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 Landry's system, "guessing," reacting instinctively, was a cardinal sin. If you followed his keys, took his clues, then your actions were predicated on a set of mathematical probabilities, gleaned from hours of study, rather than on the vagaries of instinct, which lacked accuracy, certainty, conformity with the assembly-line performance of the other defensive players. "Guessing," for Tom, could too easily become an excuse, and there was no room for excuses, either in football or in life.

"Herb, you're clueing again!" The anger in Tom's voice, as the meeting progressed, escalated out of all proportion, and finally Herb rose to defend himself. It was an unprecedented moment for the team. No player had ever challenged the coach. Unaccustomed to Tom's habit of transposition, Herb had no idea what Tom was talking about with his "clueing" criticism. Angry and confused, Herb snapped something back at him, then left the room. The moment was quickly forgotten by the players, but not by the coach.

Not long afterward, during a game with the Giants, Herb was benched after swatting down a potential touchdown pass. Out of position again, he had been reacting instinctively. Despite the positive outcome of the play, it was all Tom could take.

Herb Adderley, a refugee from Lombardi's Green Bay Packers, was a great player who nonetheless didn't fit into Tom Landry's system.
Dallas Cowboys
Herb Adderley, a refugee from Lombardi's Green Bay Packers, was a great player who nonetheless didn't fit into Tom Landry's system.
Toomay today with son Seth, who played football for Hillcrest High School at the end of the 1980s.
Toomay today with son Seth, who played football for Hillcrest High School at the end of the 1980s.

"Herb, you've got to play the defense like everybody else!"

"You mean I'm supposed to let a guy run by me and catch a touchdown pass?"

"Yes, if that's what your keys tell you to do!"

"No. I don't play that way."

"Then you won't play at all."

The confrontation took place privately at halftime. When we took the field for the second half, Charlie Waters was in Herb's place. Herb watched the rest of the game from the sidelines.

During the next few weeks, Herb continued to start, but was spelled by Waters for increasing periods of time. Then, before a game with the Chargers, Herb was summoned to a meeting with Landry. In the meeting Herb was told that his midseason grades were poor, that he had become a detriment to the team for harassing the younger defensive backs during practice.

Herb stared at Landry in disbelief. Maybe he was having problems with coverage, but he hadn't been harassing his teammates. If anything, he had been a mentor to the younger players, generously offering his help.

"Waters is the starter now," Landry said. "Stay or leave; I don't care."

Herb left the meeting without saying a word. He was not about to sacrifice his salary by retiring, so he continued to practice, now relegated to the scout team, but playing hard, covering, knocking down balls. When he was prevented from further participation in practice, even as a member of the scout team -- for being a "distraction," as he was told -- Herb, for the rest of the season, watched quietly from the sidelines. At the conclusion of the season, he retired. Again, quietly. With all the dignity he had exhibited as a player.

"Tom Landry had a bitterness in his heart for me," Herb remarked in a recent conversation. "After all I did for that team, I'll never understand it."

"Me either," I replied. But I wondered whether Lombardi's psychology didn't hold a clue to the nature of those forces that had been working against Herb -- the how of them, anyway, if not the why.

In one of the most compelling sections of his book, David Maraniss examines Lombardi's contradictory relationship to pain. Evidently unable to tolerate the slightest physical discomfort in himself, Lombardi sought to exorcise that demon from his players, using as his instrument the Nutcracker Drill, over which he presided with glee. "It is characteristic of many leaders," writes Maraniss, "that they confront their own weaknesses indirectly, by working to eliminate them in others, strengthened in that effort by their intimate knowledge of frailty."

Perhaps Landry was also one of those leaders. Although he and Lombardi were antithetical personalities, perhaps Landry, too, acted indirectly. Herb, as he departed, seemed to carry all the residual frustration of Landry's lifelong competition with Lombardi. That Herb had come to the team over Landry's objections exacerbated the situation. That Herb had been instrumental in Dallas' success dumped more salt in Tom's wound. As the personification of this seeping hole, Herb had to be humiliated, then dispatched. Some leaders, it seems, must purge to be purged.

Maraniss' insightful analysis forced me to think again about my nightmare. I came to realize that my fear, and submerged anger, was directed not just at any authority figure, but at precisely the kind of authority figure who worked out his own weaknesses on the bodies of others. Seen in this light, my refusal to participate in the drill was no act of cowardice, but rather an act of healthy resistance.

In fact, the Lombardi who haunted my dreams was a stand-in for someone else. After all, I didn't know Lombardi. Although he had possessed this trait in life, I had no way of knowing that. I had appropriated him to mask a more intimate figure, one who also embodied the trait. A larger force who, at the time, I was unable to name. Old Dad, it seems, is never far from the scene. And it was Old Dad, not just Landry and what I imagined Lombardi to be, but my own dad, whom I had been carrying around on my back. It was a load far heavier than I should have allowed it to be.

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