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Spagnola: Uncle Frank Was a True Cowboys Treasure

IRVING, Texas – Tuesday became a blur, a heavy heart putting the mind on autopilot, personal feelings sapping the usual enthusiasm for talking about and reporting on the Dallas Cowboys, as is my duty seemingly 365 days of the year.

         Somehow Sean Lee's toe in need of surgical repair did not matter. That the Cowboys were in the midst of making roster changes seemed insignificant. That TV ratings were down for this 3-3 team and some were trying to finger blame with the New York Giants on Sunday's horizon, pffft. Really? For that I do apologize.

         For my indiscriminate tears, I do not.

         Discovered that morning, not long after finishing Talkin' Cowboys, that I had lost a dear, dear friend, affectionately known, being a generation older than some of us younger whippersnappers, as Uncle Frank.

         Dallas-Fort Worth and the Dallas Cowboys lost a real treasure, a Big Tex in his own right, having been born some 77 years ago in Georgetown, Texas, educated at the University of Texas, did his service for his country during the Korean War and toiled nearly every day of his working life at newspapers in this great state.

         Hopefully, you too knew Frank Luksa, or at least you had read him, having covered these Cowboys and their games longer than anyone who has come through these parts. Yes, even me. Not even close if you consider Frank jumped on the Cowboys beat first for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1962, two years after the expansion franchise's inception, then was stolen away by legendary sports editor Blackie Sherrod to the Dallas Times Herald in 1972, and finished out his fine career at The Dallas Morning News through 2004, following the demise of his beloved Herald.

         Maybe the only things Frank loved more than covering these Cowboys, talking about these Cowboys, debating these Cowboys and giving his heart and soul to The Herald, were his two daughters, Laura and Elise, his grandchildren and, as he referred to his sainted wife for every one of these years, "The lovely Henrietta."

         And to think he began this lifetime journey when what was called at the time "the pro football writer" left the Star-Telegram and the sports editor asked during a staff meeting if anyone wanted to make the long trip all the way to Dallas at least twice a week to "cover those pro teams," if you can believe that, at at the time considered a thankless job. College football was king, not the Cowboys and Texans.

         The young Luska's hand shot straight up in the air. The job was his. And, it remained his ever since, until retirement and increasing age made putting those words together he did so with such savoir faire a struggle. Just think, for those too young to comprehend, Frank began covering the Cowboys before President Kennedy was shot in Dallas; before Vietnam became a national debate; back when newspapers were put together with hot type and young kids with these huge bags slung over their bicycles pedaled door to door throwing these rolled up bearers of the news mornings and afternoons; back when it was OK to be a character in print, OK to be irreverent and actually applauded to be a different thinker. Yes, back when words and accuracy were precious commodities.

         Frank covered 33 consecutive Super Bowls; the Texans run to the AFL title; ended up with the DFW vote on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee; found himself sunken and soaked in a roadside snow drift while walking toward Lambeau Field for what became known as the Ice Bowl; had the home phone number of Tom; drank with Tex after crossing swords repeatedly, their heads and will equally strong; threw stingers at Jerry; gave Jimmy no quarter; and was amused by Barry. Yet, he was generally respected and embraced by most everyone passing through this organization for 53 years.

         How we traveled to Cowboys game together for eight wonderful seasons with the Times Herald, to all those stadiums documenting the first downfall of the Cowboys during the 1980s, and the beginning of the rise in the early '90s. I can remember his lead following the final game of that gosh-awful 1-15 season in 1989, the day so cold on Christmas Eve the pipes froze at Texas Stadium, rendering the bathrooms as inoperable as the Cowboys were incapable during their 20-10 loss to Green Bay. It went something like this season was so bad the Cowboys couldn't even flush it away in the end, one of many times I simply asked myself, "why couldn't I think of that?"

         Or that Dec. 8, 1991 game, in the press box at Texas Stadium, when we learned this would be the final day working for the Times Herald. As we all wondered about our futures while the Cowboys were beating the Saints, 23-14, Frank wrote on such an emotionally confusing afternoon: You were supposed to remember how you felt. Numb. Eyes watch but they do not see. Ears hear but direct hollow sounds into a vacuum. The brain remains active but does not absorb.

*         Or this one, for the Jan. 7, 1995 edition of *The News following the Cowboys' 38-28 loss to San Francisco in the NFC title game, ending their quest to win three consecutive Super Bowls, Barry Switzer controversially taking over for Jimmy Johnson that season and Jerry Jones having declared at the transition any one of 500 coaches could have won a Super Bowl with the Cowboys' talent: So Barry Switzer turns out to be that rare species. From the multitude of 500 coaches Jerry Jones said would take the Cowboys to the Super Bowl, Switzer has been revealed as the 501st.

*         *Ah, Uncle Frank, he had a way with words, a delicate ability to needle without ever pricking the skin, as Jones would find out when he first bought the Cowboys, the actual press conference of the sale on Frank's 54th birthday. Frank was hard on Jerry, but Jerry never quivered. Would return his calls, shake his hand, answer his questions, to the point one day Frank said, "If I write one more bad thing about Jerry I think he'll adopt me."

         We traveled together to Seoul, South Korea, for the 1988 Summer Olympics, his triumphant return to the city where he had been stationed some 36 years previously, together eating kimchi and bulgogi, what they insisted was Korean beef, though we had our doubts. The training camps, the dinner nights before Cowboys game; teaching me how to drink dirty vodka martinis, up, absolutely no ice. Teaching me to trust my instincts as a reporter, and inducting me into the Old Timers lunches, those once every couple of months treats to break bread with the likes of Frank and Pat Summerall and Carlton Stowers and Hugh Ainsworth and Brad Sham and Rick "Goose" Gosselin and Babe Laufenberg and David Moore, our latest entry, at the Midway Point in Dallas. Frank would even arrange "mystery guests" to join us. Roger has been there, and so has Troy.

         Darn it, Frank, who is going to organize us old farts now? How does this happen over and over again, the people who have a heart of gold end up dying of heart failures? Do they just use them up?

         I last saw Frank a week ago Tuesday. He was still in the hospital, having had the 25 pounds of fluid caused by congestive heart complications drained from his withering body, just two months after heart surgery. For those priceless 30 minutes or so, I am forever thankful.

         His mind still was sharp, just slow, as was his assisted breathing. We spoke of his health, how he was excited to be leaving the next day for a rehab facility. He asked about my family, me his. We talked of the latest Cowboys loss, this one to Baltimore. He understood the offensive line needed more help, but that Tony Romo was a tough cookie. He approved highly of Jason as head coach, just that he needed time, and understand Frank was hard on head coaches during his tenure, even Tom.

         The vice-presidential debates were about to begin. Frank was a staunch democrat. He could argue politics with the same passion he would argue football with Tex. I told him he needed to get to that rehab facility and get back on his feet, that we needed him to organize an Old-Timers lunch real soon and that the President needed his vote.

         He smiled and said, "Yes, yes, vote early and often, just like in the days of your former Mayor," as in Mayor Richard Daley, still remembering I grew up in Chicago during Daley's heyday. My laugh masked my tears. You see, sometimes you just know.

         I held his hand with both of mine, squeezing tightly, saying our goodbyes. He thanked me for taking the time to come see him, told me I was one of the good-uns. Told him for all he had done for me this was the very least I could do. The rest was pretty emotional, just for me, but for all times.

         So if you can this Sunday when the Cowboys play the New York Giants, do me this one favor. See, when covering games at Texas Stadium, Frank's seat in the old press box was next to mine for those many years. He would have this game-day ritual at the conclusion of the national anthem of looking to the seats below us, over to the right where his family sat, casually raising his right hand and gently waving, they to him, a long-standing inconspicuous family tradition.

         At the conclusion of the national anthem for this 3:25 p.m. start, no matter if you are in Cowboys Stadium or on the couch at home, out of respect and appreciation for this real Cowboys treasure, go ahead and toast Uncle Frank by giving him a little, inconspicuous wave.

         Who knows, if it's a nice day at the stadium maybe even the roof will be open.

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