Michael Irvin sat in the middle of the Dallas Cowboys' locker room signing footballs and glossies hours after practice.
They were for unknown people on the outside somewhere.
He was the last Cowboy around. A shoe guy was holding out the '95 Nike with two hands for Irvin's perusal, like it was baby Jesus' bronze bootie.
The reporters had returned to their computers to type in more of the same words.
Lord, it's the same ol' stuff--autographs, reporters asking about morale, same ol' slightly irritable answers and one more trip to the playoffs. Some pretty peculiar stuff gets redundant when you've won the last two Super Bowls.
"Redundant"--that's the word Troy Aikman used Wednesday to describe the emotional direction of the team these days, saying once it gets past the "redundancy" of the regular season, this team will shift into that precious gear known only to guys like Jack Nicklaus, Michael Jordan or really expensive cars that aren't worth a flip in mall traffic.
If anyone tells you the Cowboys are the same Cowboys of the last two years, as some team members have tried to convey since San Francisco, they are either clueless or lying.
"It's just that we're 12-4 this year, same as last year," says Alvin Harper. "Last year we were a little better offensively. We've had a few setbacks. You could say we're irritable."
Yes, you could say that.
No season is alike on any team--be it the Chicago Bulls or your high school drill team. Certainly not on this team. The very acknowledgement of the regular season as "redundant" is evidence that the Dallas Cowboys have a different set of hoops to jump through than every other team in the playoffs.
And the very symptoms that show the emotional state of this team will give it the ability to survive in the turf war to come.
Withdrawal is a fine survival tool, from abusive household to pro locker room. The world champs are living by it. Since the loss to San Francisco, players have become increasingly cranky and standoffish. This is understandable, but it's a departure from the team we thought we knew.
"I used to come in here during and after lunch all the time. I'd talk to reporters," says Irvin. "Now you can't find me. I'm sort of tired of hearing the same questions."
"Where is Emmitt?" asked a reporter Wednesday. They were in the training room--Emmitt and his hamstring. The latter of which should have its own American Express card by now, it has developed such an identity of its own. The guy attached to the hamstring was buried in Nintendo out of reach of the microphones.
Like a lot of guys lately, Emmitt has spent more and more time engaged in the practice perfected by Major League Baseball players during their long seasons--hiding in the trainers' room. After Friday's practice at Valley Ranch, reporters stood around the locker room looking like a bunch of guys running late for school who weren't really sure if they'd missed the bus or it was just late.
No players were appearing. Had we missed them? Had they stiffed us? Smith was dressed. The hamstring in beige slacks and the rest of Emmitt in a fawn sweater, but both were staying just out of reporters' legal reach.
Finally Smith and the hamstring appear. "I'll give you four and a half minutes," Smith tells them, laughing like he's trying to be good-natured. But you can tell he's just so sick of it all he could puke.
He figures he's at about 80 percent strength. Which is about 110 percent for a regular player.
Someone changes the subject and asks what he's doing New Year's.
"I'll be on my knees, bringin' in the New Year the right way," he says. "Hey, but why do y'all need to know what I'm doing New Year's? That's my personal business. Ask me about football on the field, that's what I want to talk about."
Which, of course, only invites more of those damn hamstring and morale questions.
"It feels...like a hamstring," says Emmitt. "I don't know how it feels."
And it strikes you that not all that long ago, this running man who really hates to be hurt, was being hauled off a football field in a golf cart because he couldn't walk. And you can see he has absolutely run out of things to say about soreness and muscles and physical sensation.
For god's sakes, he was born to make plays, not sonnets. But this too, is part of the bargain. Putting up with this stuff, the questions that multiply with each championship, is part of what it takes to three-peat.
Without it, three-peat ain't nothing but a word on a T-shirt minted way too far in advance.
Emmitt walks off toward the Mercedes, vowing to the air not to watch one dadgum minute of football over the holiday weekend.
"Hell, that's why they call it an off week," says Emmitt.
Football is work.
They still pop towels around here. The everydayness of Gatorade in a can and a pile of take-out sandwiches for lunch and ice and gauze for everything else are still there.
The camaraderie is the same, no matter how big and bizarre the demands on this team become.
But something is different.
"No doubt, every year is different," says Irvin. "And every year for us is emotionally more draining because each time we are coming off a bigger emotional high. Nothing can be matched. There used to be a high for regular season big games. It's like a coke addict, it has to be more and more, ya know?
"It has not been the same adrenaline level during games. This team has not been emotionally high."
And so, the questions are asked. The irritability factor increases.
The "Dallas is Dead" Inside Sports cover remains on the bulletin board, blown up to the size of someone's daughter's wedding picture. A quote from a 49er, promising his team will win the big one, sits beside it.
Ducking reporters is more survival mechanism than a butthead athlete trait--at least in this case.
But there will be no hiding when they play Green Bay Jan. 8.
The energetic practices this week appeared to back up what scant rhetoric did emerge between trainers' room and showers.
The workouts were different this week. This week, said Irvin, is the very first week since the team left Austin that the practices have carried this both delightful and intense quality.
Since Austin. In that time two major sports have been all but lost, the leadership of this country shifted dramatically, and 1.3 million more fruitcakes were sold.
Plenty of time to question. But the time it takes to get up for it all again when you're a Cowboy.
Out on the practice field of bent brown grass and blue fences, they bounced around like little boys who'd gotten real-looking NFL jerseys for Christmas and were sharing a make-believe game ball one of the neighbor kids brought down.
Afterwards, they all seemed a little happier, at least those who came out of hiding.
"Today was a great practice," says Irvin. "We were running around, having fun again. Everybody here is a big playmaker. We are a team of playmakers. We will come around when we need to."
He signs some more stuff, destined for charity giveaways and friends of friends of someone important.
"You know," he says, putting down football and silver pen for a moment, "coming back from the Giants' game, Troy and I had a talk."
The no-B.S. quarterback called Irvin aside and assured, "You know, everything is going to be fine."
In this conversation, "fine" can only be a euphemism for "Super Bowl."
"But," Troy tells Irv, "you gotta make sure you keep the team up and come in with your head up. That's what you do--you keep this team up and you've got to be up at practice even if you're just joking around."
So Irvin has. Every day this week, he approached practice smiling like Jan. 8 is the Super Bowl.
For this team, it and every date until the prom is just that.
"You get tired of all the questions and you know if you're asked long enough about this team not being as good," says Irvin, "perception becomes reality. You know you plant a seed and water it long enough, it'll grow."
Thursday, coach Barry Switzer, on a seed-and-weed hacking excavation of his own, had a meeting about leadership, apparently in response to an article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram where several players, including Aikman--who can pretty well say anything he damn well pleases--questioned the leadership on this team.
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"Guys have the same work-hard attitude," says Harper, "but the last three games I wasn't involved with the offense, so it's not like repetition for me. No one is coming out relaxed in here.
"We've had a few setbacks. We've had a few accidents and car wrecks. Off the field we've had a lot of small distractions. People don't realize that if we worked at a bank or something, if people we worked with had this many accidents, it would be a big deal."
Ah, just like one big family. And just like a family, they argue, they stick together, and the older siblings would probably just as soon spit in dad's coffee a time or three this season.
"Hey," says Harper, "our family always gets along."
Just like a family, they'll say a lot to save face.