COME THIS THANKSGIVING DAY. ONE THING IS AS certain as cranberry sauce and that overstuffed relative snoring on the couch: The Dallas Cow- boys will play one of the clay’s two NFL games and, regardless of the team’s record, an audience of millions will watch, eager to renew their love-hate affair with the Metallic Blue. ●It wasn’t always so. On the afternoon of November 24, 1966, as the Dallas Cowboys waited nervously in the locker room before their first Thanksgiving game, all the elements of this legendary football franchise-the Super Bowls, the Hail Marys, the Ice Bowl, the Doomsday Defense, the Dirty Dozen, the Cardiac Cowboys, Butch and Sundance, St. Roger, Thurman’s Thieves, North Dallas Forty-were in the future. The past and present were full of the jeers and sneers reserved for all fumbling, bobbling new teams undergoing the NFL’s baptism by fire. The Cowboys got no respect. They’d done little to merit it in their first five seasons. They were a losing team from a city that, in the eyes of many, had killed the president. ● On this warm, windy autumn day, that would begin to change. The Cowboys would finally step out from the shadow of defeat and help recast the image of a franchise-and a city. ● All week, the press called it “the showdown.” and the Cowboy players and coaches agreed. “This is unquestionably the biggest game the Cowboys have ever been in, ” said coach Tom Landry. “Everyone knows what this game means to us,” said defensive tackle Bob Lilly, now a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. ● The showdown-the Cowboys against the Cleveland Browns-matched an expansion franchise that had never had a winning season against one of the NFL’s superpowers. Cleveland, with a vicious running attack powered by the immortal Jim Brown, was one of the dominant teams of the NFL throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Cleveland had owned Dallas, rolling up 11 wins against only one loss back in 1962. Many of the games had not even been close. Cleveland playing (he Cowboys was like the town bully smacking around the librarian.
Until 1966, the only NFL contest on Thanksgiving was always hosted by the Detroit Lions, but after the ’65 season, the league was looking to expand coverage with an afternoon game. Cowboys president Tex Schramm approached his friend, then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, about playing the late game.
“I saw it as a great opportunity to get national exposure, but we had to get someone to play us, and we hadn’t always got the biggest crowds,” says Schramm. Schramm talked to Art Modell, owner of the Browns, and found that he was interested-but only with guaranteed money from the league if the gate didn’t reach a certain point.
Rozelle agreed to the guarantee, and the stage was set. As kickoff approached. Schramm paced nervously outside the locker room. He desperately needed a big turnout to show the country there was more than hot air filling the Cotton Bowl.
THE PATH TO NFL RESPECTABILITY, LIKE the Buddhist path to enlightenment, came for Dallas by way of suffering. At midseason 1965, the Cowboys (2-4 at the time) visited Pittsburgh, the only team with a worse record. When the Steelers handed Dallas its fifth consecutive loss, Landry cried in front of his players. Quarterback Don Meredith joined Landry in the mea culpas that day.
Then the wheel began to turn. Meredith, who had been frustrated over alternating with rookie quarterbacks Craig Morton and Jerry Rhome in the first half of the ’65 season, was anointed as Landry’s number one quarterback, sink or swim. He responded to the challenge, and the team came together around him. The Cowboys went 5-2 the second half of the 1965 season to finish at 7-7 and land a spot in the Playoff Bowl, a consolation prize for the division runners-up. They were clobbered by Baltimore, but they had earned their first taste of postseason play.
“Landry didn’t have good players at first,” recalls former defensive back Mel Renfro, now a sports bar owner in Las Vegas. “But by 1965 the nucleus was there, and they were bringing in quality rookies.” Six Cowboys-Bob Lilly, defensive backs Renfro and Cornell Green, linebacker Chuck Howley, defensive end George Andrie and rookie wide receiver Bob Hayes-went to the Pro Bowl that year.
Landry used the 1966 preseason to build the team’s confidence by emphasizing winning rather than evaluating players, and the team swept all five preseason games. “We were trying to learn the system and believe in it,” says former linebacker Lee Roy Jordan. “At first, we had so many opportunities to see it fail, and then we saw that it could work. We had some who anticipated losing, so we needed an attitude of believing.”
“You could feel it in the air,” remembers Hayes. “We were more focused because we knew what we had and wanted to win the division. Meredith was getting confidence because he wasn’t getting beat up and the pass protection was better. I caught seven TD passes in preseason.”
The complexity of Landry’s offensive and defensive schemes had been a source of doubt for many of the players until the 1966 season. Jethro Pugh, then a defensive tackle, remembers his difficulties with the Flex defense, a highly disciplined gap-control scheme. “The Flex was mind-boggling. It was very restricting. You couldn’t just line up and go get ’em.”
As for Landry’s multiple offense, the players regarded it with suspicion, if not contempt. “Dandy Don” Meredith, the team joker, used to offer a standard quip. “1 took a page of Landry’s playbook to a Chinese laundry, and they gave me three shirts and a pillowcase.” Before the coming of Hayes and an improved offensive line, the multiple attack often seemed to be a fancy name for running fullback Don Perkins “up the middle,” and watching Meredith getting mauled behind a porous offensive line. Both players became known for their sense of humor- and their high threshold of pain.
But there were no jokes and no pain after the Cowboys crushed the Giants 52-7 in the 1966 opener. Dallas then rolled over Minnesota (28-17), Atlanta (47-14), and Philadelphia (56-7). Landry was working more closely than ever with Meredith, and the results-an average of 45.7 points per game-served notice that Landry’s offense had arrived. Dallas Morning News Cowboys beat writer Gary Cartwright called the sizzling hot team “Dallas in Wonderland,”
Against the real contenders for the Eastern Division title-Cleveland and St. Louis-it was a different story. Dallas tied St. Louis 10-10, and then traveled to Cleveland, where Wonderland turned to wasteland. Earlier, Cleveland quarterback Frank Ryan’s wife, a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, had called Meredith “a loser” in one of her columns. Unfortunately, the quarterback did little to prove her wrong that day in Ohio, throwing four interceptions. The Cowboys trailed 30-7 before two fourth-quarter touchdowns made the final score look respectable: 30-21.
“We went up there expecting to win, but we weren’t ready as a football team.” says Renfro. “Talk is cheap and we did a lot of talking, but we didn’t play.” Then began the rumors arond the press boxes and locker rooms of the NFL: Some writers said Dallas had choked, that the team didn’t have the heart and guts to win the big games. “When you get beat badly by a contender,” says Landry, “it knocks you back a little.”
But the Cowboys won three of the next four to set up a rematch with Cleveland, a game that promised to pit the irresistible force against the immovable object. Even though Jim Brown had retired after the 1965 season, Cleveland boasted the league’s top rusher in Leroy Kelly, and fullback Ernie Green ranked fourth. Dallas, on the other hand, had the best defense against the run. In fact, the Cowboys led the league in team offense and team defense. Meredith’s averages of 252 yards passing per game and 22 touchdown passes were statistical miles above any other quarterback-except for Dr. Frank Ryan (Ph.D. in chemistry from Rice), who had racked up 20 TDs-and thrown fewer interceptions.
Landry knew his team faced more than the talent of the Browns. “We’ve never been in contention before,” said Landry before the game. “The first championship is the toughest you’ll ever win. There is an art in learning how to win big games.”
Finally, the Cowboys had a big game to get ready for, but only a short time in which to do it. Landry produced a simplified game plan for the short week of practice leading up to the Thursday game. “That’s probably why we did so well on all those Thanksgiving games,’1 says Bob Lilly. “The game plans were nice and simple.”
The team was ready emotionally. And if they needed an extra edge, Joan Ryan’s remarks before the game in Cleveland had provided it. “Ryan’s wife’s comment got to Meredith, and to the entire team,” says Hayes. Adds Landry: “It’s helpful any time you have comments in the press that downgrade athletes because they have so much pride.”
DPride, confidence and revenge were the prevailing themes in the sports pages leading up to the game, but in the locker room that day, the team was edgy. “I feel like I swallowed a cat,” said wide receiver Pete Gent (later the author of North Dallas Forty) before the kickoff. Even Meredith, famous for his quips, his singing and his playfulness, was silent and pale.
D URING THE LOSING SEASONS OF THE late 1980s and 1990s, the Cowboys have found it difficult to sell out home games in Texas Stadium, which seats just over 65,000. The Cotton Bowl’s official seating capacity was around 75,000 when the Cowboys played there, and the old arena could look cavernous during Dallas’ early years, dotted with crowds as small as 10,000. Not this day. The turnout of 80,259 was the biggest in the history of Dallas sporting events. More than 30,000 tickets had been sold in the last two days.
Tex Schramm remembers watching the crowd stream into the Cotton Bowl. “Art Modell (owner of the Browns) and I stood on top of the press box and looked down on the stands in amazement.” Players noticed too as they walked onto the field. “It fired us up big time.” recalls Bob Hayes. Mel Renfro agrees. “That was truly a magic moment when we walked out on the field and heard the fans go crazy. We were ready to show the fans that we were for real.”
Thanks to Schramm, the Cotton Bowl dazzled that day with a painted green field embossed with a pair of Cowboy stars and a big D in Cowboy blue crowning the 50-yard line. “There were enough colors in the hash markings and the yard-line signs and end zone designs to make a Las Vegas croupier feel right at home.” wrote Blackie Sherrod (then with the Dallas Times Herald) after the game. New stadium lights had been installed in honor of the national broadcast, and there was some pretty good natural lighting as well-moments before the kickoff, a vertical rainbow hung in the southern sky below a crescent moon.
The Cowboys won the toss and elected to kick off with a strong wind behind them. That decision seemed to backfire as Cleveland drove 58 yards on their opening possession, but veteran kicker Lou “the Toe” Groza, in a rare lapse, missed a field goal from the Dallas 28.
Dallas was forced to punt on its first possession, then stopped Cleveland again. Then, Mel Renfro broke a punt return and raced for what the erupting crowd thought was a sure touchdown. But after 38 yards Renfro was dropped by a Brown player he never saw coming. A few plays later, Dallas was forced to settle for an 11-yard field goal by Danny Villaneuva.
The defense gave Dallas a second chance late in the first quarter when Jethro Pugh knocked the football loose from Cleveland’s Kelly and Bob Lilly recovered. Villaneuva kicked a second field goal from 31 yards, putting Dallas ahead 6-zip.
The Browns came right back when Kelly capped a 13-play drive with a short touchdown run, and the duel was on. Meredith led the Cowboys 86 yards and tossed a 6-yard swing pass to Danny Reeves to put Dallas ahead 13-7. A crucial interference call against Dallas cornerback Warren Livingston, who drew the unenviable assignment of covering the great wide receiver Paul Warfield, once again moved Cleveland into scoring position. Ryan floated a 16-yard TD pass to fullback Ernie Green to give the Browns a 14-13 lead at the half.
Football games are often won not on a single big play, but on a series of them. Dallas managed two more field goals in the third quarter while holding Cleveland scoreless. Every time the Browns faced a critical third down in the third quarter, and into the fourth, the Dallas defenders rose up to thwart them.
Early in the fourth quarter, luck seemed to turn against Dallas when Cornell Green, the all-Pro cornerback, left the game dazed by a hit. Frank Ryan, probing for weak spots, immediately went deep to Green’s man, flanker Gary Collins. The 46-yard pass to Collins set Cleveland up on the Dallas 11, trailing 19-14.
Ryan scrambled on first down, but defensive end Willie Townes dropped him by the ankle after two yards. On second down, Green came back into the game, and Ryan went after him like a shark smelling blood. Collins, flanked wide, broke for the corner with an in-your-face move that left Green scrambling to catch up. It was one of those freeze-frame moments-the ball spiraling towards a wide-open Collins and the go-ahead touchdown, and Green racing to close the gap. The crowd seemed to suck the very air out of the stadium with a giant collective gasp, and when Green swatted the ball away at the last second, the whole arena shook with relief.
There were still two downs to go, but Green’s saving lunge had pumped up the defense. The bully had taken his best shot, and Nobody’s Team was still ahead. On third and eight, defensive tackle Jim (Rocky) Col-vin dropped Ryan for a 4-yard loss. Again the Cotton Bowl rocked, and Cleveland called on Groza to try a field goal that would cut the Cowboy lead to a mere two points.
The crowd, relieved to have dodged a bullet, seemed ready to concede the three-pointer. The Cowboys weren’t. Strong safety Mike Gaechter, a former track star, blocked Groza’s attempt from 20 yards out. A scrambling Browns lineman picked up the live ball and desperately shot-putted it end-over-end downfield; fortunately, Mel Renfro was there to make the game’s only interception.
As Dallas took over on its own 28, more than 10 minutes of white-knuckle time remained-plenty of time for the Browns to regain possession and score. Now it was Meredith’s turn, and the superstitious might have glimpsed the ghosts of losing seasons past gathering on the sidelines.
Their hold on the division title at stake, the Cleveland defense fought like mad dogs, pinning Dallas back. Meredith, facing third and 15 at the Cowboy 32, pointed in the huddle to wide receiver Bob Hayes, the world’s fastest human. He said. “Turkey [Hayes’ nickname], if we get a first down, we’ll win. You run a 25 yard out. Line, give me the time, and I’ll hit him.” Meredith got his Turkey for 23 yards and a first down.
Twice more in the drive, Meredith faced third downs, and each time found a way to keep the drive going. From the 38, Meredith ran for one first down. Facing third and four from the 16, Meredith hit Reeves for 6, then called on fullback Don Perkins, who accounted for 33 yards on that one possession and 111 yards for the game. Perkins scored from the 10 with four minutes remaining, making it 26-14. For all practical purposes, the game and the Browns were finished.
The rest, as they say, is history. Dallas, later to be dubbed America’s Team, went on to play Green Bay close in the title game, then ran off a record 20 winning seasons while making five Super Bowl appearances.
With the exception of Roger Staubach, who joined the team in 1969, all of the players who have since joined the Texas Stadium Ring of Honor were on the field that day. None of them knew, however, that they were launching one of the greatest dynasties of professional sports. They did know that for the first time in the team’s history, they would have a three-day weekend to heal their bruises. Then it would be back to work, building legends in the hearts and minds of a city that needed the Cowboys as much as the team needed its fans.