A Good Ol’ Boy at the Super Bowl

"The Cowboys he’p me with my tickets," W.O.Bankston says, "and I he ’p them with their cars. That’s the way it is in Texas."

W.O. Bank-ston, 64, wealthy Dallas car dealer, sports addict, and longtime friend of athletes, pulls his plaid coat over his expansive belly. He checks the time on a large gold wrist-watch encircled with diamonds, and moves on out of the New Orleans airport in a friend’s 30-foot motor home complete with hot and cold running champagne.

It is 10:45 a.m., Friday, and Bankston is beginning the countdown to Super Bowl XII, his ninth Super Bowl game.

The first stop is the | Dallas Cowboys’ headquarters, a hotel near the airport. There Bankston threads through milling officials and athletes to Texas E. Schramm, president and general manager of the Cowboys.

“How things going, W.O.?” asks Schramm.

“Well, I hit seven straight wells,” says Bankston.

“You have? That’ll knock hell out of your tax shelter.”

“Damn right. I was doing all right when they was dry.”

W.O., a man unafflicted by shyness, rushes over to Cowboy center John Fitzgerald. “I hear you’re workin’ with Carl Sewell Jr. I’ve known him since he was an itty-bitty boy. Get him to tell you about the autographed ball I got him from Babe Ruth back in ’47. I entertained Ruth in Dallas. He was dying of cancer – so we went out and got drunk.”

Fitzgerald smiles that slightly indulgent smile athletes in their prime reserve for elderly men who talk of heroes past. Bank-ston then races up to Cliff Harris, All-Pro safety. “You better speak to me,” says Bankston. “I got your little brother here. He’s flying up in my airplane with my son tomorrow.” A light dawns on Harris’s face. “Oh, yes sir, I really appreciate that.”

Now, Bankston gets down to bidness, as he puts it. He takes out his “briefcase,” a manila envelope loaded with precious jewels, the kind scalpers have risked arrest for all weekend. Bankston adds some more tickets to his collection and an invitation to the National Football League’s annual bacchanalian blast.

“I got the Cowboys six cars for the coach to use here. They he’p me with my tickets – and I he’p them with their cars. That’s the way it is in Texas.”

Friends, Indeed

W.O. (William Orville) Bankston is an American archetype, the businessman who lives by quid pro quo, who brings a touch of glamour into his life by mingling with jocks, who drops $7,000 in “personal” money -to say nothing of corporate funds he can write off – on a Super Bowl weekend. It s the supreme sports event – the game watched by 70 million Americans and another 54 million households around the world. It takes connections to get tickets, and Bankston savors the feeling of clout.

“I brought about 55 people down here. We’re in four or five hotels and I paid all kindsa prices to get those rooms. I personally got 30 tickets to the game. 1 buy 100 tickets for every game in the season besides my two boxes. I got two. A high-class Eyetalian and I bought one box and Lincoln-Mercury has a box.

“I carry a ton of people to the World Series and haven’t missed but two since 19 and 34. You’d think I was one of the owners. Everybody knows me. I kept a box in Yankee Stadium for years. Mickey Mantle and I are best friends.”

Best friends. Names are dropped like so much confetti during the long weekend with W.O. “Best friend” can, in the broad-gauge bonhomie of W.O.’s cosmos, mean someone you saw on TV, someone who bought a car from you – sometimes it can even mean a best friend.

Pat Summerall, the play-by-play announcer, is mentioned. “I know him,” says Bankston. Summerall knows Bankston’s name. “He hangs around with the Cowboys. He just sort of appears.”

Tea and Chicanery

Bankston went up to Mickey Mantle in a hotel lobby in 1951 and introduced himself. “I did all kinds of things for Mantle. He’ped him get a house once.” He and Mantle did become best friends. Another friend is Billy Kilmer.

It is 1 p.m. now and a gang is collecting at Manale’s restaurant for oysters and barbecued shrimp – among them Kilmer and Kilmer’s friend George Owen, a Dallas real estate investor and friend of many quarterbacks.

Kilmer, red-faced and cheerful, claps W. O. Bankston on the back. “He tells fantastic stories about Mantle and Babe Ruth. Those were my heroes. I met W.O. when I was with the Saints ten years ago. We have something in common; he loves all sports. He wants to help anyone in trouble. So many of my friends, if they ask about a car, I send ’em right away to W.O. It’s just automatic.”

Owen chimes in. “W.O. put me in business, hell, four times or so. He’s like a father to me. He got six hundred people or so out of the penitentiary and rehabilitated most. He’s very influential on the parole board. Eighty percent of his day is spent helping somebody. His business thrives because of that.”

W.O. says of Owen, “He’d go broke and I’d put him in business again. I never liked his first wife. I told him, ’Either you lose my friendship or you lose that gal.’ He couldn’t afford that. I told him, ’If you lose my friendship, you’re losing your bank!’ ” Owen nods. “He got rid of the gal.” Her name was Maureen and she later married Watergate figure John Dean.

wine and beer pile up on the table, and soon the stories flow. How Mickey Mantle and Owen and W.O. once won a bet by getting a Baltimore pitcher drunk before a game. They had rigged it so they could all drink tea instead of booze, but W.O. didn’t know about the tea and drank 18 drinks and passed out.

And there was the time Mantle and Owen tried to get Bankston drunk so they could steal his girl friend. “W.O. was between wives and we told this gal he was so old and wore out and broke. W.O.’s crazy like a fox. He pulled out five hundred or so in bills and dropped it on the floor and asked us all to help him pick up the money. The gal took one look at all that money and we couldn’t get her to say hello to us after that.”

Bankston doesn’t drink any more. One of the first times he tried to stop was in 1948. “I was drunk, I dropped a gun and it hit the pavement and done went off and shot me in the belly. Figured I’d better stop.”

Bankston’s round 1 face is distinguished by a flattened nose that looks as if it ran up against Muhammad Ali’s fist. “Oh I used to fool around with the police. The sheriff, Bill Decker, and I were great pals and I’d go out in my car with its siren and its police radio with him. Had a cowboy hit me one time and he put my nose clean over here,” says Bankston, touching the side of his face. “We’d do some arresting. Actually Decker would do the arresting. I’d just sorta herd ’em to the car.”

“Once a guy shot himself and I was carrying this dead man out and went on national TV. [Baseball player] Cletis Boyer was watching and yelled to Mickey, ’Here’s W.O. draggin’ this dead man out on TV.’ ” W.O. savors the story. “They called to tell me about it.”

The check for lunch comes to $140. W.O. Bankston reaches for it. Nobody stops him.

The cab moves through the French quarter to Bankston’s hotel, the Monte-leone. Total bedlam has not yet erupted; it is only Friday, but already it is difficult to thread through the narrow streets. Bankston gives the doorman a $10 bill. In the lobby, scalpers sidle up and say “You got any tickets?” Bankston brushes them aside and says to the bellhop, “I’m gonna give you $10.” He pauses. “One time. You help me along, there’ll be more. The bellhop says, “Yes, sir.”

Bankston stuffs the wad of twenties and fifties, some hundreds wrapped in a rubber band, back in his pocket. “I always carry $1,000 or so. 1 just feel better with it in my pocket. Credit cards don’t have the same feeling to me. I just never want to go broke again.”

Y’all Come

Friday the NFL throws a party for 3,000 of its most intimate friends – including Bankston, in pinstriped suit with vest. It is such a crunch that one guest goes up to Pete Rozelle, football com-’ missioner, and says he’ll come to next year’s game on only one con-. dition – that Rozelle promise him he won’t \ be invited to the party.

It is an exercise in self-indulgence, with huge piles of shrimp, catfish, crab claws, oysters; bars in all corners of the monstrous Rivergate convention hall; two bandstands blasting out Cajun, country music, Dixie rock , and Forties jazz.

Bankston waits to say hello to Rep. Thomas O’Neill, Speaker of the House and football fan. O’Neill is surrounded by as many people as the athletes. He is talking with New Orleans mayor Moon Landrieu. “You still mayor?” asks O’Neill. “For another four months.” After Bankston sidles up, then drifts away, O’Neill says, “Who is that guy? He says I met him at a fund-raiser for Jim Wright.” Someone explains that Bankston is a good man to the Democrats and that he is on the Democratic National Committee finance committee. O’Neill files that news away.

Bankston meets a man for the first time and says, “Next time you get to Dallas, call me up and I’ll get you a car and driver. He’ll keep you out of trouble.” The man asks, “But what if I want to get into trouble?” Bankston says, “Well, then, I’ll see to it that the police don’t bother you.”

Quid Pro Quo for “Little Joe”

Saturday starts slowly for everyone. The players go into hiding. Sports writers get drunk.

Only the fans are stirring. They shout “Cowboys” and “Go Broncs” as they run up against each other in packs. Denverites drink Orange Crush drinks in sleazy bars next to strip joints, and middle-aged women top off sable coats with Dallas Cowboy knit caps. By late afternoon the bellows of fans sound like the mating calls of crazed water buffalo as they move up and down Bourbon Street in the freezing wind. It is so cold that Bankston remarks to nearly everyone he sees that the silver money in his pocket is like ice.

This morning he moved to a larger room, bartered away some leftover tickets, phoned the office to see how his oil wells and car bidness were doing. His son, Jimmy, 27, wanders into the room with Cliff Harris’s brother and Richard Tharp, a buddy who was 1976 world champion drag racer.

Cliff Harris’s brother says he’s never seen Cliff so nervous before a game. Bankston’s son’s crowd closed the bars at 6 a.m.: They say they are saving themselves for the Cowboys’ post-game blast with Waylon Jennings. Bankston says he’ll be in his plane on the way back to Dallas by then.

Bankston wanders up to the Presidential Suite to see John MacMillan, a Dallas Coors dealer, who had 17 cases of Coors flown in for pals who stop by. The suite is $250 a day. Bankston talks about how he is going to get Warren G. Harding elected state treasurer. MacMillan says, “You can do it, W.O.” MacMillan asks if Clint Murchison Jr., chairman of the board of the Dallas Cowboys, has arrived. Bankston says: “Last I talked to him he was coming in just before the game. He don’t like all this hootin’ and hollerin’. He was over in Paris when I talked to him on the phone. I want to put my plane in his damn old hangar. He’s got the room.”

Bankston goes down to the lobby and talks to “Little Joe,” a short man with an Italian accent and a muffler around his neck. “Little Joe” has put aside eight rooms at the hotel and has turned one of these over to Bankston. In exchange, he would like two tickets to the game, he says. That night, “Little Joe” imperiously holds forth in a tuxedo as the maitre d’ at Moran’s – and magically finds a table for Bankston’s party of 10.

“I knew the old man, Diamond Jim,” says Bankston. Diamond Jim is a legendary New Orleans restaurateur, a longtime friend of Huey Long who wore diamonds on everything – including the fly of his pants. His two sons now run Moran’s.

“Everything you want done, you can get done in New Orleans – if you live here,” says Bankston. “When I want to put on the dog for some of my salesmen or customers, I call Little Joe and he’ll have them met at the airport, get them a five-course meal, and I catch the tab.”

Banking on the Bowl

It is midnight before the game and the French Quarter is in total chaos. Police ride horses and wear walkie-talkies and bar cars from the streets. People mill around, strolling, sometimes stumbling up the streets with glasses of booze in hand.

There is an air of revelry, and one policeman predicts there will be no trouble. “Super Bowl doesn’t draw trash. It draws money people. The Mardi Gras draws trash.” He is asked if he is more tolerant of the drunks on Super Bowl eve. “Yaaaa. You have to be. You can’t lock up a hundred thousand people.”

There are 58,000 visitors in town for the Super Bowl. It has been said that the whole thing would be a great event if they just called off the game. But W.O. Bankston is one of the few who decide to pass up the partying and get to bed.

“I came here for the game. You come by my seats at the stadium tomorrow and I’ll introduce you around to nearly everybody from Dallas.” He thinks the Cowboys will win and make the point spread, “But I don’t have a wager on the game and that’s on my mother’s grave. You all run along to the Old Absinthe House. I don’t drink no more and I don’t want to stand around Iistenin’ to all that drunk talk.”

The Best Bowl Money Can Buy

Since the game starts late to catch prime-time ratings, Sunday is more of the same – Bloody Mary brunches, Dixieland bands blaring out frenetic welcomes to the tourists who eat hot dogs and mill around in the Hyatt Regency lobby and wait for the game to begin across the street in the Superdome.

During the game, Bankston is an island of calm surrounded by a sea of wild Cowboy and Bronco fans who blow Klaxon horns, wave signs, and keep up a steady roar.

The Broncos are obviously the sentimental favorites, but this doesn’t bother Bankston, who has predicted all along that the Cowboys will win by 10 points.

With nine minutes left and the score 20 to 10 in favor of the Cowboys, Bankston leaves the stadium. “They’re gonna win. I think our defense played real well, and the only reason I’m leaving is to beat the rush and get my airplane out before the other private planes. There’s some 700 of them down here, I hear.”

Meanwhile the Cowboys are scoring yet another touchdown, and some of W.O. Bankston’s friends are whooping it up in a Chrysler-bought box – drinking, lounging around on the sofas, watching the game on TV. One of them says, “The Orange Crush was turned into orange mush.”

The box is filled with the kind of high rollers who come to such super events as the Super Bowl. One executive sums up what is often the corporate view of sports as he shouts after that last touchdown, “I just won five big ones on that.”

For those unfamiliar with the terminology, five big ones translates into $5,000.

It has been W.O. Bankston’s Super Bowl. He has paid for it.


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