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SIDEBAR MIDNIGHT COWBOYS

From Bob Hayes to Lance Rental to Michael Irvin, there’s always been a dark side to this team.
By SKIP BAYLESS |

IF YOU REALLY KNOW YOUR DALLAS COWBOYS HISTORY, MICHAEL Irvin’s fall was predictable. In 1988 Irvin first swaggered into town with a bejeweled weakness for creatures of the night who will do just about anything to get close to a Cowboy. From topless dancers to sleazy sycophants, the Dallas night was crawling with idolaters who, for Irvin, inevitably would turn into smiling assassins. Dallas was to Irvin what Delilah was to Samson.

Many former Cowboys could have warned Irvin, though he probably would have been too arrogant to listen. Perhaps All-Pro receiver Irvin should have read a book by a former Cowboys receiver, Pete Gent, based on Tom Landry’s booze-guzzling, pill-popping, groupie-doing teams of the ’60s. North Dallas Forty, which was made into perhaps the most realistic movie ever about professional sports, was exaggerated only slightly, if at all. Those teams were predominantly white, but the temptations were the same. Those Cowboys were the first to learn that Big D could stand for Destruction.

Ever since the 1963 Kennedy assassination left a permanent bloodstain on the city’s national image, Dallas has hitched its self-esteem to the star on the Cowboys helmets. Face it: Dallas is best known for the grassy knoll and the Dallas Cowboys. Dallas is a great place to live, but you might not choose to visit here-unless it’s to see the Kennedy Memorial or a Cowboys game, No mountains or ocean. No Disneyland or Bourbon Street. Just lots of good restaurants and get-rich-quick opportunities. Dallas has always been a money-making mecca, which has turned it into a stainless-steel melting pot of people from everywhere looking for the easy score. They come and go like the bars and topless bars, which seem to change their names and motifs with every full moon.

For pro football players, Dallas is very different than, say, New York or Los Angeles. Those cities offer fans two pro teams in every major sport, not to mention many actors and entertainers who are so much bigger than the biggest pro athlete. Washington D.C. gets fanatical about its Redskins, but only as a weekend diversion for the nation’s capital. Denver gets mile high about its Broncos, but Denver is foremost the capita] of the Rockies. Miami gets crazy about its Dolphins, but in Miami the biggest stars are the sun and the moon. Houston might have hero-worshiped its Oilers the way Dallas does its Cowboys, but the Oilers became better known for losing than winning.

No city in America idolizes a pro team the way Dallas idolizes its Cowboys. In Dallas even backup Cowboys become godlike. The quickest way to impress friends or business associates is to say you know a Cowboy. Or-even better-that you partied with one. For any Cowboy, the Dallas night is a blur of women who will supply the sex and men who will supply the drugs.

Since the days of North Dallas Forty, Cowboys have complained that the average fan in the luxury box has no idea how violent football is. Many Cowboys struggled to reconcile Landry’s highly publicized religious beliefs with his subtle urging that they take pain-killing injections to allow them to play football on the Sabbath. As Cowboy-turned-novelist Pat Toomay once said, “Guys arc supposed to take drugs to mask the pain before the game, but not after it?”

Novocain is OK, but cocaine isn’t? For some Cowboys, the lines have blurred. Even playing for Landry didn’t keep some from cocaine’s clutches. Hitting a few of the lowlights: Though later pardoned, Bob Hayes did time for drug trafficking. Thomas (“Hollywood”) Henderson’s book, Out of Control, detailed a cocaine addiction that led him to snort the stuff during Super Bowl XIII. Harvey Martin and Golden Richards have fought drug problems. Larry Bethea lost his battle to drugs and the humiliation of having failed as a first-round draft choice. In 1987 Bethea killed himself with a .38 automatic.

Playing for “God’s coach” didn’t save Lance Rentzel or Rafael Septien, either. In separate incidents about 10 years apart, Rentzel and Septien pleaded guilty to exposing themselves to 10-year-old girls.

lid “Too Tall” Jones’ annual Memorial Day party was a modern-day Roman orgy-mostly black players with white girls, according to several players who attended. Even many of Landry’s married assistant coaches and front-office executives were notorious womanizers. Sex was just so available. So many women in Dallas wanted to touch the Cowboys magic. If they couldn’t have a player, a coach or an executive would do.

Irvin certainly isn’t the first Midnight Cowboy, just the latest. Yet Irvin s drug trial attracted more national attention than any case in Cowboys history1 because 1 ) Irvin has been a leader of a team that has won three of oie last four Super Bowls; 2) the trial was elevated to near-O. J. status with the bombshell revelation that a Dallas cop tried to buy a “hit” on Irvin; and 3) many national media people, looking for the next O.J. trial, came to Dallas to cover an Irvin trial with the key ingredients (drugs, sex, violence, Texas, football, black player, white girls).

A common national-media theme has been: The Rise and Fall of Michael Irvin and the Cowboys. At the University of Oklahoma, Cowboys coach Barry Switzer developed an unLandry-like reputation for running a “renegade” program, and under Switzer the Cowboys have had two drug suspensions (Leon Lett, Clayton Holmes), not to mention the highly publicized problems of Erik Williams (a high-speed auto accident while legally intoxicated and an incident with a topless dancer). Switzer himself has been known to drop by topless bars.

Yet it’s doubtful that even Landry could have led Irvin away from Dallas’ temptations. Though Irvin has privately boasted that he can get away with more during Switzer’s practices than he could when Johnson was coach, Irvin didn’t just suddenly go to the devil after the last Cowboys Super Bowl victory Jan. 28. No, Irvin has been living virtually a dual life since coming to Dallas. By day. Cowboys fans knew him as a hard-working team leader who, via minicam interviews, always conveyed such joy at being able to play football for a living. But by night, Irvin never has been discreet about his womanizing or his associations with unsavory characters. Irvin’s real drug of choice is fame. The roar of the Sunday-afternoon crowd wasn’t enough: The Playmaker needed to flaunt his success by looking like a million bucks and making grand entrances into “gentlemen’s clubs.” As one Cowboys source puts it, “Michael is addicted to [sex], not cocaine.”

As Switzer has said, “Hell, what do you expect?” Perhaps Switzer views most of his players the way more fans should: not as role models but as supremely talented gladiators who do battle for our entertainment and our civic self-esteem, Michael Irvin had spent his whole life training to be a football gladiator. When he was drafted by the Cowboys, he did not promise to be a model husband or a church deacon or a mayoral candidate ( unless perhaps he’s traded to Washington ). He’s really nothing more than a football player-a damn good one.

He wound up playing in a city that sometimes loves its Cowboys to death. The surprise wasn’t that Irvin was found by police the night of March 4 in a motel room with drugs and topless dancers. The surprise was that it didn’t happen sooner. Cowboys history tells us so.

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