By JOHN WILLIAMS
Published: November 30, 2012
We might pause right here at the start to wonder about the potential audience for an 800-page history of the Dallas Cowboys. If “football mad” is the first adjective you would use to describe Big D, many more will scroll by before you get to “bookish.” As Joe Nick Patoski writes, this is a city “all about tearing down the past” that can count, among its other achievements, an early rivalry with Houston for the title of “boob-job capital of America.”
THE DALLAS COWBOYS
The Outrageous History of the Biggest, Loudest, Most Hated, Best Loved Football Team in America
By Joe Nick Patoski
Illustrated. 805 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $29.99.
Times Topic: Dallas Cowboys
Then again, even the N.F.L. was initially a hard sell in northeast Texas. The entrenched Lone Star tradition of packing high school and college football stands on Fridays and Saturdays didn’t leave a lot of energy for Sundays. The city’s first iteration of a professional franchise, the Dallas Texans in 1952, drew so little interest that the team was banished to practice in Hershey, Pa., and play in Akron, Ohio, in the middle of its inaugural (and only) season.
The Cowboys fared a little better. Clint Murchison Jr., the son of an oil baron, invested $600,000 to start the team in 1960. After surviving competition from another crew named the Texans — this one in the upstart American Football League — it went on to win five Super Bowls, redefine the art of cheerleading and inspire the equal levels of adoration and resentment reserved for arrogant conquerors everywhere. The current owner, Jerry Jones, paid $140 million for the team in 1989. Forbes recently valued the ’Boys at a manly $2.1 billion.
Jerry Seinfeld once joked that given all the personnel changes over the years, remaining loyal to a sports team is a silly proposition: “You’re actually rooting for the clothes, when you get right down to it. . . . You are standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city.” On one hand, this is a problem for Patoski, since generations of Cowboys aren’t bound together by a single narrative strand, or even a dozen of them. Only by clothes. So a comprehensive history of the team is at an inherent disadvantage against narrower slices — say, Jeff Pearlman’s “Boys Will Be Boys,” which covers the team’s frequent victories and tabloid appearances in the 1990s with the frictionless verve of glossy-magazine vernacular. Or John Eisenberg’s “Ten-Gallon War,” published just one week before Patoski’s book, which chronicles the early battle with the Texans for the Dallas fan base.
On the other hand, the 50-year scope offers an instructive time-lapse view of America’s jock culture: from the 1970s star quarterback Roger Staubach, who asked for a station wagon instead of a sports car after being named M.V.P. of Super Bowl VI, to the current quarterback Tony Romo, who took fire from fans when he jetted to Mexico with Jessica Simpson just before the start of the 2008 playoffs. And from the legendary coach Tom Landry, who said about his deep religious convictions, “I have no doubt that there is something other than man himself that leads man,” to Jones, who once reflected, “If I was going to be in the foxhole with somebody, I’d be there with me.”
Whether or not it’s an illusion based on high visibility, the franchise seems to have attracted more than its share of outsize characters. Gathering them all in one book makes for a raucous reunion. In 1971, the running back Duane Thomas fell into a silence for weeks after asking a reporter, “Haven’t you ever felt like not saying anything?” He spoke to the media through the former football star Jim Brown after that season’s Super Bowl. (Brown: “Duane says he feels good today.”) A vow of silence would have been a good strategy for the offensive lineman Nate Newton, a key part of the team’s ’90s dynasty. He told the press, of the days leading up to Super Bowl XXX in 1996: “The Tempe police gave us a list of places not to go, and there’s where I went. I like wicked, dude.” And in perhaps the least publicity-conscious moment in American history, he said this about the “White House,” a designated five-bedroom hangout where Cowboys could get wicked, dude: “We’ve got a little place over here where we’re running some whores in and out, trying to be responsible, and we’re criticized for that, too.”
Patoski notes that the linebacker Lee Roy Jordan and three other white players went to a team Halloween party in 1970 dressed as members of the K.K.K., which was somehow less odd than the explanation for it. “I felt I needed some way to show the blacks on the team, especially those from the West Coast, that color meant nothing to this ol’ Alabama boy,” Jordan said. Mission . . . accomplished?
Unfortunately, Patoski sets no limits for himself in the anecdotes department. Information, once learned, will be shared. He knows the rest of the costumes worn to that party, so we’re told that “Larry Cole was the Jolly Green Giant; Ron Widby came as Frankenstein.” The minutiae of the team’s media changes are also set down for the record, like the fact that Rick Weaver, “an announcer from the West Coast by way of Wichita, Kan.,” joined the radio team in 1963. One by one, we learn all the moonlighting jobs that players held in the 1978 off-season. (“Burton Lawless got into frozen seafood.”) This devotion to detail reaches its apotheosis when Patoski lists the regular seating arrangement for team flights in 1975: “On the right side, Clint Murchison and wife were in 3C and D,” and so on.
His appendix of sources includes a 62-page list of magazine and newspaper articles. That’s a lot to synthesize, and he can be too dutiful in giving equal time. He spends just a little more than three pages (about 0.4 percent of the book) on the Ice Bowl, the legendary playoff game between Dallas and the Green Bay Packers in temperatures well below zero. A bit later, we learn that Billy Graham christened Texas Stadium with a 10-day spiritual crusade in 1971, which is interesting enough. But we’re also treated to an extended excerpt from Graham’s remarks on one of those nights: “To you who are watching by television, it’s been raining here in Texas for the last two days. And tonight, in spite of the weather, there are 43,000 people here. I don’t know what kind of crowd this would have been, had we had good weather.”
Patoski’s previous books include biographies of the musicians Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Selena, Texan legends all but not of the gridiron variety, and he airs some opinions about football that seem squarely those of a music fan. He offers, for instance, that by 2011 the former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson “had become almost as legendary a broadcaster as former Oakland Raiders coach John Madden.” He also fumbles some facts along the way. For instance, he has the 1960 United States men’s hockey team (the book is wide-ranging) beating the Soviet Union, 9-4, for the gold medal in the “miracle on ice.” But America beat Czechoslovakia for the gold that year — the “miracle on ice” over the Soviets came in 1980, and not in the gold-medal game.
But the book’s shortcomings are balanced by its surplus of entertaining characters and by Patoski’s broader interest in Texas history. The Cowboys’ birth and ensuing decades of success also corresponded with the Sun Belt’s ascent to a central role in the politics and economics of the country. Always in the foreground of the book is the larger story of Dallas, from its founding in 1841 through its lingering codified racism in the mid-20th century to its various periods of population boom and increased clout. Those looking for just the football facts have to wash them down with a lot of civic history along the way, and the book is better for it. Patoski must be fascinated by the Cowboys to have devoted himself to this herculean task. Luckily for those fans whose curiosity extends beyond the sidelines, he’s also taken with the complicated region that the team calls home.
John Williams produces the Books section for NYTimes.com.