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Original Issue

We Could Have Been Cowboys

IN 1952 my grandfather pulled off quite a feat. He managed to go broke bringing professional football to Dallas. Yes, that Dallas, the city that is now a gridiron capital and proudly harbors "America's Team."

Giles Miller, then a 31-year-old ex-boxer possessed of movie-star good looks and a considerable share of his family's textile fortune, purchased the recently belly-up New York Yanks, who in their three seasons of existence had won just nine of 36 games. He led a group that bought the franchise from the NFL for a whopping $300,000, rechristened it the Dallas Texans and brought the team to a ramshackle training facility in Kerrville where there were so many rattlesnakes that if the ball wound up in the tall grass surrounding the field, the Texans sent equipment manager Willie Garcia to retrieve it. The thinking: Since Willie had a wooden leg, he had only a 50% chance of getting bitten.

It was the team, though, that was snakebit. Their season of misery has been a family heartache ever since.

There was some real talent on the roster. Defensive tackle Art Donovan and defensive end Gino Marchetti would both be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The '52 Texans also boasted two of the league's first African-American players: diminutive scatback Buddy Young, and one of the team's two Pro Bowlers that year, halfback-quarterback George Taliaferro, who a few years earlier had been the first black player drafted into the NFL.

In the opening game Taliaferro connected with Young for the new team's first touchdown. (It came after the Texans' defense forced a New York Giants fumble by, of all people, Tom Landry.) Despite initial enthusiasm within Dallas's African-American community for the team's two black stars, very few black fans were on hand to see Young score. Cotton Bowl officials had coerced Pop into denying black fans access to the $3.60 grandstand seats, allowing them access only to the $1.80 end zone areas. The first preseason game was marred by overcrowding in these sections, and much of the local black community boycotted subsequent games.

When I knew him years later, Pop was a big-bellied lawyer who'd spent the intervening decades moving into smaller and smaller houses in smaller and smaller towns. He had many regrets about the '52 Texans, but I believe the segregation of fans topped the list. He was, in fact, a pretty progressive dude. Pop established a charitable organization called The Goins Foundation, named after Earl Goins, a black war-hero chauffeur who'd all but raised Pop. By going along with the racist ticketing policy, Pop went against his own beliefs.

Things went downhill fast. The business manager Pop hired did a half-assed job and quit before the team played its first game. NFL commissioner Bert Bell had misrepresented the cost and difficulty of running a franchise to Pop. The team's coach, Jimmy Phelan, was ridiculed around the league for his bizarre approach to training. One Texans drill entailed batting footballs back and forth over the goalpost in an approximation of volleyball.

After nine games, all losses, they'd been outscored 325--128. Things were so bad and Pop was so overextended that he had defaulted on his payments to the NFL by mid-November, a mere 10 months after buying the team. He was forced to surrender the franchise to the commissioner.

The Texans' only win came after Bell had moved their base of operations to a temporary home in Hershey, Pa. They were playing George Halas's Bears for the second time that season. Halas thought so little of the Texans that he started his entire second string. The Texans jumped out to a 20--2 lead before the Bears' first-stringers came in. We held on to claim a 27--23 victory.

I say "we" because I think of those Texans as mine. There is an alternate universe in which the Texans thrived, cruising to one championship after another after presiding over the abolition of segregation in the NFL. I can see myself in that world, seated next to my dad and Pop in a luxury suite at the 50-yard line of an enormous football stadium.

In this reverie I ride the charter with the team and take meetings with other moguls. In that reality Pop, who died in 1989, is still alive; he and I raise our snifters of Johnnie Walker Black to commemorate our good fortune in owning the highest-valued sports franchise in the world. We, and our beloved Texans, are on top of the world.

For now, though: Go Cowboys!

Rhett Miller is the lead singer of the alternative country band Old 97s. His new solo album will be out in May.

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