The ghost of Tom Landry

In 1970, Pat Toomay was scared he'd get drafted by Vince Lombardi. Something worse happened -- he ended up playing for the Dallas Cowboys. Years later, he'd realize what damage that wrought.

In the spring of 1970, as a prospective middle-round National Football League draftee, I was haunted by a recurring nightmare. On a practice field somewhere, between two blocking dummies, I faced a monstrous offensive tackle who sat poised and quivering in his stance. To the tackle's left, on the far side of one bag, a center hunkered over a football. Behind the center, a quarterback. Behind the quarterback, a running back, whom I was required to bring down after shedding the tackle's block. It was a ritual of pain known as the Nutcracker Drill.

I never succeeded. Night after night, my failure unfolded with sickening regularity. Dead-eyed, an inhuman mass of rippling muscle with a machine-like mastery of his brutal technique, the tackle, at the snap of the football, would slam his fists into my rib cage. Lifting me up, he would tip me over backward, pinning me to the turf like a bug as the running back went skittering by.

Squirming helplessly there, I could see my embarrassed teammates turning away. Then a growling, gap-toothed coach would straddle me, leering down in disgust. "Get up! Go again!" he would bellow. I would shake my head no. "Coward!" he would roar. Still, I would refuse. "You are what I loathe," he would growl. "A loser." And with that, I would wake up.

Pat Toomay, the fresh-faced young draftee out of Vanderbilt, had no idea what he was in for when he signed on to play for the Dallas Cowboys in 1970.
Dallas Cowboys
Pat Toomay, the fresh-faced young draftee out of Vanderbilt, had no idea what he was in for when he signed on to play for the Dallas Cowboys in 1970.
Toomay played defensive end for the Cowboys from 1970 to '74. Here, he's bringing down the Washington Redskins' future Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgenson.
John Mazziotta
Toomay played defensive end for the Cowboys from 1970 to '74. Here, he's bringing down the Washington Redskins' future Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgenson.

While most of the figures in the dream were obscure, the coach was not, because he was none other than Vincent T. Lombardi, then in the final year of his life, now the subject of a revelatory new biography by David Maraniss titled When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi. I wanted no part of him. I knew that of all NFL coaches, Lombardi was the one who could expose me for what I was: a loathsome creature of some indeterminate species. Certainly not a man. Something on the pathetic periphery of masculinity. Without heart. A defeatist. A loser.

It was exactly this kind of fear that always made playing football a mixed experience for me, that drained the joy from a game I should have loved unconditionally. Fear of not pleasing the coach. Of not measuring up. In this violent game, what frightened me was not getting hit but being subjected to the scornful eye of the man above me. It took me years to understand this fear -- and by the time I did, I had to wonder whether I had subjected my own sons, whom I had vowed never to treat the way I had been treated, to the same thing.

I was spared the experience of playing for Lombardi but did not escape his legacy of shame. I was drafted by a team that shared my fear of Lombardi's scrutiny -- that, in fact, had twice been humiliated by the Lombardi juggernaut -- Tom Landry's Dallas Cowboys.

In their first crushing defeat by Lombardi's Packers -- in the 1966 NFL Championship Game, which the Cowboys lost when Packer safety Tom Brown intercepted a pass in the Packer end zone, snuffing a game-winning Cowboy drive as time expired -- the Cowboys were deemed too inexperienced, too new to the pressures of championship football to succeed at that level. But after their second numbing defeat, in the legendary "Ice Bowl" Championship Game in 1967, the very character of the club came into question, not only by fans and sportswriters but by the Packer players themselves.

As Maraniss reports, the Packers were nothing short of disdainful of their Cowboy opponents. "We had their number," said Packer receiver Max McGee. "Lombardi had the hex on Landry." Other players observed that Cowboy receiver Bob Hayes unwittingly gave away plays by putting his hands in his pockets for runs, pulling them out for passes. The consensus was that the Cowboys didn't have the goods.

In an attempt to incorporate the Lombardi mystique, since it was impossible to defeat it, Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm acquired three of the Packers' aging veterans. Uncharacteristically, Schramm, in making this move, overrode the strong objections of his coach, who reportedly wanted nothing to do with former Packers. But here they came anyway: linebacker Lee Roy Caffey, offensive tackle Forrest Gregg, and cornerback Herb Adderley.

Adderley was the first of the Packer veterans to join the club, and for a time, he resided with the more transient players in a Dallas Holiday Inn. That's where I got to know him. Because he had gone where I feared to go, into the valley of the shadow of Lombardi, and emerged victorious, Herb from the beginning was someone special to me. He was disarmingly open and friendly -- unusual for a veteran of his stature, who normally wouldn't pass the time of day with a nobody rookie. On more than one occasion, Herb joined me for a meal and, until he arranged for his own transportation, often rode with me to practice.

Of course I asked him about Lombardi. Yes, Lombardi could be brutal, Herb confirmed, but he also felt this characteristic of his coach was in service of something else. He talked about the togetherness of the Packers, the love the players had for one another, the amazing feats they were able to accomplish -- all out of a passion that had been inspired by Lombardi. But was it because of Lombardi, or in spite of him, that those feelings arose? I didn't have the nerve to ask the question, but one thing was certain: If Herb was a product of Lombardi, then Lombardi the man couldn't be as bleak as I'd imagined.

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