The Ranch, in an attempt to be more colloquial. Who knew a guy who wrote a story that first day the Cowboys made the move from their old, dilapidated facility in North Dallas on Forest and Abrams would be around to write one of the last when the doors close next month as the Cowboys reinvent spectacular by moving 19 miles away into The Star in Frisco.

Life can be strange and unpredictable, and no way even the most imaginative fiction writers (Barry Switzer's term, not mine) could have dreamed up some of the events that have taken place between these walls or on these practice fields, or for that matter, made up some of the characters passing through these hallways.

Like say the 1987 players strike two games into the season when the NFL, at the behest of Cowboys president Tex Schramm, enlisted the help of replacement players, derogatively known as "scabs," so the show could go on. Well, my job at the Times Herald was to cover the "scab" team, but also to monitor the picket lines out front, where Cowboys players carried signs with Valley Ranch neighbors in protest. The day Randy White arrived to cross the picket line, pulling up with his Texas-sized pickup truck especially stands out since I was standing right there at the entrance.

Well, Tony Dorsett and Everson Walls decided to stand in Randy's way. White, agitated, his face red, stuck his head out the window, pointed at his shaved pate at the time, pressed down on the clutch, gunned his engine. Then, yes, popped the clutch with teammate Don Smerek sitting at his side. As his truck lurched forward, Dorsett and Walls, scattered, evidently not trusting the Manster one bit.

There was the time, I believe after that 7-8 season of '87 when Tom Landry scheduled a press conference. Many thought he was going to retire or at least announce this would be his last season. So did Schramm. But Tom announced his new "three-year plan." Now Schramm's face turned red, as if suddenly suffering a bad case of indigestion.

Memories of the press conference to announce Jerry Jones had bought the team was a contradiction of emotions. On one hand, and rightfully so, the Jones Family and associates were celebrating the purchase. On the other hand, with Tex somberly standing off to the side with no seat on the stage in The Ranch meeting room, there was the atmosphere of a funeral. People who had been with the Cowboys all 29 years realizing their lives were about to be turned upside down. And they were.

When we finished writing our articles, a bunch of the writers congregated back in Schramm's office. Texas loved hanging out with the writers, debating whatever, and Tex knew what eventually was going to occur, sensing he and Jerry would never be able to work together. Again, it was as if someone had passed away, Tex telling stories of days gone by. And as if it were yesterday, I remember, drinking a beer while sitting on the floor against the wall, Times Herald cohort and friend, the late Frank Luksa sitting next to me, rising to say, "Well I'm heading home to enjoy what's left of my birthday," Feb. 25, 1989. Never will ever forget Frank's birthday.

Then Jimmy's ensuing press conference, appropriately showing up hat in hand, basically apologizing for how things transpired, with his dad in the audience for support, explaining how he grew up in Texas, had been a Cowboys fan, and in no way wanted to disparage anything Tom Landry had accomplished. That he was here to make Cowboys fans proud once again.

Gosh, remember a week later the Times Herald turned the Cowboys beat over to me, having been just the Cowboys backup beat writer my first four and a half seasons here. Ha, didn't want it. They insisted, so told them let's go until June and reassess.

Maybe the most hectic four months of my life. Every day someone in the organization was either getting fired or hired. Players were coming and going. In fact, I had found out the Cowboys likely were not going to pick up their option on the final year of Danny White's contract. Happened to run into him in the hallway, probably sometime in April. He thought the option was his. We were standing in the hallway where the one to Jerry's office intersects. Told Danny, well, if I were you, I'd check on that. He did. The option was the Cowboys, and they did not pick up the 13-year veteran's option.

By the time June arrived, I was through with this beat. My life had been turned upside down. Being on-call every day. Working right up until deadline seemingly every night at home. I'm competitive if you guys haven't figured that out by now, and with three newspapers, the competition was cut-throat intense. Told them I wanted my old job back, general assignment, covering everything, from Olympics, to college football, basketball, baseball and anything else involving a score being kept. The sports editor at the time, Gary Hardy, said, "Oh no, you're doing a great job." Stubbornly, I said, "Didn't matter, I want out." He said, "Well, we're eliminating your old position." I said, "OK, I'll cover the Cowboys," and well, here I am, going on the 28th consecutive season.[embeddedad0]

There was that time in 1990, the Cowboys having just lost three straight, falling to 3-7 after their horrendous 1-15 season of '89 in Jimmy's first, when rookie Emmitt Smith said after the loss to San Francisco, "Sure is hard for me to gain 100 yards if I only get six carries (40 yards)." Duly noted by the head coach because after that Tuesday's press conference, just standing in the outer corridor of the locker room with Times Herald columnist Skip Bayless, Jimmy came walking by, lips smacking. He was upset with offensive coordinator Dave Shula, and off the record, he told us that he was going to impress on Shula the importance of getting Emmitt the ball. The next game, Emmitt carried the ball 21 times for 54 yards, but caught four passes for 117 yards in a 24-21 upset victory over the Los Angeles Rams. The Cowboys would win four straight, getting to 7-7 before Troy Aikman suffered a season-ending separated shoulder in Philadelphia.

Let's see, not sure when this occurred, but somewhere around those back-to-back Super Bowl seasons when the media was allowed to watch all of the team's practices, some crazed woman climbed the fence on the south side of the practice fields – not much security back then out here – tumbled through the bushes and began running toward the practice field where the Cowboys were working. She started yelling Troy's name, and as she got closer, Aikman's teammates, wearing pads, helmets and all, began to back off, as if she was parting the Red Sea, leaving poor Troy for a moment out there with no backup. Finally, finally, someone grabbed her and led her away.

 Remember one offseason practice during Alvin Harper's rookie year, 1991, when the wide receiver was out catching passes from Aikman, no gloves. On one of Aikman's passes, the nose of the football lodged between two of Harper's fingers, tearing the webbing of his hand, blood spurting everywhere.

Not sure why I didn't remember it that day when Aikman, recovering from his herniated disk surgery while the Cowboys were in London for a preseason game in 1993, was scheduled to throw out at The Ranch, his former backup Babe Laufenberg to be his receiver. Babe was late, so Troy's therapist volunteered to catch in the meantime. I walked closer, with every intention of volunteering, too. That was until I was close enough to not only see how hard the ball was, but how hard Aikman was throwing, turning that no-glove therapist's hands beat red. Looked at mine, and reminded myself I needed these suckers for a livelihood just before Babe showed up, gloves in hand. Must have temporarily lost my mind.

*Check out Part 2 of Mickey's Memories of Valley Ranch next Friday.  *

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