By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
There's a man buried under your jokes.
In the wake of the Dallas Cowboys' Valley Ranch practice facility collapsing during a thunderstorm on May 2, you've heard them. Perhaps repeated them: The Dallas Cowboys don't implode only in December. God really hated their draft. Hello, wind column!
I come today with a reminder: Rich Behm is paralyzed.
And Michael Irvin is pissed.
"Hey, bartenders!" a disgusted Irvin yelled last Thursday night during his TV premiere/Behm fund-raiser at the North Dallas nightclub, Sting. "Stop serving alcohol!"
Behm's tragedy—he suffered a severed spinal cord, paralyzing him from the waist down—has personally touched the former Cowboys receiver. When he visited the team's scouting department assistant and 33-year-old father of three in the hospital last week, Irvin couldn't help from rewinding to the scariest moment of his life. On October 10, 1999, the Hall of Fame receiver caught a pass against the Philadelphia Eagles but fell facemask first into Veterans Stadium's petrified turf. While heartless Eagles fans cheered, Irvin remained motionless before being wheeled off on a stretcher.
"Seeing Rich really shook me," Irvin told the crowd minutes before his outburst. "I remember lying on that carpet thinking, 'Oh my God, I'll never walk again.' I remember thinking, 'What about my kids?' I like to think I'm tough, but I've never been so afraid in my life. Rich is going through the same things. But when I walked into his hospital room, it was him that lifted me up. I couldn't have been more impressed."
The red-carpet event had the crowd at Sting conflicted. Was it a jovial party to celebrate Irvin's 4th and Long reality show on Spike TV? Or a somber benefit to raise money for Behm's astronomical hospital bills and pricey road to rehabilitation?
Most listened intently as Irvin presented Behm's wife, Michelle, with a $40,000 check from his Playmaker Charities. And they roared in support when Michelle took the microphone.
"We've got a long road ahead of us," she said. "But with all this love and support, Rich will walk again."
As Irvin transitioned from host to hawker—preaching for the crowd to dig into their own pockets—he lost the back of the club. Glasses clinked. Laughter erupted. Volume intensified. Empathy dissolved. Party commenced.
Determined to not let Behm's plight fade into one big bummer along with the economy and swine flu and Dom DeLuise and...Irvin turned Playmaker. He wasn't alone.
"I need everybody in here to be quiet and listen, right now!" shouted defensive end DeMarcus Ware. "This is a great cause. This is important. Please!"
For the first time in a long time, the Dallas Cowboys—past and present—seemed a genuinely unified team. Not for the cameras of Hard Knocks. But for the cause of a rough break.
Irvin was forced to retire by his incident, but within hours had regained feeling to his legs and the ability to walk and function normally. Behm likely won't be so lucky.
He was among the 70 or so people inside the Cowboys' white, tension-structured tent of an indoor practice facility when a microburst of wind swept through at 60 mph. The lights swayed, the walls shook and, in an instant, inside became outside.
The facility collapsed like a balloon stuck with a straight pin. But this wasn't just air and rubber. It was a giant structure of huge metal poles, support cables and air-conditioning ducts. One second evaluating fourth-round draft pick Stephen McGee, the next, Behm, in his seventh year with the Cowboys, was running for his life. While most players and coaches made it out of the bigger doors in the end zone, Behm slid out a side door around the 20-yard line. That's where the building fell, the gust of westerly wind flattening it toward the east.
Fortunately I wasn't out at Valley Ranch for that afternoon minicamp practice. But I'm told the bizarre weather scenario created a vacuum, sucking players and personnel back into the facility as they desperately tried to escape. Some video staff members, unable to descend their 50-foot mechanical platforms, involuntarily rode them down. Within 30 seconds of the first concern—poof!—the whole thing was gone.
Assistant coach Reggie Herring screamed for players to get with their position coaches. Secondary coach Dave Campo frantically searched for survivors. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, his hat askew but his wits intact, helped people climb over the mess in the driving rain. Head coach Wade Phillips at one point even yelled out for a head count of the media.
It's a miracle no one was killed. But not everyone got out unscathed.
College scouting director Chris Hall—entering his 20th season with the team—badly dislocated his right shoulder and tore ligaments in his left knee. He's back at work, but with only limited sensation and use of his right hand. Assistant trainer Greg Gaither suffered two broken bones in his right leg. And new special teams coach Joe DeCamillis sustained a fractured cervical vertebrae. He underwent surgery, returned home last week and hopes to be back on the field in time for July's training camp.
The future for Behm is considerably more ominous.
"We can't give Rich his legs back," Irvin said. "All we can try to do is ease the worries in his mind."
Initially treated at Parkland Hospital, Behm has been moved to a rehab facility and has a target of going home next month. The good news: His job—intricate research, a meticulous editing of college football videos and preparation of draftable players' highlight packages—awaits his return.
Said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones at Sting, "The only thing bigger than Michael Irvin's personality is Rich Behm's heart."
Phillips attended the fund-raiser, as did Cowboys Jason Witten, Greg Ellis and Tony Romo. Each has visited Behm in the hospital. All sympathize with the reality of raising from a wheelchair two boys (8 and 6 years old) and a 7-week-old daughter.
"He's a friend, someone I talked to every day in the locker room," Ware said. "He's always there, telling me I need to get bigger and stronger. Now it's my turn, to help motivate him to do the same."
In addition to the check from his charity, Irvin rustled up another $100,000 in the collection plate at Sting. The mother of Baltimore Ravens receiver Mark Clayton offered $5,000 on behalf of her son's foundation. Every donation bin in the building was stuffed with cash. Ellis announced that the Cowboys would match the night's donation total. I even heard that another NFL owner gave Jones a $25,000 check in Behm's name.
And, of course, a trust fund has been established at local Bank of America branches.
"I hear a lot of fans say 'we' won three Super Bowls," Irvin implored. "If you're going to be a part of our family during the good times, I ask you be here in the bad times as well. One of 'we' needs your help."
There'll be plenty of time for federal investigators to lay blame for the accident; lawsuits against the Cowboys, manufacturers, construction companies and even the NFL are certainly forthcoming.
For now, we can answer one question.
When Irvin first entered Behm's hospital room, the scout was asking about his boys. He doesn't have to inquire about his 'Boys. They're right by his side.