By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Father murdered. Mother imprisoned. Drugs. Fights. Guns. Lies. Suspensions. Handcuffs. Electronic monitoring devices. Irrepressible urges. Intuitive receivers. Irrational media.
While his Dallas Cowboys teammates meander onto the training camp practice fields at the Marriott Residence Inn River Ridge Complex, Pacman shows off his favorite parlor trick. One of the NFL's best cornerbacks and kick returners—not to mention one of its most egregious outlaws—is going to win friends and impress enemies by catching six punts without ever dropping, or as much as putting down, a ball.
As punter Mat McBriar launches the first ball into a late July morning cooled by a Pacific Ocean breeze, Pacman effortlessly glides under it. His white gloves cradle the ball between the 2 and the 1 on his blue jersey, making no more sound than two butterflies playing charades in a cotton field.
"OK," Pacman says to no one in particular, tucking the ball into his right armpit and signaling for the next punt. "Let's do this."
Hardly anyone notices. But they will. Adore him or abhor him, it's impossible to ignore him.
Especially this season, when Pacman—acquired in a trade by the Cowboys April 23 and reinstated after a one-year suspension by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell August 28—will be subjected to unprecedented scrutiny. Depending on what color you paint your face, he's either a despicable villain destined to break the law and stomp the hearts of a Cowboys franchise attempting yet again to pawn its DNA to Beelzebub in pursuit of overdue playoff success, or he's one of sports' most unconventional saviors, pre-ordained to hop off the dunce chair just in time to be the final piece in the Cowboys' record sixth Super Bowl.
Owner Jerry Jones, the old oil wildcatter embarking on his 20th Cowboys season, loves the tangible buzz and potential boon that accompanies Pacman. Truth be told, he also relishes the high-profile gamble of it all. To him the risk-reward scales are tilted in his favor. If Pacman gets suspended again, the Cowboys are out only a fourth-round draft pick to the Tennessee Titans. With his reinstatement, they lost an additional sixth-round pick in '09, but added one of the most exciting and talented football players to a team that last year boasted 13 wins and 13 Pro Bowlers and this year is the sexy pick to play in the Super Bowl.
It's a strategy Jerry Jones married back in '98, after he painstakingly passed on drafting a talented-yet-troubled receiver named Randy Moss. Since then, blasphemy be damned, he's turned Tom Landry's cathedral—otherwise known as Texas Stadium—into a halfway house inhabited by shady stars, most recently Terrell Owens, Tank Johnson and, now, Pacman.
Jerry's "Super Bowl or bust" comes with a caveat: If winning in Tampa means burning in hell, so be it. If it would guarantee the Cowboys a Super Bowl spot on February 1, the owner would suit up Bigfoot in a rubber costume and change the franchise's name to César Chávez.
"I wouldn't be sitting in this chair if I used a criterion of not having people that have made mistakes," Jerry Jones says during camp's first week. "Saying I don't mind criminal backgrounds is going a little far, but frankly, you look at the upside of guys like Pacman. We've seen people in his situation use sports as a positive platform to really turn their lives around. It's happened with the Cowboys."
Entering Sunday's opener with the Cleveland Browns, the Cowboys are again America's Team. If not still Next Year's Champions.
In 1971 the team moved into Texas Stadium from the Cotton Bowl on the heels of multiple heart-breaking losses to the world champion Green Bay Packers and Baltimore Colts. Led by Landry's calming Christianity and the choirboy cool of quarterback Roger Staubach, Dallas won its first Super Bowl. This year—using a slightly more colorful cast of characters—they plan to abandon the old joint (they move into the $1 billion Jonestown Coliseum in Arlington next year) while erasing consecutive demoralizing playoff losses and becoming the first NFL team to win a sixth Super Bowl.
The juxtaposition of Pacman redeeming the righteous legacy founded by Landry is bizarre yet intoxicating. Everyone, it seems, wants a peek at Pacman. For a team that hasn't won a playoff game in 12 years, there might as well be a red carpet for the arrival at training camp of star-studded visitors such as Jessica Simpson, Ivan Reitman, Jamie Foxx, Dennis Miller, Rob Lowe and Magic Johnson.
Initially, there was some spewing of righteous indignation when the Cowboys acquired Pacman, whose professional résumé includes more arrests (six) than interceptions (four). Some were downright disgusted by the Cowboys' erosion of class in pursuit of a championship.
"If character really doesn't matter, why don't they sign Osama bin Laden to play wide receiver?" WFAA-Channel 8 sports anchor Dale Hansen quipped back in April. "They need one, he's 6-foot-4 and we know nobody can catch him."