It's noon, and the Dallas Cowboys—57 players and 16 coaches plus assorted front-office personnel, equipment men, trainers, janitors and security people—have descended on the team's sprawling football complex at Valley Ranch, 28 miles from downtown Dallas. The two-time Super Bowl champions beat the Green Bay Packers on Thanksgiving Day 42-31 and then scattered to all parts of the country for three days of freedom, but now it's time to fold the napkins, pull on the boots and cinch up the saddles. Practice resumes today for the Cowboys, who are 10-2 and comfortably atop the NFC East, with a game against the Eagles in Philadelphia six days off.
The training complex is actually a vast single-story maze connected by glassed-in hallways that give one the feeling of being trapped in a large gerbil run. Within are offices for everything from public relations to the Dallas Cowboys Travel Agency, a whirlpool big enough to hold 20 players, and a dance studio for the Cowboy cheerleaders. Built in 1985, during the reign of Dallas's original ruling triumvirate—general manager Tex Schramm, personnel director Gil Brandt and coach Tom Landry—the complex reflected a corporate philosophy that promoted technology over human interaction. In the locker room, for instance, small cubicles were scattered throughout, each with its own sitting area and a desk where a player could study alone or, eventually, work the computer that surely was destined to replace the standard team playbook.
In 1989, when Jimmy Johnson was hired to coach Dallas by new owner Jerry Jones, Johnson threw out the whole high-tech mess. Now the locker room is one grand, empty square ringed by simple open lockers. The blue carpet in the middle is the stage where the Cowboys interact.
Running back Derrick Lassie enters this stage at noon. Lassie blew out his right knee in the first preseason game this year, and now he spends his days rehabbing with Mike Woicik, the strength and conditioning coach. Lassie sees 40 or so media people clotted around a player who is hidden from view, and he scratches his chin. "Uh, let me guess," he says. "Emmitt?"
Of course, it is All-Pro running back Emmitt Smith. As a rookie, Lassie was called on to start the first three games of the 1993 season at tailback in place of Smith, who was holding out because of a contract dispute with Jones. The Cowboys lost the first two games, and after the second, defensive end Charles Haley erupted in the locker room, smashing his helmet through a wall and screaming, "Get Emmitt back in here—we're never going to win with a——rookie!" Jones caved in, Smith was back in the starting lineup for Game 4, and Haley and Lassie appear to have made peace.
In time the clot around Smith thins, breaks up and re-forms elsewhere in the room. Smith emerges like a runner from the bottom of a pile. The media demands on Smith, quarterback Troy Aikman and wide receiver Michael Irvin are intense, and they're only slightly less so on fullback Daryl Johnston, wide receiver Alvin Harper, guard Nate Newton and tight end Jay Novacek. Even the lowliest practice-squad player feels some of the media heat.
Smith sits now with some teammates, discussing the vacation from which they've just returned. Smith and backup fullback Tommie Agee crack open cans of snuff and put pinches of tobacco inside their lips.
"I don't dip," Smith says, ever image-conscious. Then he winks. "This is light, anyway." Then he holds up Agee's can of snuff, opens it and lets the cherry aroma spread. "See this stuff? This will mess you up."
Newton, known as the Kitchen, large as a restaurant stove, verbose as a street-corner preacher, strolls into the group. His holiday experience included driving through rural Alabama at the peak of deer-hunting season. "I want to tell you, there were all these white people with guns out there," he says. "Cars and trailers parked up in the woods, people driving down the road with deer strapped to their trunks, blood running off. Damn!"
He shakes his head in mock horror at the image. "My son says, 'Daddy, they killed those deer!' And I said, 'Yep, son, they done messed up Bambi.' And I saw this one dude, orange hat on, fat neck red as can be, and he, like, sensed me—he's looking at me with this squint. I'm thinking, Uh-oh. He'll be saying, 'Yeah, I shot this bear, it was just sitting behind the wheel of a car. There, it's hanging in that tree.' "
In his office first-year coach Barry Switzer thinks about the game against Green Bay, about how, with Aikman out with a badly sprained left knee and backup quarterback Rodney Peete sidelined with a sprained right thumb, third-stringer Jason Garrett started and passed for 311 yards and two touchdowns. Switzer, the old wishbone coach from Oklahoma, may be the luckiest man on earth. Or maybe he's just good. Everybody had said that Johnson was irreplaceable as the Dallas coach. But at this time last year Johnson was 7-4. Switzer is 10-2.
"The Redball Express," says Switzer, grinning. "Old Jason." Switzer likes the red-haired, 28-year-old Garrett, likes him a lot. Garrett may be a small, unspectacular player, but he's smart, and Switzer has spent many hours talking to him, learning what an NFL passing attack is all about. "I watched Rudy Saturday morning on TV, and then at night I saw Field of Dreams" says Switzer. "And then on Thursday I have that." Oh, it's rich. Switzer knows what a wild ride life can be. "I'm having fun," he says.
This night Switzer does a guest spot on The Sports Wave TV show, broadcast from a noisy fast-food restaurant called Miami Subs Southwestern. When host Mike Doocy says to him, "If you had to give yourself a grade right now, what would it be?" Switzer fires back, "Better than Bill Clinton's!" The audience roars.
During a late dinner at Morton's of Chicago, in Addison, a suburb of Dallas, Switzer watches the San Francisco 49er-New Orleans Saint Monday-night game while drinking a glass of red wine. He is less interested in the score than in a newsbreak that announces that the Cowboys are set to hire three minorities for upper-management positions in the organization.
"Yessir!" he whoops and then high-fives a dinner partner, Danny Bradley, one of his former quarterbacks at Oklahoma. Bradley, who is black, will most likely be one of those hired, and Switzer has pushed hard for the deal. No matter that the NAACP had threatened to organize a boycott of Cowboy games if the team did not create some minority posts in management—this is progress. Switzer has a unique relationship with black players. "When I was a kid in Pine Bluff, Arkansas," Bradley says, "I used to dream about playing for him at Oklahoma. Every black kid knew you could actually play quarterback there."
Switzer is so euphoric that he grabs a portable phone and calls his daughter, Kathy, in Norman, Okla. No matter that it's midnight. "I love you, honey," he says. "I love you so much." He hangs up and gets another notion. "Let's call Jerry," he says.
"Uh, coach," says Bradley nervously, aware that Jones is recovering from a bad cold. Switzer ignores him and dials away.
"Hi, Gene?" says Switzer, greeting Jerry's wife. "It's Barry. Is the boss there?" There is a pause, no doubt, as Mrs. Jones hands the phone to her no-longer-sleeping husband.
"Jerry Jones, you sumbitch!" says Switzer. "How you doing? I love you."
BILL FRAKES AND LYNN JOHNSON
While Aikman prepared for rehab by strapping a brace to his knee, Russell Maryland loosened up with a reflex drill.
BILL FRAKES AND LYNN JOHNSON
Before practice Haley (left) got in some light housekeeping. Later in the day Newton built a home for his pit bull pup.
BILL FRAKES AND LYNN JOHNSON
On a TV show Switzer (background, left) was quick with a quip, and he was fast to give an autograph as well.