Big Tex

Cowboys icon Schramm left his mark on his team and those who knew him

Whether in his small corner spot on the 11th floor of his Central Expressway workplace or, later, in his spacious office at Valley Ranch, he was always pacing, ever on the move as he thought and spoke. For longtime Dallas Cowboys president and general manager Tex Schramm, who died Tuesday at age 83, stillness and idle pursuits were high crimes. He had no time for leisure habits such as card games and crossword puzzles; the only book I'm aware of his having read was his own biography, written by Bob St. John, and he could not even imagine the abject horror of sitting in one place for the two hours it would require to watch a movie.

On most days his subject was the future. Normally, Schramm was too busy looking ahead to reflect on what was already done. A driven man since those early days as a $35-a-week cub sports reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, PR man for the Los Angeles Rams and, later, assistant programming director for CBS-TV (where it was his brainchild to televise the Winter Olympic Games for the first time and use fellow University of Texas grad Walter Cronkite as the anchor), his passion became the Cowboys when Clint Murchison hired him as builder of the expansion franchise in 1960.

Before he would step down in 1989 to make way for new owner Jerry Jones, his list of accomplishments had arguably made him the most important and influential person in the history of Dallas sports. It was Schramm who found a young New York Giants assistant named Tom Landry and offered him the job as coach of a team still on the drawing board. Later, in those infant days when wins were scarce and the public growling, Schramm and owner Murchison put their heads together and silenced the controversy by awarding Landry a never-before-heard-of 10-year contract. In an effort to jump ahead of others in the league, it was Schramm who was the first in pro sports to hire a computer programmer to help with charting prospective players and game-day tendencies of opposing teams. The year was 1962, about the same time he and head scout Gil Brandt came up with the idea of timing players at a distance of 40 yards instead of 100 to determine their true "football speed."

You get the idea. From all this resulted an NFL-record 20 straight winning seasons, five Super Bowl trips, two world championships and the moniker "America's Team," a name he did not come up with but which he made popular. What the Yankees were to baseball, the Murchison-Schramm-Landry Cowboys became to the world of professional football.

Along the way, Schramm never stopped polishing the image, adding touches that many NFL rivals would initially criticize, then rush out and copy. The sizzling sideline show provided by the hot pants-wearing Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders? Schramm's idea. A team-produced weekly newspaper whose circulation grew to 100,000 in its English-language version and 300,000 in Spanish? Schramm thought of that. When the NFL needed another team to volunteer to play an annual Thanksgiving Day game, Schramm jumped at the opportunity for additional nationwide exposure for his team. Long ago, when visiting teams had to put their black players up in a shoddy hotel in Fort Worth, it was the Cowboys' president and general manager who quietly persuaded the Ramada Inn near Love Field to set a new standard and discontinue its "all-white" policy.

Little wonder, then, that his personal trophy case includes a citation for being named the NFL's Executive of the Year and a bust memorializing his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Next season, he'll be belatedly added to the Texas Stadium Ring of Honor--another idea that was his.

In those days when I covered the team as a beat reporter for The Dallas Morning News and later as editor of the Dallas Cowboys Weekly, I wrote of such things, sometimes as they happened, often to put the growth of the franchise and its history into perspective. What I learned during my working relationship with Schramm was that he, more so than any other sports figure I'd ever encountered, actually enjoyed the media. Not that he wasn't trigger-quick to rail against something critical or inaccurately written, but as soon as his bombast ended, the waters calmed.

Former Dallas Times Herald reporter Steve Perkins loved to tell of the Sunday morning he was wakened by Schramm's bellowing voice, raking him over the coals about something he'd written for that day's edition. Perkins had listened patiently as Schramm's tirade went on and on. Only after the marathon rant ended was Perkins able to get in a word. "Other than that," he replied, "how did you like the story?" After a few beats of silence, Schramm burst into laughter. "Aw, hell, forget it," he said. "I'll see you at the game." The two headstrong men battled verbally for years, particularly after several rounds of Schramm's favored bullshots. Yet when time came to seek the first editor of the Cowboys Weekly, it was Perkins whom Schramm hired. Why? "Because," Schramm pointed out, "he was the best sportswriter around."

Such was the man's philosophy, whether hiring a head coach, computer programmer, scout or someone to watch over the mailroom. To Schramm, every job was critically important and expected to figure into the organization's success. It was that philosophy that prompted him, after the Cowboys won their first Super Bowl, to pass out championship rings not only to the players and coaches but to the business manager, scouts, trainers, equipment manager, film crew, etc. Secretaries received matching pendants to serve as visible proof they, too, played a role in the team's accomplishment. Everybody in the organization, top to bottom, had done his or her part to achieve the success, Schramm explained.

For much of his career I was in a position to watch his reaction to the highs and lows of the franchise. Yet the only thing I knew for certain about Texas Earnest Schramm was that aside from family, the success of the NFL and the Dallas Cowboys were the passions that drove him. His focus on the goals he'd set was nothing less than remarkable.

Only during a late-'80s conversation in his office one evening did it finally occur to me that no matter how successful, innovative and history-making his tenure, time would come when the mantle he so proudly wore would ultimately be passed. Schramm had recognized its approach well before it crossed my mind.

That night, as darkness fell over the practice fields that could be seen from his office window, as he paced among the memorabilia collected over the decades, he was not responding to questions so much as just thinking aloud. There was no bluster in his voice; the energy and enthusiasm so much a part of his personality were absent.

Still, I was surprised when he admitted that he had begun to experience days when there were more problems and frustrations than he wished to deal with. "I find myself thinking that it isn't as much fun as it once was," he said. "Sometimes I ask myself why in the hell I don't just get out of it. But then I think of the alternative, and it scares me to even think about retiring, giving this up to go fishing and just sit around doing nothing. Besides, there's still a lot more I want to accomplish."

Having learned to occasionally translate Tex-speak, I sensed a sadness I'd never before heard, as if he had come to grips with the fact that the end of his career was nearing. At that particular moment he didn't know that interim owner H.R. "Bum" Bright, having purchased the team from Murchison, would soon sell to Jones, but he seemed to have already accepted that the reins he'd so tightly held were no longer really his.

Schramm was, for the moment at least, thinking back, not to the future, and wondering how he would be remembered. He acknowledged that humility was never his strong suit. "I guess I could have sat back and said, 'Gee whiz, look how humble I am,' but to actively seek goals that represent greatness is something else. Sure, I've been driven by ego. Psychologically, you might say that I have a little insecurity. I need to be recognized as a successful person. I see nothing wrong with that."

As I drove home that evening, I found myself wondering how Schramm would adapt to a life that no longer offered the daily challenge and the always-shining spotlight. How many marlin could he bring onto his boat off the Florida Keys before boredom became the toughest opponent he'd ever faced?

The answers came more quickly than expected. Shoved aside by Jones, Schramm briefly busied himself by helping the NFL establish the World Football League in Europe and throughout the United States. There was the anticipation of being inducted into the Hall of Fame that energized him for a time. Finally, he began to fade from the sports pages. His gravelly voice was rarely heard on the talk shows where he'd once been a regular guest. A bad back could no longer be ignored, and he began walking with a cane.

Then, he suffered great loss in a short time. The death of a daughter, Mardee, hit him hard. Then his beloved wife, Marty, his soul mate since college, passed away. When he'd gather with old friends for lunch, he'd only take part in the conversation, whereas there had been a time when he directed it. The Tex Schramm dead certain he could run a better railroad than everyone from the president of the United States down to the NFL referees and didn't mind saying so became satisfied with sharing memories of the good times.

The last time I saw him, just a few days after his 83rd birthday, the pacing had finally ended. He lay in a hospital bed, watched over by daughter Kandy, sleeping peacefully--as if aware there were no more battles to fight, no more games or arguments to be won, no more idle days to fill.

As I stood there, I wished that sleep was accompanied by the comforting realization of his monumental accomplishments, of the amazing legacy he would soon leave behind.

"I hope," Kandy whispered, "that he's dreaming about winning the Super Bowl."

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