A fan's sour notes

When I was a kid, about 10, my mother was an extra in Semi-Tough, the film based on Dan Jenkins' novel about Billy Clyde Puckett, Snake Tiller, and how football could turn grown men into morally corrupt cretins. Mom and Aunt Marilyn, my mother's twin sister, were cast as sideline reporters who were supposed to interview players as they left the field and headed for the Cotton Bowl locker room after a "game." I don't recall how my mother landed the gig, and neither does she. In fact, I don't recall a heck of a lot about that day, except that it was cloudy and brutally cold...or maybe sunny and warm; I can't be sure.

But I do remember getting to meet the real-life football players cast as their cinematic counterparts after filming wrapped for the day. Many of them were, of course, Dallas Cowboys (among then, Herb Scott and Tom Rafferty), ex-Cowboys (Steve Kiner--I know, who?), and other ballers from around the league (including Billy Kramer and Alvin White). Somewhere, there is a picture of my little brother Michael and me standing next to Ed "Too Tall" Jones, his enormous arms draped around our narrow shoulders. We are smiling in the photo, as only children can when they get to touch their heroes. And somewhere is a piece of paper Too Tall signed for me, Too Small. Unfortunately, the picture and the autograph are lost somewhere, having been framed and forgotten, so all that remains are pictures of Michael with Tom Rafferty and the both of us with a rather disheveled Herb Scott. That is some bad hair, even by 1978 standards.

Growing up in Dallas, we used to get to see our heroes all over town; back then, in the late 1970s, Cowboys were not so shielded from the public, usually because most weren't under restraining orders. They shopped in the same stores as we did, ate at the same restaurants, went to the same movie theaters, lived in the same neighborhoods. We used to see Harvey Martin all the time at the tall-men's shop in Preston Forest where my father bought his clothes, and Michael and I always remarked how much Harvey and Dad looked so much alike, except Dad didn't have as good of a tan. I remember once sitting at a restaurant next to Roger Staubach, who graciously gave me his autograph while in the middle of a meal. I think he also gave me some fries and a Bible.

When I was a child, football players were like gods, bronzed heroes who walked among us in the grocery stores. Sunday afternoons were spent in front of the Zenith at our old house, where Mom, Dad, Michael, my aunt, our cousins, and so many other family members and friends sat in the den at our house and held our breath during Cowboys games. No one said a word; we just cheered, booed, and screamed, except for my grandfather, who snored, and my grandmother, who only seemed to come alive whenever Robert Newhouse got to carry the ball. I went to bed at night and wrapped myself in sheets covered with the names and logos of every team in the National Football League. Just last week, I found all that remains of those sheets, a lone pillow case, which still smells like braces and drool.

But I wonder now if kids still adore football players as we did decades ago. Do they get excited when they see Michael Irvin, or do they know he's only out there doing community service because a judge told him to? Do they even recognize Erik "Crash" Williams or Kevin "Oops" Smith or Nate "Fuck All Y'All" Newton? And what about Larry Allen, who has the absolute worst taste in topless bars? I know the children like Emmitt Smith and Troy Aikman and Deion Sanders, but 20 years from now, will they get excited when they see them in a grocery store or at a bar, pounding back the whiskey-and-cocaine cocktails? Will they think of them as heroes, as I still do when I talk to Drew Pearson on the phone for a story about his old buddy Harvey Martin's rehab days, or will they just keep on walking, saying nothing, thinking even less? How can anyone revere The Right Reverend Deion, who adores himself more than a million fans ever could? He's a good player, but a lousy representative of the Lord, who would never suffer such arrogance from one of His (or Her, OK?) servants. Or such lousy fashion choices: The man dresses like a blind pimp.

I often wonder why I still regard the players of my youth as heroes; it's not as if they did anything meaningful with their lives. They didn't find a cure for disease, didn't end world hunger, didn't bring about world peace. They simply played a violent sport, and their contributions have disappeared into the history books--most, to the footnotes. Maybe I admire them a little more than today's Sunday-afternoon warriors because they didn't get paid so much to play a child's game. Most suffer aches and pains even today without much money to tend to their ancient wounds. They weren't millionaires many times over; they were just guys who got bloody, broke a few bones, and played with painkillers as a replacement for inspiration. They would retire with lousy pensions to their modest--if that--homes in the suburbs, then spend the rest of their lives remembering every single down they ever spent in the NFL, hoping they didn't go broke paying the doctors' bills.

In his 1968 autobiography A Fan's Notes, Frederick Exley tried to rationalize his fascination with pro football. An eloquent man, even he had trouble putting into words his love for the game: "I can't say precisely." Perhaps, he noted, "in football a man was asked to do a difficult and brutal job, and he either did it or got out...It has that kind of power over me, drawing me back with the force of something known, scarcely remembered, elusive as integrity--perhaps it was no more than the force of a forgotten childhood." But it's easy to romanticize the old days, if only because they're not today. Yesterday's heroes are recalled in a haze--they were unknowable in some way. Today, we see so much of our sports stars, they become celebrities before they even score a single point. Then they spend the rest of their careers breaking records, mostly financial ones.

I thought about this on November 8, as Emmitt Smith was breaking Tony Dorsett's record to become the all-time Cowboys rusher. I thought about how I wish Dorsett still had the record, maybe because I now perceive Smith as a selfish player who does well only when he wants to, when he needs to. During the first half of that game against the New York Giants, he looked like the Emmitt of 1993, breaking tackles like the Hulk tearing through tissue paper. But after he set the record in the first half, his yards-per-carry dropped off from eight to a little more than three. It was as though he was chasing history, then stopped when he caught it. I also wondered why Tony D. wasn't there when Emmitt broke his record, then found out later he hadn't been invited by the Cowboys--apparently it's not team policy to invite old-timers to such momentous occasions. (Of course, Dorsett will be in the stands when University of Texas running back Ricky Williams takes his NCAA rushing record on Friday--but what's a show of class amongst friends?)

Maybe that's why I wish Tony Dorsett still had the record: because he's an old-timer, a guy who gave everything to The Team and now finds himself erased from the history books, replaced by a (talented) superstar who runs in place till it suits him to do otherwise. And maybe that's why I find professional football such an unlikable sport: You want me to root for Bam Morris, Erik Williams, Peyton Manning, Kerry Collins, and all the other felons, no-talents, and crybabies out there getting paid more in a season than I'll make in a lifetime? It's enough to make a man miss basketball season, even in this town.

This week's picks

Thursday, November 26
Pittsburgh at Detroit, 11:35 a.m.
Result: Steelers 24, Lions 17

Barry who? This match-up, pitting the 7-4 Steelers against the 4-7 Lions, ain't much to give thanks about today. Thanksgiving Day nap comes early this year.

Minnesota at Dallas, 3:05 p.m.
Result: Vikings 23, Cowboys 21
If it's this close, Deion must be playing. If he ain't, then Randall C.'s serving up turkey with a side of Moss.

Sunday, November 29
Atlanta at St. Louis, noon
Result: Falcons 142, Rams 13
Please. Not even this close.
Arizona at Kansas City, noon
Result: Cardinals 31, Chiefs 20

Jake the Fake almost let the Redskins beat him last weekend. K.C.'s not as bad as Norv Turner's team--meaning, not as good. Marty "Should Be" Schottenheimer is looking for a new job come Christmas.

Carolina at New York Jets, noon
Result: Jets 28, Panthers 10
How the Jets got to be 7-4 is beyond me. And beyond the Jets.

Indianapolis at Baltimore, noon
Result: Ravens 17, Colts 9
Not even these two teams care about this game. "Parity" is another word for "Jim Harbaugh--who dat?"

Jacksonville at Cincinnati, noon
Result: Jaguars 35, Bengals 10
Do they even have a team in Cincinnati anymore?

New Orleans at Miami, noon
Result: Dolphins 20, Saints 13
Rather see Mike Ditka and Jimmy Johnson fight each other with knives for 60 minutes, but this will have to do.

Tampa Bay at Chicago, noon
Result: Buccaneers 13, Bears 7
Can't spell "Buccaneers" without "suc." Can't spell "Bears" without "crappy."

Tennessee at Seattle, 3:05 p.m.
Result: Seahawks 19, Oilers 13
One day, Warren Moon will say he played for both of these teams. And maybe, someone will care.

Buffalo at New England, 3:05 p.m.
Result: Bills 27, Patriots 25
Why? Why not.

Philadelphia at Green Bay, 4:15 p.m.
Result: Packers 42, Eagles 9
OK, so hiring Sherman Lewis as head coach for the Cowboys would have been a mistake. What did I know?

Washington at Oakland, 4:15 p.m.
Result: Raiders 27, Redskins 6
Once more, Troy Aikman's good buddy Norv Turner should be thankful he has a job. If you failed this miserably at your work, you'd be working as a part-time mall Santa come day after Thanksgiving.

Denver at San Diego, 7:20 p.m.
Result: Broncos 38, Chargers 10
They say Ryan Leaf's getting better. Like it even matters.

Monday, November 30
New York Giants at San Francisco, 7:20 p.m.
Result: 49ers 42, Giants 17

I'd rather see the Steve Young and the Niners play the San Francisco Giants. Probably be a better game.

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