Today is the weekend.
Some players will head for Valley Ranch to work out or to be treated for injuries, but for healthy players nothing is mandatory. If you want to do something for yourself—pay bills, play with your kids, visit with your agent, chop wood—you do it today.
On alternate Tuesdays during the season, middle linebacker Robert Jones gets his hair cut at Mitchell's Barber and Beauty Shop on Belt Line in Irving. Today is a haircut Tuesday. If his wife would allow it, Jones would get clipped no more than once a month. But as he puts it, "She doesn't like it when I'm all woofy."
This season Jones is calling the signals for the NFL's No. 1 defense, and he is leading the Cowboys in tackles. His performance is an in-your-face to former Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson, who benched Jones three games into the 1993 season even though Jones had been named the UPI Defensive Rookie of the Year in '92. "With Jimmy, if you made a mistake, he would never forget it," says Jones. "Switzer lets you play and accepts mistakes as part of the game." Indeed, the change in Jones's demeanor under Switzer is so great that Jones's wife, Maneesha, states with amazement, "Robert actually seems alive."
Quiet and conservative, Robert would rather spend time with Maneesha and 20-month-old son Cayleb than hang with the 'Boys. But Robert is superstitious to the point of nuttiness, and that includes this hair business. "When the season started, I looked in the Bible and saw that Nimrod was the best athlete, but I couldn't figure out why," he says. "So then I read about Samson and decided that was me. Before the first game of the year, against Pittsburgh, I decided not to cut my hair, and I wound up getting a game ball."
Jones goes on to explain that he cut his hair before the next game, against the Houston Oilers, and had only four tackles. He remained untrimmed the following week, when Dallas played the Detroit Lions, and he got 12 tackles. The pattern held for the next two games as well: haircut, average game; no haircut, superb game. As the Oct. 16 game against the Philadelphia Eagles approached, Jones felt he needed even more hair than usual. "That was an extra-big game," he says, "so I let my hair go for an extra week, and I had the best game of my life."
After the Eagles scored midway through the fourth quarter to trail 24-13, Jones stopped Randall Cunningham just as the Eagle quarterback was about to cross the goal line for a two-point conversion. Later Jones hammered running back Charlie Garner for no gain at the Dallas one and, on the next play, for a loss of six. As defensive coordinator Butch Davis puts it, "That was the game where everyone on this team looked at Robert and said, 'He's our guy. This is his defense.' "
Obviously the hair thing is not something to mess with. Nor are the other little things that Jones believes affect his play each Sunday. For instance, during the week he will eat his lunch only with the equipment managers in the equipment cage, away from all teammates. When watching films of the special teams, he has to sit by the window. But in meetings of the defense he must sit next to the projector. On the team bus he needs to be in the aisle seat, left side, fourth row.
But this hair thing is especially weird. He looks O.K., neat and trimmed. Dangerous. But with Philly coming up again this Sunday, maybe this was not a good idea.
At midafternoon the locker room and the surrounding areas are empty of people, except for assistant trainer Jim Maurer and quarterback Troy Aikman, who does not look happy. He was bent backward in the win over the Washington Redskins on Nov. 20, and his left knee was nearly pulled apart. Now he shows Maurer where it hurts. "It's stiff in the back and sore on the left side," he says. Maurer assures him that the joint is responding properly to therapy. Aikman says he's feeling " about 50 percent" and adds, "There's no way I'm going to play Sunday."
Aikman gets a rubdown from Maurer and then hobbles into the deserted locker room and struggles to pull a cumbersome metal brace over his left knee. "I'm trying to get used to throwing with this thing on, because I guess I'm going to have to wear it when I play from now on," he says. At 28 Aikman has a realistic sense of his athletic mortality. Yesterday he told reporters that he is at least half finished with his career. Maybe more.
Before he goes to the practice field for some light throwing followed by a long series of shuttle runs, backward sprints and lateral-movement drills, he digs through a bag of footballs, looking for one that feels right. He rejects ball after ball. Anger clouds his face. "The league makes all these new rules to increase scoring," he says. "But then it brings in another rule that we have to use a new ball every game, and the balls have wax on them and are hard to grip. It's ridiculous."
Kickers are different. It's axiomatic. So it's no surprise that on his off day, rookie kicker Chris Boniol, a skinny, baby-faced kid from Louisiana Tech, goes out to the Grand Prairie Municipal Airport southwest of Dallas to take flying lessons.
Boniol is also a bit naive. Two days ago he bought a Labrador puppy, thinking it would make a nice companion. Today he gave it away. "It was peeing all over my apartment," he explains. "A dog needs a lot of attention, but I don't have time to be responsible for it right now." Roger.
He is also still amazed by certain perks of his profession. Clad in a new Nike sweat suit and unblemished Nike shoes, he says, "I can't believe that whenever I need new shoes or a pair I have doesn't feel perfect, I just make a call, and I've got new ones!"
The flying lessons are a luxury too. Boniol always wanted to learn, but he never wanted to ask his parents for money to pursue his dream. "Now I don't have much of a social life or a wife, and as of today I don't have any pets," he says. "So I can afford the lessons myself." As he touches down lightly and then guns the engine to lift the little Cessna back into the Cowboy-blue sky, Boniol seems to have no doubt that he'll return to kick again.
Tight end Jay Novacek was worried during the Thanksgiving Day game. He had injured his right shoulder, and on the sideline he was contemplating the damage. "But I got well quick when I remembered I had three days of hunting lined up," he says.
He walks now with his three dogs across a mesquite-dotted hill on a friend's cattle ranch 70 miles southwest of Dallas. Clad in camouflage pants, boots and a white Cowboy practice T-shirt with his number, 84, scrawled below the neck, he carries a 28-gauge shotgun in the crook of his arm as gently as he would a newborn baby. He has already shot a deer this morning, and now he is searching for bobwhite.
"Come here. Marlow." he says. He strokes the head of his gimpy 8-year-old yellow Lab. The fur above Marlow's eyes is tinted with the fading russet of the blood from this morning's kill. "Marlow's got bone chips in his left elbow," says Novacek kindly. "So do I." The dog has had surgery on the joint, and the repair work was only partially successful. "Me too," says the tight end, who has played in three straight Pro Bowls. "I can't straighten it"—his extended left arm traces a bent line—"but I can work a pump."
Novacek, who is from Gothenburg, Neb., would hunt every day if he could. He has shot almost every animal you can think of. "Deer, turkey, quail, black bear, nilgai antelope, aoudad, ducks, geese, pheasant, Hawaiian sheep, squirrel, crow, teal, rabbit, javelina, coyote, fox," he says. "It's what I know, what I did with my father." He prefers to hunt alone, with his dogs, in silent communion with the outdoors. All the Cowboys agree that if there is one Dallas player who could be released into the woods with only a pocketknife for survival and thrive, it is Novacek.
He calls to one of the dogs who has wandered off; suddenly there is a whirring sound, a tiny blur, a smooth motion and a blast, and a bird no longer than a foot drops to the field 30 yards away. Novacek had surveyed his surroundings, ascertained that his dogs were safe, lifted the gun from his elbow, identified the bird as a male by the small markings on its throat (he tries not to shoot females), sighted, fired and killed the bird. In less than a second.
Marlow retrieves the kill, and as Novacek takes the quail from the dog's mouth, he studies it. The bird is unmarked, seemingly asleep, its feathers soft as silk. Will Novacek worry about pellets when he eats the quail? He almost smiles. "I only shoot them in the head," he says.
On a live 6:30 to 8 p.m. broadcast from a pub called the Yegua Creek Brewing Company on Henderson Street, Nate Newton and safety James Washington, hosts of their own weekly radio show on KTCK, are wrapping up a raucous interview with their special guest, Michael Irvin. Not long ago Novacek told the immensely verbal Newton, "If you talk enough, you're bound to say something funny sooner or later." Indeed, Newton is such a ham that he seems genuinely distressed when station announcer Chuck Cooperstein tells him that it is almost time to end the show.
"I'm going to tell one more little story," says the Kitchen. "About beans."
"You already told that!" yells Washington.
The conversation degenerates from there, and pretty soon all three players are hollering at once. Newton, who enjoys playing the role of the put-upon fat man, built a kennel for his pit bull puppies yesterday, and in the middle of that exhausting experience he wiped his brow and considered the great affection the pups had shown for him. "It seems like love," he says, "but what they're really thinking is, Cool, the fat guy's here to feed us."
Now he rips into Irvin, ridiculing the receiver for his deprived upbringing in a family of 17 children. "Didn't know what a Van Camp's beans label looked like till he was 12," bellows Newton.
Irvin is the most flamboyant personality on the Cowboys—loud, talented, arrogant, childish, passionate, dedicated—but he can take ribbing as well as he can dish it out. He laughs along with the crowd.
But business is never far from any player's mind. Irvin's agent, Steve Endicott, is at the bar. Irvin is unhappy with his contract, and Endicott is already talking to the Cowboys. Agents never hang out just for the jokes.
BILL FRAKES AND LYNN JOHNSON
Novacek celebrated a successful hunt with Marlow, while Jones reflected on the important role that hair plays in his game.
BILL FRAKES AND LYNN JOHNSON
Boniol (left, foreground) took to the skies. Jones was grounded with Cayleb.
BILL FRAKES AND LYNN JOHNSON
Radio-show hosts Newton (right) and Washington (left) hammed it up with Irvin.