Bill Bates wanted to be a Dallas Cowboy ever since elementary school. He had spent his life preparing for this career on the field.
But nothing prepared him for the night last week at Incredible Universe when a pair of soft cotton panties came sliding across the table for an autograph.
"What brand?" I asked his wife.
"Hanes, I believe," said Denise Bates, who, inexplicably, was raised in a home where one's undergarments are kept in a drawer when not serving as drawers.
Confronted with the unfamiliar garment, Bill Bates, who had already signed at least 300 autographs with his writing hand in a post-surgical cast, obliged the request, dragging a black felt tip across the white undies. A sincere, spiritual, and way-polite sort, he couldn't figure anything else to say or do.
Next to him, teammate Chad Hennings buried his face in his hands until the panties completed their forward pass down the line of Cowboys--and their wives.
"They think he loves doing this," declared Denise.
While Bill Bates is one of the more affable Cowboys, he would, in truth, rather be home with the kids watching a videotape--without any unfamiliar underwear in sight. "You never, ever get used to this," said Bill. "There are fans every place, and they want something--time after time after time."
This is the everydayness of life between training camp and another Super Bowl. Playoff spot clinched, waiting on the upcoming game against the Cleveland Browns, this is what it is to be a Dallas Cowboy.
It is sitting in an Incredible Universe store near Garland greeting several hundred fans, each of whom would like several seconds of quality time with his heroes.
The whole world doesn't just want a piece of their time, their clothing, perhaps even their dignity. They insist on it.
"They expect it," said Denise Bates. "Most people believe everything is handed to them [athletes] on a silver platter and therefore they owe them."
Bill Bates' wife speaks these words gently. There is no anger in her voice. She is simply speaking the truth about a subject most athletes are reluctant to talk about, lest fans get the impression that they are ungrateful.
The fact is, people tend to treat athletes badly, at worst--and stupidly, at best.
"They are human beings too, and would like the same courtesy you'd give any other person," says Denise. "They can only give so much."
This is the trade-off for being famous--for being millionaires. There are personal appearances--like the one at Incredible Universe, for which they are paid. (Though in this case, all these Cowboys are donating their entire fee to the Happy Hill Farm, a Granbury home for troubled children.)
And there are the private appearances in public places, like shopping at Valley View Mall or eating at Chuck E. Cheese--where they are not paid. There, they are just normal people seeking family time and more of those mouse tokens, but are constantly interrupted by those who just want one more piece of their silver-and-blue-covered hide.
"It's hard to be patient," says defensive lineman Tony Tolbert. "The fact is everybody wants something and you can't please everybody.
"You want to take the time to get to as many as you can. Then you want to leave and people get mad. It goes on and on."
Many of the hundreds in line for the 7:30 p.m. signing at Incredible Universe have been there for up to three hours. Some are sweet children and kind grownups. Others are yappy, pushy, and obnoxious. The line of fans coils around the huge store, wrapping itself twice around the large appliances.
"This still always catches you off guard," said Bill Bates, eying the crowd.
"Things can get old," said Denise, kept busy acknowledging that she is indeed pregnant with No. 5. "He has one day off a week and it is taken up. We treasure our family time. This [evening's signing] is all for Happy Hill Farm, and that's why he agreed to do it."
Awaiting the fans, players and their wives sit at a long table like entrees on a human buffet line.
A set of burgundy sculptured nails daintily and laboriously hands Chad Hennings' trading card over to him like the cardboard square is weapons-grade plutonium. A man wearing a Bengal uniform--sans pads--appears before Tolbert, insisting that they had met at the Rose Bowl two years earlier.
Tony shakes his head. "You just have to be polite when they say they know you," he says.
And Tolbert is, several dozen times over.
Hennings tops the panties offering with a tale from the previous week, when he and his wife Tammy were having dinner out. Said Hennings: "A guy asked me to sign his girlfriend's navel."
The former Air Force pilot passed on the opportunity.
It all begins in training camp, where fans throw out the first panties and navels of the season. It all begins in Austin. In 103-degree heat.
About 1,000 people typically line the fence where the players walk by as they break for lunch. They scream for autographs. When they don't get one, they scream ugly stuff, like "sorry son of a bitch!"
"That's the worst," said Hennings, "when you've got at least 2,000 people a day screaming your name and it's hot."
One day last July, when the Austin sun was hot enough to poach salmon, women dressed in heels and hose lined the fence, along with way-too-old men and tons of kids seeking autographs.
The parents hollered for Troy Aikman, who had already signed for 30 minutes of his lunch break. When he begged off with an, 'I'm sorry, I've got to go eat,' they cursed him, calling the two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback a "stupid bum" and screaming: "I'll never watch you again."
The adult groupies, men or women, can be the worst.
"We see the same ones over and over," said Hennings. "There were some of them in the front of the line who had been here since 4:30."
"Hey, heeeeh, y'all kick some butt Saturday!" screamed one woman.
The hotel lobby during Super Bowl week can be the worst. Just ask Troy Aikman, who was plagued severely, but conspicuously, by a 28-ish man who kept suggesting to passersby that perhaps he and Troy were separated at birth. The man cited a litany of traits he and Troy shared, and pleaded for the star quarterback to "see my pecs."
During an interview last season, running back Emmitt Smith expressed genuine concern over the state of weirdness, wondering just which idiot might have a weapon. "The world is just so crazy," he said, recalling the ordeal he underwent before Christmas while on a shopping-mall mission to locate some dadgum green Christmas balls. Smith figured he was lucky to make it out alive.
The Texas Rangers routinely put up signs nixing autographs, but people always thought this excluded Nolan Ryan, who ended up signing all night when the signs were basically put there to protect him.
Public appearances aren't usually purely out of the goodness of an athlete's heart. It's all part of maintaining a marketable image--for themselves and for the team. And athletes do get money for this stuff. Sometimes it goes to charity. Sometimes it goes to the vacation-Christmas-toy-bass boat fund.
Depending on the circumstances and the popularity of the player, it can run between $6,000 and $15,000 for an appearance. Jamal Mashburn of the Dallas Mavericks said he arranged to take a fax machine and barbecue grill for his last Incredible Universe appearance.
Nice trade-offs for an occasional living hell.
Back in the line, where they are really earning their Happy Hill Farm charity money this particular evening, Tony Tolbert's old buddy has made another appearance.
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"Hey, remember me?" said the man. "I saw you at the Sound Warehouse over on Greenville last year."
Tolbert politely acknowledged that he was indeed at the Sound Warehouse on Greenville last year.
"But," added the 35-ish fan in knit dress slacks, "I was a few feet shorter then."
"This," said Tony Tolbert, "never, ever seems normal.