The product

Former Dallas Cowboy Pat Toomay found it harder to write about the NFL than to play in it

Pat Toomay's name is not so prominent in the history books, perhaps because he played for the Dallas Cowboys between a beloved veteran (George Andrie) and a would-be Super Bowl MVP (Harvey Martin). Or maybe someone has gone into the history books and erased his name, since he did not leave the Cowboys on the best of terms. The Vanderbilt-educated defensive end did, after all, threaten to join the rival World Football League in 1974. Tom Landry wished him all the luck in the world. Landry was just too Christian to wish him luck with a capital F. Then, a year later, Toomay wrote a book about the Cowboys that was as embarrassing as it was enlightening. He didn't make anyone too happy.

But Toomay -- who moved to Dallas in 1970 as a sixth-round draft pick, only to leave for New York 25 years later, when his marriage finally disintegrated -- always knew he wasn't a household name. And he didn't mind. He just enjoyed playing pro football on a Super Bowl-winning team. He has the ring to show for it -- and the scars, which run far deeper than surface wounds. His only problem was that he was too smart to play football. He could just never bring himself to enjoy hitting a man.

In "The ghost of Tom Landry," found on page 15, Toomay returns to the sport he loves most: writing. About the Dallas Cowboys.

It's been 15 years since he's had anything published and 24 years since Toomay's name first appeared as author. Then, as now, he showed he was willing, at all costs, to pull back the curtain and expose The Wizard -- a football god who goes by the name of Tom Landry.

Toomay began writing The Crunch in 1970, during training camp his rookie season. He jotted it down in the form of a diary and intended it to be nothing more than a Christmas gift for his father. Toomay also sent the 30-page manuscript to a sportswriter pal in Nashville, thinking he would find it interesting. The writer then passed it along to a friend of his at W.W. Norton & Company publishing house in New York, who asked Toomay whether there were any more pages. "No," Toomay told him, "but there could be."

Toomay spent the next few years keeping notes, writing down all he saw and heard -- every private conversation, every team meeting, every otherwise forgotten moment. He wrote of his participation in the Zero Club with teammates Blaine Nye and Larry Cole, two more overeducated men who found themselves playing a violent sport for a God-fearing coach. Theirs was a group "dedicated to ennui," Toomay writes; they spent their free time doing nothing at all in order to prolong their "otherwise truncated life expectancies." Toomay also jotted down every last detail of running back Duane Thomas' odd behavior during training camp, the result of which led to the back being traded to the San Diego Chargers.

He also documented his friendship with teammates Cliff Harris and Charlie Waters, charting their evolution from timid rookies to cocky vets. But his relationship with them was difficult, Toomay recounts, especially when Waters and, more notably, Harris succumbed to the glories of being a Dallas Cowboy, while Toomay sat on the sidelines, only beginning to realize he was but an underpaid pawn in Landry's dehumanizing system. "I have yet to encounter anyone who plays football with the intensity Cliff does," Toomay wrote, "but he is apparently motivated by fear and insecurity; he is afraid he will somehow lose what he has achieved, his position...his badge -- Dallas Cowboy."

All these years later, Toomay's book still reads like the stuff of revelation. It's like being let in on the greatest secret in the world -- and discovering that your boyhood heroes were nothing more than overgrown children who hoped the beer and pills would drown the fear and pain. The Crunch is by turns hilarious and mortifying, no less so than when Landry tells his team, after a losing effort in 100-degree temperatures, "the heat is mental; when you pass out, it becomes physical." In the words of Blaine Nye: "Professional football is funny. It's not whether you win or lose, it's who gets the blame."

Toomay wrote the book for one simple reason: His childhood image of pro football players as larger-than-life gods never meshed with the men he encountered on the field and in the locker room. It created a "cognitive dissonance," he says, and he only hoped to relate how the image never even approached the reality; he had hoped to peel back the beautiful packaging and reveal the gory truth just beneath the surface. He recalls how the pivotal moment came during his second season, when, during a player walkout, general manager and president Tex Schramm addressed the players himself -- something Schramm never did.

According to Toomay, Schramm told the remaining players that the strike would soon pass and that it was important to put the problem behind them. He then concluded his speech with: "I love you guys." Schramm paused, long enough to consider what he had just said. He began again: "Love -- isn't that the right word? Hell, you're my product." That word forever stuck with Toomay. He thought he was a man. Now, he knew what he really was: a product.

By the time of the book's publication, Toomay was a Buffalo Bill; he had been sent there by Dallas, which didn't want to keep Toomay in the division. He would log only one season in Buffalo before finding himself on one of the worst football teams ever to take the field: the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers of 1976. That team lost all 14 games of its debut season, including five ignoble shutouts.

"It was a nightmare, a nightmare," Toomay recalls. "What happened was, we couldn't quite stop anyone, so when you're on defense, you're out there 80 to 90 plays; on a good team, it's more like 40. It's like playing several seasons in one. You can't get out of bed till Wednesday, and you've just recovered by the time of the next game. It was just exhausting and painful."

But Toomay knew why he was in Tampa Bay, playing in the sweltering nowhere of the NFL: The Crunch. When Pete Gent wrote his book about the Cowboys -- North Dallas Forty, published two years before The Crunch -- at least he had the good sense to fictionalize his experience. But Toomay named names -- and, as such, the book brought upon its author a world of grief. He found out from friends in the league that it had angered officials not just within the Cowboys organization, but higher-ups throughout the NFL. Toomay discovered, too late, that the league was not made up of "distinct entities," but that it was one organism with one personality and one collective conscience.

"I didn't realize it was a cartel," he says. "I guess I was naive. I didn't understand the nature of the league. I thought you could write a book. I mean, we have an amendment about free speech. It's amazing -- you can be a convicted felon or a sex offender or a thief and still play in the NFL. But you can't ask questions."

Toomay lasted only one year in Tampa Bay before getting shipped off to "football heaven," the Oakland Raiders, where he played under John Madden. Toomay adored his new coach, if only because Madden believed in nurturing his players, not belittling them. "As a player," Toomay recalls, "I blossomed"; he amassed 18 sacks during one season in Oakland.

But in 1979, before Toomay's third season with the Raiders, the commissioner's office called Raiders owner Al Davis and warned him that Toomay was working on yet another book -- this one about the Raiders and drug use on the team. Part of that was true: Toomay was indeed working on a book. Only it was a novel, and it had nothing to do with drugs in Oakland -- though, Toomay says now, he could have done that book if he wanted to. But he had no desire to write such a tome; he was delighted to be in Oakland, thrilled to be in such a pigskin paradise with fallout from The Crunch long behind him. No way in hell was he about to jeopardize his happiness.

But Davis took the warning seriously and didn't allow Toomay to work out during training camp. The defensive end became so irritated, he threatened to take a lawn chair and book out onto the field with him during practice; Davis was infuriated when the warning made the local papers. Davis then asked Toomay to go on waivers -- meaning, he was asking a player to, essentially, cut himself from the team. "In my 10 years, I had never heard an owner ask a player for his permission to go on waivers," Toomay says. "I said, 'You want to sabotage my career and get my blessing?'"

A deal with the Los Angeles Rams fell through, and Toomay was asked to come back to Oakland briefly when injuries created a spot on the roster. But by then, Toomay's knees had begun to ache, and off-season surgery was necessary. He realized the inevitable was upon him, perhaps too soon: A decade after being drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the sixth round, Pat Toomay was out of football.

In 1984, he published his first novel, On Any Given Sunday, which dealt with the Big Business of football -- from shoe-endorsement deals to rule changes geared to protect quarterbacks to the reason why some teams use artificial turf instead of real grass (there's no mud obscuring those marketable team jerseys during televised games). But most of all, it was a cynical masterpiece about how simple it is to fix a football game -- told by a man who played the sport for 10 years. It wasn't a stretch for readers to assume this NFL veteran knew of games that had been thrown.

As before, Toomay found himself on the receiving end of the NFL's mighty force. A scheduled appearance on Nightline was canceled at the last minute; Toomay figures it would have been bad business for ABC, home of Monday Night Football, to promote such a scathing attack on pro ball. A pre-taped appearance on Good Morning America also never ran. Toomay found himself promoting the book "on nobody shows out in the hinterlands." The book disappeared; for a while, so did Toomay.

He had saved enough money from his football days to allow him the writer's life; he would not need constant paychecks, only the occasional payday. Sometimes, he would travel to New York City and collaborate with his friend, playwright David Rabe (author of Hurlyburly). And he has a small cameo in Oliver Stone's forthcoming football film On Any Given Sunday -- despite the fact that the movie has nothing at all to do with Toomay's novel.

But he is most concerned with trying to find a publisher for his third book. Fifteen years has been too long a wait between books. But this one needed the time: It deals with his divorce in 1995 and how difficult it is for the professional athlete to find himself out of the game he thought he loved.

"The book has to do with that moment when you're without the activity you've been doing since you were 6," Toomay says. "It's such a large moment. John Updike, in one of his Rabbit books, says retirement for an athlete is 'a little death.' He was right."

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