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.

Ironically, my father bore little resemblance to the squat, volatile Lombardi, but on more than one occasion he was confused with Landry on the street. Both men were tall, fair, square-jawed, and handsome, with a Christian upbringing and a military bearing. My father became an Air Force general; Landry flew bombers in World War II. Trained as engineers, both men were analytical. Both made a virtue of losing their hair. But if they were physically dissimilar to Lombardi, my father and coach Landry did share one attribute with him: a need to create and mold an image of themselves out of their respective environments.

Perhaps this trait is also characteristic of a certain kind of leader. For Lombardi and Landry, the object of their desire was their football teams. Lombardi was very direct in stating his wishes, as Maraniss reports. And the Cowboys were quintessentially a team concerned with "image" -- an image, of course, that was a reflection of their leader, Landry. On the field, a technical failure to conform could lead to a chilling dismissal, as in the case of Herb. Off the field, there were similar consequences.

I recall once quoting Nietzsche to a TV sports reporter on the subject of critics. The reporter, Tom Hedrick, wanted to know whether the current criticism of the team was harmful to players. Citing my source, I said, "Critics don't bite for the sake of the sting, Tom. They bite because they need your blood." He laughed, but the next time I saw him, he told me that a club official had instructed him not to talk to me anymore, but to find somebody more cooperative. "Nietzsche! That's not football! People don't want to hear that crap!"

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.

Because my father wasn't a coach, this dynamic played out much closer to home. Not surprisingly, it had its origins in his own upbringing. My father's father was in his mid-50s when my dad was born, in his mid-60s when my dad approached puberty -- the time when many boys show their first serious interest in sports. A Yale-educated congregational minister, pursuing, at the age of 64, a Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh in 1934, my grandfather was simply too preoccupied to spend time with my dad.

Filling this paternal void was my grandfather's young missionary wife, who had her own ideas about what little boys should do and be. The photograph is still haunting: my dad and his brother, Ted, dressed up in satin and lace, two proper Victorians -- a pair of Little Lord Fauntleroys. They hated it. They hated the imposition of her ideal as much as they hated my grandfather's absence. This pathetic state of affairs, they vowed, would not be repeated when they had kids.

And so it wasn't. From an early age my dad was out in the yard with me, throwing balls. Baseballs. Footballs. Basketballs. It was fun. My brother, Tim, and I often went to a nearby vacant lot to slog through the mud of a crisp November day, hurling each other down, flinging passes through the deepening dusk on a field with no boundaries, in a game with no score. Those afternoons were exhilarating, unforgettable. Primal. Pure. But at some point, a line was crossed. I was around 9 or 10, I guess, when my dad started the exercise sessions, in conjunction with our first sojourns into organized sports. Weights. Calisthenics. Regularly, whether my brother and I wanted to or not. The rationale was always present: "My dad never worked with me. Someday you'll thank me for this." Nicknames were invented for us. The sports fantasy was spun out, now with a particular emphasis on football, perhaps in reaction to my grandmother's general aversion to any sort of unrefined masculine expression.

My attitude toward football was complicated. I discovered that I had talent, and I enjoyed playing. But I also knew that it was my dad's fantasy for us that was operative here, not our fantasy for ourselves. On some level, I felt my talent was being exploited, co-opted, by my dad. My own physical gifts, it seemed, no longer belonged to me. My solution was to sabotage that appealing part of myself. Or rather to do it sometimes. Because at other times, of course, it felt too damn good to succeed! It was a senseless, self-destructive bind, I knew. And I vowed, with as much conviction as my father had vowed it before me, that this pathetic state of affairs would not be repeated with my own children.

As the father of two boys, I was loath, as they grew up, to encourage them to play football. There were just too many coaches out there who were hell-bent on re-creating the world in their image, even if their world consisted of nothing more than a bunch of confused, snot-nosed 6-year-olds whose deepest desire was simply to squat and dig in the dirt. Living in Texas, however, it was inevitable that my sons would discover the game, and so they did, in middle school, but on their own, without parental prodding.

"Dad, I love to cover kicks," said my younger son, John, as he prepared for his first college season several years later. That he could speak such a sentence was at first a shock. "John! My God!" He was such a sweet, sensitive child. A moon-child, as I always thought of him, because that was the first word he spoke. Not "Ma-ma," or "Da-da," but, pointing to the heavens, his face full of glee: "Moon!" And now he was telling me he loved to cover kicks?

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