The author of “America’s Team: The Official History of the Dallas Cowboys,” Sullivan also writes a new column in each issue of Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click here.
They were supposed to grow old together, see each other a couple, five times a year at this reunion or that autograph show. Tell their favorite stories about one another, exaggerate this or that detail a little more with each passing year, and most importantly, without question, joke with one another as only teammates can. This was the unspoken plan. Alas, one which can only be envisioned in the innocence and blissful ignorance of youth.
If only life were that simple. If only our darkest days could be made bright again with some chicken wings and banana pudding. That wouldn’t be a bad world at all.
Who knows? Perhaps, with a little luck, maybe one of our heroes will show up at the door with an air conditioner on the hottest of Texas summer nights. And maybe he’ll give up his Super Bowl ticket so someone else can attend because, you know, been there, done that. And maybe in the midst of practice, seeing a kid on the sidelines unable to catch a glimpse of his idols, he’ll go over and throw the kid onto his shoulder pads, giving him a once-in-a-lifetime front-row seat.
Robert Newhouse was that guy. And those are just three examples of his everyman decency and humbleness. There are countless more, and with each passing hour since he left this world on July 22 at 64 years young due to heart disease, similar stories have emerged. All with that common thread, too.
“Know how people die and everyone says nice things about them?” Ring of Honor wide receiver Drew Pearson said. “This isn’t one of those deals. Every single word you hear about Robert Newhouse is true. There is no fluff and no bull. I promise you that as much as any words I have ever spoken. Everyone in this world liked “House.” I’m not sure there’s another person I could say that about.
“He crossed over with everyone, too. Black, white, the superstars, the rookie trying to make the team, the kicker, the punter, the fans, the kids, the equipment manager. He was the perfect teammate.”
After pausing for a few seconds, his voice trailing off, Pearson added, “He was the perfect friend.”
Yes, Newhouse’s death warrants attention because he was a football player. A heck of a player at that, arguably the most accomplished fullback in Dallas Cowboys franchise history, and he was given a lengthy obit in The New York Times. But who he was and how he lived wasn’t really about the game. It was about the man, the father, the husband, the teammate and the friend.
Make no mistake, though, his life was also about the Dallas Cowboys. He played 187 games including the playoffs over his 12 seasons (1972-83), mostly at fullback, and his 4,784 rushing yards are fifth most in franchise history. Few, if any, were more proud to put on that uniform, and fewer still understood the responsibility that came with it.
He signed every autograph, shook every hand, talked with every kid, and all with a smile. Know why? The kid from East Texas was just as much in awe of his adoring fans as they were of him. Newhouse never fancied himself worthy of being fancied.
“He never looked down on anyone else, never once, never for a second,” teammate Charlie Waters said. “House would tease you, he was one of the greatest teasers I’ve ever been around, but at the same time, we teased him unmercifully. That was because we all loved him so much.
“So many of us loved him like a best friend. We all kind of loved him like that big, happy puppy dog. That was House. We loved him unconditionally.
“I enjoyed House as much as any teammate I ever played with, and I treasured his friendship. His heart really was as big as the state of Texas. He’s one of the few people in this world who would do for you before he would do for himself. He was dealt a bad hand in life. I will miss his presence every single day.”
Born in Longview, Texas, on Jan. 9, 1950, Newhouse grew up in Hallsville, a small town near the Louisiana border, which until 2003 featured just one traffic light. His football career could have ended after high school despite some impressive rushing numbers, mostly because almost no one saw him play. He was a legend at Galilee High School, running for 200, 300 yards on the majority of Friday nights. But back in the 1960s, word didn’t exactly spread like it does nowadays, especially from places in the middle of nowhere. Late in the recruiting process, however, a single scholarship was offered, from Houston.
There, Newhouse thrived, setting a plethora of school records, many still standing, including a single-season mark of 1,757 rushing yards as a senior in 1971. This was all the more impressive considering Newhouse was banged up in a car accident before the season started. His injuries weren’t properly diagnosed and for years he played through pelvis and groin pain.
It was at Houston where the legend of Newhouse’s physical attributes began to form. Of course, there were the thighs; impossible to talk about Newhouse without mentioning the 44-inch thighs. A lot of folks have been skeptical about that famous measurement, some saying there is simply no way, but teammates and newspaper accounts from his playing days are adamant.
“They were 44 inches, and I’ve been around this game for 60 years, measuring players long before the Scouting Combine or any of that stuff, and let me tell you, no one has come close to having those kinds of thighs. That includes Earl Campbell,” former Cowboys personnel director and longtime scouting guru Gil Brandt said. “Know what else? Robert would be an absolutely dominating player in the NFL nowadays with these one-back offenses. I think he’d be a top-3 running back.”
So there were the thighs, more on them later. There were also the feet. And the short arms. The really short arms. As for the height and weight, that’s going to be one of those mysteries left to history. At various times in his NFL playing career, Newhouse was listed from 5-8 to 5-11 and 200 to 215 pounds, although teammates say his weight fluctuated much higher.
As for the feet, Newhouse wore a size 10. This in and of itself is quite normal. The width of his feet is another story entirely, though. In college, he wore a triple-E and would go through three pairs of shoes a game on the artificial turf. The shoes would more or less disintegrate, with Newhouse’s stocking feet sticking out of the sides.
His feet grew even wider in the NFL. Pearson and Brandt recall him wearing a 7E, which is more than twice the normal width. To fully appreciate this, take a ruler and measure seven inches across your foot. No, really. Those were Newhouse’s feet.
“I wore a size 10, too, so he was always borrowing cleats and he’d bring them back just torn apart. Half his foot would be hanging out within the first hour of a practice or game,” Pearson said. “I remember Howard Cosell always talking about his thighs. Howard loved talking about his thighs. House was something else.”
His arms were ridiculously short, too, even for his height, whatever that may have been. In many ways, physically speaking, Newhouse was kind of a cartoon character, someone roaming the streets of Bedrock.
Waters remembers seeing him for the first time after the Cowboys selected Newhouse in the second round of the 1972 draft.
“Physically speaking, he didn’t look like an NFL player. He was more like a chunk of granite,” Waters said. “First there were the thighs, which were bigger than my waist. I couldn’t wrap my arms around his thighs in practice. I just couldn’t. You had to pick a thigh and try tackling him that way. And he had these little hands, stubbly fingers and the feet. The feet didn’t look real. He wasn’t the carved statue of a professional athlete.
“He was more like the bottom part of that 100-year-old oak tree and you just can’t break through it. He was the callus side of that oak tree, so incredibly tough. He’d stick his face in the chest of a linebacker on that lead block and without fail, that linebacker was going down.”
Newhouse played both tailback and fullback with the Cowboys, rushing for 930 yards and catching 34 passes in 1975, his best statistical season. However, two years later the team drafted Tony Dorsett, and after that, it was mostly blocking, although the fullback then was much more involved in the offense than present-day. Newhouse rushed for at least 400 yards eight straight seasons from 1973-80.
“In nearly 60 years being around the NFL, Robert is one of the best people I’ve ever been around,” Brandt said. “He did everything you asked.
“Let me tell you, don’t ever ask a tailback to become a fullback. That’s the cardinal sin of football right there. We would alternate Robert back and forth and he never complained. Not once. Imagine going from being our leading rusher, almost 1,000 yards in 1975, and then being the lead blocker the next few seasons. Who does that? Robert did. He was the very definition of a team player. He loved his teammates so much.
“There was nothing in Robert’s makeup to dislike the guy. Nothing. There aren’t many like him in this world.” [embedded_ad]
Newhouse also scored the first touchdown in the history of Giants Stadium, an 8-yard run on Oct. 10, 1976, although in terms of memorable plays nothing comes remotely close to his halfback option pass in Super Bowl XII. This one is the stuff of legend, an absolutely ridiculous play call by Tom Landry that ended up working to perfection. And in the process, Newhouse became the first running back to throw a touchdown in the Super Bowl, a 29-yard scoring strike to Golden Richards.
The play was supposed to run to Newhouse’s right, which would have made the throw, in theory at least, much easier as he was right-handed. However, they ran the play a dozen or so times in practice beforehand, and not once did Newhouse complete the pass.
“We were working on that play for two weeks and House didn’t throw a spiral once,” Waters said. “I’m honestly not sure I ever saw him throw a spiral before that pass in the Super Bowl. He threw wounded ducks. But he was a gamer, an absolute gamer. Like no one I ever played with. You knew exactly what you were going to get when you called his number.”
Brandt vividly recalls running the play the Friday before the game, saying, “we ran it to his right 10 times, which is a lot easier, and he went 0-for-10. He threw the ball wide, short, underthrown like you couldn’t imagine, sideways, it was a disaster. There was no way Tom was calling that play, never mind to his left.”
The moment, though, was seemingly never too big for Newhouse. And with the Cowboys leading the Broncos, 20-10, in the fourth quarter, and driving, Landry felt the time was right to put the game out of reach. And so he called “Brown right formation, X-opposite shift, toss 38, halfback lead, fullback pass to Y.”
“When Tom called the play, I said, “I can’t believe he called this play,” Newhouse once stated. “I was nervous about throwing the ball. In practice the ball had been wobbling, but (quarterback) Danny (White) told me to get my hip around it. I kept thinking about that when I got the ball.”
Making life more difficult for Newhouse was the fact that he had recently doused his hands with Stickum, which was typical in this era before gloves were commonplace. But when throwing the pigskin, the glue-like substance could prove most problematic for obvious reasons.
“I was shocked. I panicked,” he said. “I’ve never eaten so much Stickum in my life. I started wiping it off my pants and started licking my fingers.”
Newhouse also wasn’t hiding the fact he was likely throwing a pass, loosening his arm in the huddle, cracking his knuckles and wiping his throwing hand on every towel he could find. Still, the play worked to perfection, an unlikely spiral that landed in the receiver’s hands. Amazingly, Richards was actually somewhat covered, so the pass had to be precise.
“Everyone knows Tom wasn’t the most talkative guy in the world,” Brandt says with a laugh. “But I asked him later that night, ‘What in the world were you thinking calling that Newhouse pass?’ He smiled and said, ‘Have faith.’ He had faith in Robert.”
Education was huge to Newhouse, who earned a master’s degree from the University of Texas at Dallas during his playing career. After his retirement, he worked for the Cowboys for another 17 years in a variety of roles, mostly as the director of alumni affairs. Newhouse made sure his former teammates were taken care of. He was always the one who knew if someone had fallen on tough times, and he singlehandedly organized a group of former teammates to fly out to Jacksonville, Fla., when Bob Hayes passed away, in Jerry Jones’ private jet no less. Newhouse was the one guy who crossed over generations, from Tex Schramm and Landry to Jones and the Triplets. Newhouse won four Super Bowl rings with the Cowboys, that first one in Super Bowl XII and then three more as an employee in the 1990s.
“We have such a memory of him as an outstanding football player for the Cowboys, his involvement, what he represented on the field, his toughness,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “The thing I remember is that Robert was the first former Cowboy that I invited to come in and be a part of our new regime when I bought the team (in 1989).
“And Robert served in various capacities for the team and served extremely well and was very effective. He was very effective with our alumni. He had the respect of the fans, had the respect of everybody in my organization and the new people on board. He was the real deal.
“He was outstanding, he was about football. You couldn’t look at that guy and not understand and think about our game that we play, and he played it with every ounce of his heart.”
Suffice to say, Newhouse was a fan favorite. There was no way he couldn’t be – the physique, the determination, the production, the humbleness, not to mention being a kid from Texas. Also, Newhouse adored interacting with people. He got it. Would sign every autograph, hang out for hours just talking about this or that. Newhouse enjoyed it as much as the fans did, and he honestly considered himself one of them.
“We had this traveling basketball team when we were playing, during the offseasons, and House couldn’t play a lick, couldn’t hit a layup, couldn’t dribble. But he came along every time and he’d be up in the stands during games signing autographs, taking photos, cheering us on,” Pearson said. “He always was a great ambassador of the Dallas Cowboys. His dream growing up was to play for the Dallas Cowboys and he never took that for granted. I never met anyone so appreciative of what he had than House.”
Family was instrumental for Newhouse, his longtime wife, Nancy, twin daughters, Dawnyel and Shawntel, and sons Reggie, who played wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals, and Rodd. He preached education and each graduated from college. When he died, after spending eight months at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., awaiting a possible heart transplant, his entire family was with him. These last four years have been tough since Newhouse suffered a stroke in 2010, and even though they were prepared for his passing, the finality of the moment was still very difficult.
“You can’t prepare for death, even if you try,” Rodd Newhouse said. “He was sick. We found out it was a generic condition, he was born with it. He couldn’t fight it. My father was at peace, though. He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
“He was a very simple man, a good man. He was almost, if it makes sense, complexly simple. There was no problem in this world my father couldn’t solve with some chicken wings and banana pudding. He wanted to take care of everyone’s problems, and then take them out for some wings. That was a good day for my father.”
Despite being moved from fullback to tailback to fullback and being asked to play on the majority of special teams throughout his career, even on kick returns his final few seasons, Newhouse never complained. Brandt never recalls him asking for more money during contract extensions, either. What was offered was good enough and he signed. This was a different time and place of course, but Newhouse was a different kind of guy, too.
“I asked him about that not too long ago,” Rodd Newhouse said. “He told me he played scared for 12 years. He wanted to keep his job. He was the true definition of team player. And he loved playing for the Dallas Cowboys. Know what else he told me? He said he was just a blip on the radar screen. That players came before his 12 seasons and players came after him, but that he was incredibly proud of his place, however small, with the Cowboys.
“He would walk into a room and one of us would be sitting down, and he’d say, ‘Go do something.’ He was always pushing you, he was a doer. He was always pushing education very hard. He’d tell us, ‘Look what education did for me. I’m from the country, I’m from the woods, and a whole new world was opened to me because of education.’”
The end was tragically brutal for Newhouse. After the stroke, he lost 50 pounds, maybe more. By 2012, he was frail and weak, despite being just 62. He still tried to live a normal life, even driving himself to an autograph show he was doing with Pearson. For the most part, though, his children took care of him. And he grew weaker and weaker before entering the Mayo Clinic last November. There, on occasion, on the good days, his family would call his teammates and give Newhouse the phone. Such a call took place just three weeks ago.
“He sounded so weak, so we didn’t talk much,” Ring of Honor tailback Tony Dorsett said. “I told him he was our big, strong man and he was going to beat this. I told him I loved him.
“I knew he wasn’t doing well, I understood that, but he was 64. Man, that’s young, too young. Robert Newhouse was supposed to live a long time, grow old with us. I just never expected this. I’m so, so sorry for his family. He was such a wonderful man, a great father, a great husband.
“Robert was our peacemaker. If I ever heard him raise his voice it wasn’t more than a few times. He was such a blessing to me, as a teammate and one of my great friends. Robert just wanted to care of everyone. He was that kind of guy.
“The Lord works in mysterious ways. I’m not sure sometimes why this sort of thing happens. I’m just not sure … but, you know, Robert’s home now. And he’s nice and healthy again. Maybe he’s playing some football. He’s Robert again.”
The passing of any family member, loved one, teammate, friend is difficult. There is nothing easy about death. The best those who remain can do is to celebrate the life of those lost. And that’s what Newhouse’s closest friends have done. And that’s what they will continue to do.
“You can’t prepare for death. The sting of death is so final, and you know he’s trying to hang on, and it doesn’t look good, but when the call comes, you are still absolutely and completely crushed,” Pearson said. “There has never been a tougher man to play for the Dallas Cowboys. House took his hits in life, on and off the football field, but he never felt sorry for himself, and he never stopped the fight. Know what bothered him most these last four years? Being a burden to other people. That’s who Robert Newhouse was. And this world is a better place because of him.”
Rest in Peace. And may they be serving chicken wings and banana pudding in heaven, for Robert Newhouse has earned nothing less.
Follow Jeff Sullivan on Twitter, @SullyBaldHead, or email him at email@example.com.