Dallas safety Bill Bates walks in his sleep. He talks in his
sleep. He even tackles in his sleep. "Bill once tackled a chest
of drawers in the middle of the night," says his wife, Denise.
"When I tried to wake him, he literally tackled me." Not
surprisingly, none of Bates's Cowboy teammates will room with
him on the road.
But Bates has never sleepwalked on the gridiron. Thirteen years
deep into an NFL career that was not supposed to happen, the
too-slow, too-light long shot has endured with ferocious,
bone-rattling play. "I still get a big thrill out of making
clean hits," he says. "Nothing beats zeroing in on a punt
returner, catching him inside the 10 and putting him down."
Though his duties are now limited to special teams and the
middle linebacker's role in certain nickel packages, Bates's
intensity throttle is always wide open. He'll hit anybody. "Two
years ago Bill made a great tackle, ran to the sideline and
gashed my head by butting it with his helmet," says Dallas
special teams coach Joe Avezzano. "Bill is the most consistently
intense player I've been around."
Despite his zeal, Bates's spot on the Cowboy roster has been in
jeopardy ever since the reign of Hall of Fame coach Tom Landry
ended in 1989. The 6'1", 210-pound Bates has prolonged his stay
in Dallas by exuding a recklessness on coverage units unmatched
by his peers. He has finished first or second on the Cowboys in
special teams tackles five of the past six years. (The exception
was the 1992 season, when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament
in his left knee five games into the schedule.) Going into
Monday night's game against the Eagles, Bates was tied with
fullback David Lang for the team lead in special teams tackles
this year. "Bill is the best special teams player I've ever
seen," says New England linebacker Steve DeOssie, a former
long-snapper for the Cowboys and the Giants. "He has more
intensity, more intelligence and more awareness than anyone else
on the field. And he has more athletic ability than he gets
Cheerful, attentive, absurdly easy to talk to, Bates shows
enormous emotional generosity off the field: He's a big
supporter of the United Way, the March of Dimes and the Special
Olympics. "Bill does have a dark side," confides Denise. "He
doesn't put the cap back on the toothpaste. And he dips. I don't
ride him too much about it as long as he keeps his spittoon out
of the bedroom."
The Bateses met 13 years ago as seniors at Tennessee. "It was
one of those disgusting football player-cheerleader
relationships," says Denise. The couple married in June 1985,
and by the beginning of the '88 season Denise was expecting.
Bill remembers accompanying his wife to her obstetrician's
office. He remembers a sonographer pointing to a screen and
announcing, "There's your baby!" He remembers squeezing Denise's
hand and hearing her doctor exclaim, "Well, look at that! Your
baby has company. It appears to be twins!" And he remembers the
doctor saying, "I now see Baby A and Baby B joined by Baby C!
You two are going to have triplets!" Then his memory gets a
It's Denise who remembers Bill screaming, "Turn off that machine
before you find another one in there!" The triplets--Graham,
Brianna and Hunter--were born in May '89 (baby brother Tanner
arrived on the scene in February 1991, and littlest brother
Dillon was born in July).
As the end of his football career approaches, Bates has become
something of an entrepreneur. Four years ago Bates purchased a
386-acre dude ranch a half hour outside of Dallas in McKinney,
Texas. Thousands of Cowboy fans gather there for team pep
rallies during the playoffs. At the start of the '95 season
Bates opened his own restaurant--the aptly named Bill Bates
Cowboy Grill--where the menu reads like the Cowboys' playbook.
For $6.95 you can start with "linebackers" (jalapenos stuffed
with chicken and jack cheese) or a "souper bowl of soup and
salad." Option plays among the entrees include the $6.95 Bates
burger, with the inevitable side order of "goal post fries," and
"forward pass-tas" ($9.95 and up). Bates broadcasts his weekly
hourlong radio show for WBAP every Tuesday live from the
Bates is marketing a line of speciality condiments--Bates #40
Tennessee mud sauce, Bates smoke sauce and Bates Nashville BBQ
rub, to name a few--to sell in the eatery. Bates's 1994 memoir,
Shoot for the Star, is also available for purchase at his
restaurant. On page 27 you'll meet a certain Hogan Harrison,
who coached a 12-year-old Bates in Knoxville's local football
league. Harrison tried to make an example of young Bill by
grabbing a football and barking, "Let's see if you can tackle
me!" Bates writes of the episode, "I tackled him so hard that he
landed on his backside and immediately swallowed his chew of
tobacco.... Imagine how I must have felt as I got in our car and
turned to discover our coach alongside his car, violently
No one got the better of Bates on the playing field until his
sophomore year at Tennessee. In the season opener the No.
1-ranked Vols faced Georgia and highly touted freshman tailback
Herschel Walker. Midway through the third quarter, with
Tennessee leading by a 15-2 margin, Georgia drove to the Vols'
16-yard line. On first-and-10 with a blitz coming from the left,
Bulldog quarterback Buck Belue slapped the ball into the belly
of Walker, who slanted toward the blitzers and then cut back to
the other side of the field. The 185-pound Bates braced himself
at the five, certain that the 220-pound Walker would try to run
around him. Instead, Walker ran over him for his first
collegiate touchdown. Georgia went on to win the game, 16-15,
and the national title that season.
"At halftime of the NFL game I was watching that Sunday, the
network showed footage of me getting flattened by Herschel,"
says Bates. Mortified, he called home to announce he was giving
up football. "Fortunately, my dad talked me out of quitting," he
says. "That one play did more for me than anything in college. I
began to lift weights. I got more dedicated."
Coming out of college, Bates didn't attract much attention from
NFL scouts. He signed a free-agent contract with Dallas in the
spring of '83, made the team that season, was selected to the
Pro Bowl for his special teams play the following year and has
been around ever since. Avezzano laughs when he hears somebody
call Bates an overachiever. "How can somebody overachieve for 13
years?" says Avezzano. "At some point you have to acknowledge he
had the skill to last that long."
The Cowboys are getting Bates's services wholesale. Salary-cap
considerations have squeezed the special teams captain's pay to
the league minimum in each of the last two seasons. "If your
boss came to you and said he was going to cut your pay by more
than half, would you like it?" Bates asks. "I didn't. But it
would have taken an astronomical sum to get me to leave the
Cowboys. Besides, my leverage was nil."
Bates loves the game so much that teammates wonder whether he
would pay the Cowboys to let him play. "That's a tough
question," he says. "A more realistic one would be, If you won
the lottery and got $40 million, would you still play pro
So, would he?
Bates doesn't blink. "Sure I would."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES Bates hopes 13 years with the Cowboys will round up a crowd for his new eatery. [Bill Bates]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKESBill and Denise--at home in '94 with their kids--met as Volunteers and have kept on volunteering. [Bill Bates, Denise Bates, Graham Bates, Brianna Bates, and Hunter Bates]