The first memory I have of the Dallas Cowboys was seeing my father watch them on a small television. I must have been about five or six years old. We lived in Juárez, atop a tortilleria with machines so noisy you could hear spokes and chains squeak most of the day. Because of those same machines, our home was always hot. But it also always smelled like freshly made corn tortillas.
I never once considered I’d be a fan of any other team besides the Cowboys. Everyone in my life—father, uncles, cousins—watched them play even though, in my earliest memories of the team, they hardly ever won. Born in 1980, I was perfectly positioned to see them through the franchise’s worst days: the last 29 games of the decade, when they beat just one team, Washington, twice on the road. Days when, watching with my father and sometimes other family, the team’s name might as well have been pinches maletas—fucking losers—since I heard them called that more often than the Cowboys.
Around 1987, my father joined the U.S. Army, and we moved away from Juárez. A few years later, something remarkable happened: the team that I cheered for, the one I almost always expected to lose, began to win. They suddenly had good young players, including Emmitt Smith who, even though I was best suited to play on the defensive line, made me daydream of being a running back. Because of him, I carried a football around the house, stiff-arming unsuspecting walls, cutting in between sofas.
I was a teenager when the Cowboys won three championships in four years. We were living in Germany—the army stationed my father there—during the first two, which I watched in the middle of the night in government housing, careful not to wake sleeping neighbors with my yells of excitement. The Cowboys had become far more than a team I loved. Living in what felt like a strange and different world with temperatures so cold my hair would freeze on my way to the school bus stop, they felt like a way to connect with the familiar. Something to talk about during phone calls with the family, who we wouldn’t see until we moved to Texas about six weeks before the Cowboys lost to the 49ers in the 1994 NFC Championship game.
I watched that last Super Bowl win with family inside a trailer home in the far east side of El Paso where, surrounded by desert, we could yell as loud as we wanted. It was so far from the city and its infrastructure that anyone who lived out there needed a septic tank and at least one mean dog who’d bark to warn you when strangers, attracted to the desert’s solitude, got close.
Just like I had once taken for granted that the Cowboys would almost always lose, as a teenager—at the peak of my fandom, when the lack of life experience makes sports overly important—I assumed the Cowboys would always win.
They didn’t, of course. The stars got old, and when the team became bad again, for more than a decade, their lone bright spot over those 10 or so years was watching an old Emmitt break the NFL’s all-time career rushing record. The team was so bad, so borderline irrelevant, that there were years during the offseason when I all but promised myself I wouldn’t watch another game. Instead of wasting that time and effort, instead of getting my emotions stomped on, I could channel that energy toward something more productive like learning another language.
I kept watching.
Counting this year, the Cowboys have made the playoffs just eight times since 2003—the first year without Emmitt, the last link to the Super Bowl teams. They’ve won just three playoff games. But during just about each one of those playoff seasons, once the postseason started, there was a part of me that imagined they’d win the Super Bowl again. Some years, like 2003, I knew it was like asking for a miracle. Other years, like 2007 and 2014, I was very confident, which only made the unexpected losses hurt that much more.
Sometimes, I wonder if seeing them win another Super Bowl, as an adult, would feel better or worse than I remember it feeling when they won long ago. I suspect it won’t feel as good. They’ll win, I’ll celebrate, and then it’s back to work the next day. Other times, I think it’ll feel even better, only because I’ll think of all the disappointment this team has brought me and how good it’ll feel to see them win again. And if they were to win another Super Bowl, I’ll think about the people who would have also been happy to see it, if only they were here.
This year, as the Cowboys prepare to host the 49ers, I’m as cautiously confident as I’ve ever been. Ever since they beat the Minnesota Vikings on the road, without Dak Prescott and a few other important players—the type of game they’d usually lose—I’ve thought this team was good enough to win the Super Bowl. I still think that. They’re good. And in a season where there are no great teams, and in a sport where the best ones often lose in the playoffs, it’s not illogical to think that. And yet, for that same reason, the Cowboys could very easily lose to the 49ers. Cautiously. Confident.
Cheering for the Cowboys has changed as I’ve gotten older. You gain perspective, understand these games aren’t everything. And yet, perhaps because we’re close to the end of the second NFL season in the pandemic era–and because the first one for the Cowboys was horrible–I also understand why these games mean something more than just a final score. They’re the constant in an often-changing world. They’re the rare meaningless distraction that can also bring you instant joy.
This has been one of the most enjoyable Cowboy seasons I can remember. It’s fitting that they’re playing the 49ers in their first playoff game (in which I’ll surely be a nervous wreck watching). That’s the team they beat in 1992 on their way to the Super Bowl. I watched that game, played on a muddy Candlestick Park, living in Germany; I hardly slept that night out of excitement. A couple of weeks later, my father and I, along with a few others, watched the team that had once been pinches maletas win the Super Bowl.
Maybe they’ll do it again. I’ll keep watching either way.