Michael Corcoran reviews the Cowboys book for the Austin Statesman’s Texas Book Festival special
Posted: 12:00 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012
By Michael Corcoran
Fort Worth native Joe Nick Patoski has wrapped himself around some of the state’s biggest icons: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Selena, Willie Nelson. But his latest book tackles an institution almost bigger than Texas itself: the Dallas Cowboys.
Several histories have been written about “America’s Team,” but none has covered as much ground as Patoski’s, which takes the reader from John Neely Bryan to Dez Bryant, the founder of Dallas to the most recent team “trouble man.”
Reading this epic, exhaustive biography is like driving across the entire state of Texas or eating a large pizza by yourself. At first your appetite is so strong you think you’ll get through this with no problem. And this trip doesn’t stay on the freeways, but often ventures into the backroads, where the real adventure is. But as much of a Texas historian as Patoski is, he’s not above dishing dirt, and this book tells you who stashed away secret families and bottles of office whiskey, among other peccadilloes.
Still, about halfway through, you’re completely full. You can’t take another mile, another slice, another chapter.
But then along comes Jones. When things start to drag a bit, like the Tom Landry Cowboys of the late ’80s, Jerry Jones comes aboard like an overconfident Arkie on a seniors cruise ship. He’s a fascinating huckster, the Colonel Tom Parker of sports, who paid too much for a team in 1989 that’s worth 10 times that amount today. Perhaps there’s one too many references to Jones’ “lizardlike” looks and personality, but Patoski backs the eccentricity with numbers that show Jones as a genius of marketing. The team’s $220 million-plus operating income last year was almost twice as much as any other NFL team.
The 700-plus-page book opens with an awestruck description of the $1.2 billion Cowboys Stadium, “Jerry’s World,” to show how the team and its trappings played a role in the adage that everything’s bigger in Texas. But then the book quickly gets into its best stuff, the early years. We meet a couple of oil baron heirs, Clint Murchison Jr. and Lamar Hunt, who went head-to-head in the early 1960s with two professional football teams: Murchison’s Dallas Rangers, who would become the Cowboys of the National Football League, and Hunt’s Dallas Texans of the American Football League. Losing money with the AFL champions, Hunt moved his team to Kansas City and it became the Chiefs, named after KC mayor Harold “Chief” Bartle, of the super-sweetheart offer Hunt couldn’t refuse.
The rivalry between the NFL and the upstart AFL — and Hunt’s role in the merger — is just one of the topics here that deserves a book of its own. Several, in fact have been written on the subject. Patoski’s challenge was to be a completest, fitting so much history, so many players and personalities, into a book that weighs less than a lineman’s helmet. He breezes past much of it, and the pace picks up in the chapters on the past 15 years, during which Dallas has won only one playoff game, which feels tacked on as punishment, for both the author and fans. (Full disclosure: Having covered the periphery of Troy Aikman’s first two Super Bowls for the Dallas Morning News in 1993 and 1994, I was interviewed for the book and provide an anecdote concerning Cowboys legend Lee Roy Jordan and brash defensive end Charles Haley.)
You’ll hear football coaches recite that the three phases of football are offense, defense and, the one you might not think about if they didn’t keep drilling it in, special teams. The “special teams” of writing are the transitions between paragraphs, and if there’s a knock on “The Dallas Cowboys,” it’s a lack of smoothness between sections at times. It seems Patoski had to decide between making this writerly or full of anecdotes and observations that sometimes collide like linebackers, and he chose the latter.
Patoski’s a natural storyteller — as I’ve known since I first met him in 1984 — and his best trait here in that regard is providing context. This is not just the story of “America’s Team,” it’s sexy cheerleaders and larger-than-life owners and the functional monuments they built to themselves and their teams. “The Dallas Cowboys” succeeds in framing the bigger picture that gave birth to it all. Dallas is a city, Patoski writes, that has no real reason, no ports or navigable rivers, for existing in the mid-1800s. It’s a metropolis of its own invention, fueled by crazy oil money, and along the way it created “the biggest, loudest, most hated, best loved football team in America.” The Cowboys, Patoski writes in the book’s last sentence, “couldn’t have happened anywhere else.”
I grew up hating the Cowboys. My favorite NFL team was always the one playing against the self-important jerks with the blue stars on their helmets. But after I moved to Dallas in 1992, something strange happened. Something I could not really put in to words, but Patoski does. The Cowboys are to Dallas what the beach is to a island resort.
As a born-again Cowboys fanatic, I couldn’t wait to read about the team that converted me, with Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin on the field and Jimmy Johnson on the sidelines. But the part of the book I just couldn’t put down told of the building of the franchise. I’ve always heard the name Gil Brandt, but didn’t before know the depth of his scouting abilities and the role it played in the team’s rise. He’s one of the many reasons this team from the city wheere Kennedy was killed became such a national phenomenon. It’s all in there, often peppered with brusque commentary and corny Texanisms.
That Patoski was able to write this book so soon after finishing his authoritative biography of Willie Nelson attests that this was a story that the author grew up with and added to during his two decades at Texas Monthly. Although more than 70 books and hundreds of articles are cited as sources, portions of the book read written first and researched later. He knew most of the story going in.
He has lived in the Austin area, currently Wimberley, since college, but Patoski’s heart has never left the black prairie land of North Central Texas, where a team of football players gave it an identity, a sense of pride and community.
This book couldn’t have been written by anyone else.
“The Dallas Cowboys”
Joe Nick Patoski
Little Brown, $29.99
The Dallas Cowboys: The Outrageous History of the Most Hated, Best Loved Football Team in America
with Joe Nick Patoski
2:30 p.m. Saturday, Lone Star Tent