By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The camaraderie is the same, no matter how big and bizarre the demands on this team become.
But something is different.
"No doubt, every year is different," says Irvin. "And every year for us is emotionally more draining because each time we are coming off a bigger emotional high. Nothing can be matched. There used to be a high for regular season big games. It's like a coke addict, it has to be more and more, ya know?
"It has not been the same adrenaline level during games. This team has not been emotionally high."
And so, the questions are asked. The irritability factor increases.
The "Dallas is Dead" Inside Sports cover remains on the bulletin board, blown up to the size of someone's daughter's wedding picture. A quote from a 49er, promising his team will win the big one, sits beside it.
Ducking reporters is more survival mechanism than a butthead athlete trait--at least in this case.
But there will be no hiding when they play Green Bay Jan. 8.
The energetic practices this week appeared to back up what scant rhetoric did emerge between trainers' room and showers.
The workouts were different this week. This week, said Irvin, is the very first week since the team left Austin that the practices have carried this both delightful and intense quality.
Since Austin. In that time two major sports have been all but lost, the leadership of this country shifted dramatically, and 1.3 million more fruitcakes were sold.
Plenty of time to question. But the time it takes to get up for it all again when you're a Cowboy.
Out on the practice field of bent brown grass and blue fences, they bounced around like little boys who'd gotten real-looking NFL jerseys for Christmas and were sharing a make-believe game ball one of the neighbor kids brought down.
Afterwards, they all seemed a little happier, at least those who came out of hiding.
"Today was a great practice," says Irvin. "We were running around, having fun again. Everybody here is a big playmaker. We are a team of playmakers. We will come around when we need to."
He signs some more stuff, destined for charity giveaways and friends of friends of someone important.
"You know," he says, putting down football and silver pen for a moment, "coming back from the Giants' game, Troy and I had a talk."
The no-B.S. quarterback called Irvin aside and assured, "You know, everything is going to be fine."
In this conversation, "fine" can only be a euphemism for "Super Bowl."
"But," Troy tells Irv, "you gotta make sure you keep the team up and come in with your head up. That's what you do--you keep this team up and you've got to be up at practice even if you're just joking around."
So Irvin has. Every day this week, he approached practice smiling like Jan. 8 is the Super Bowl.
For this team, it and every date until the prom is just that.
"You get tired of all the questions and you know if you're asked long enough about this team not being as good," says Irvin, "perception becomes reality. You know you plant a seed and water it long enough, it'll grow."
Thursday, coach Barry Switzer, on a seed-and-weed hacking excavation of his own, had a meeting about leadership, apparently in response to an article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram where several players, including Aikman--who can pretty well say anything he damn well pleases--questioned the leadership on this team.
"Guys have the same work-hard attitude," says Harper, "but the last three games I wasn't involved with the offense, so it's not like repetition for me. No one is coming out relaxed in here.
"We've had a few setbacks. We've had a few accidents and car wrecks. Off the field we've had a lot of small distractions. People don't realize that if we worked at a bank or something, if people we worked with had this many accidents, it would be a big deal."
Ah, just like one big family. And just like a family, they argue, they stick together, and the older siblings would probably just as soon spit in dad's coffee a time or three this season.
"Hey," says Harper, "our family always gets along."
Just like a family, they'll say a lot to save face.