The Cowboy nobody knows
At Valley Ranch, David Lang is sitting barefooted in front of his locker, which sits
next to Emmitt Smith's locker and Emmitt's empty sweaty shoes.
It is good that the shoes are sweaty because that means Emmitt is healthy, and all that is loved more than God and family in Dallas, Texas, is right with the world.
Lang is insisting there is no shame in being the unknown backup to one of the greatest running backs ever to play the game.
Shadow? What shadow? he asks, only half joking. Well, there happens to be one literally cutting across his face, directly from the king's locker.
"I'm happy being a regular guy," Lang says. "It's not like nobody knows me just because I'm the backup."
OK, David, who backed up Walter Payton?
"Well, I know Chicago Bears football," he says. "I know the running backs."
OK then, who backed up Walter Payton?
Lang grins like he's just gotten to play in a football game. "Well, I don't like football much," he says, meaning NFL football. "I'm more a college football fan. I like hockey and basketball too."
(For the record, in case anyone cares, Payton's backup was Dennis Gentry.)
There are men all around in pads sleeping on the floor after two-a-day drills; the locker room looks like a makeshift morgue after terrorists have marred the Super Bowl.
They do not know David Lang's name. "This is cool," says Lang, wide awake and about to go seek extra counseling from a coach. "This is cool just getting ready to go to camp."
As a third-year veteran, Lang, by the way, is not obligated to be here, in pads, this day. "But I have to be ready," he says, well aware of the ramifications of playing understudy to Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster, and Richard Burton rolled into one earring-wearing, Mercedes-driving package.
"I'm not nervous," says Lang. "I've been doing this a couple of years. I can't think about what I'm doing or who I'm backing up."
In simplistic football jargon, he says, he just has to pretend that he will be needed at any moment.
"[Coach] Zampese got people here to notice me," he says. "Just making the team is not my concern--just performing as well as I can is my concern and then I know I will make the team.
"I'm really just happy being a regular guy, buying my own groceries. If somebody asks me if I'm a Cowboy--not that they know who I am, but just because I'm in shorts and kinda look like it--I try not to say much.
"It really doesn't bother me."
What bothered him, he said, was leaving Los Angeles, where he began his brief career. "I thought I would live there forever," he says. "This was not by choice--but now I'm happy. After a while I got happy. This organization is what football is all about."
And just for the record, maybe Ronnie Coleman didn't choose his role either.
That would be Earl Campbell's backup.
A Cowboys media person is asked what school Lang attended. "Hmm," he says, "I'm not sure. We just signed him."
Well, actually that would be Northern Arizona.
For the curious, he was born in Tyler, Texas, grew up in California as a Cowboys fan, and attended Northern Arizona. His mom embarrasses him a lot by reminding people who he is everywhere they go.
"Man," he says, "we were on our way to Vegas, in this mall in Barstow, and she was telling everybody who I was."
Mom should hang out in Austin this summer, and not just for the beer.
(By the way, in case you are really wondering by now, it was the great Pete Van Valkenberg who backed up O.J. Simpson--this was before Al Cowlings played that role.)
I ask a Cowboys PR man for Lang's stats last season.
"Uh, OK," says the voice. "So he was not with us last year?" No. He was with Los Angeles, where he carried 488 times for 266 yards.
Now that Sherman Williams is signed, Lang will probably end up as running back No. 3. In the meantime, there is a consensus emerging that Lang will make the team.
"Who told you that?" he asks.
Coaches, I tell him.
"Ernie Zampese?" he asks, excitedly.
The preseason spin from the coaching staff--the guys in the ugly blue shorts--is that, with Williams and Lang behind Emmitt, they've got the best passel of running backs since Herschel Walker and Tony Dorsett. No kidding, that's what they are saying.
(And in case you are really, really wondering, it was the great Mike Guman who backed up Eric Dickerson. Guman had seven carries in Dickerson's best year.)
Lang literally can't wait to get his pads on every day. People are talking about it around Valley Ranch.
But outside, Lang is the Cowboy nobody knows--until, of course, Emmitt twists a knee or breaks an ankle. Then he'll become the most important Cowboy who ever lived.
"Emmitt and I worked out together in the off-season," Lang says. "We never talked about me being his backup--that wouldn't really be cool.
"I stole this shirt from Emmitt," he confesses.
"I like horses," he says.
OK, 'nuff said.
He has a house in Atlanta, a mom in California, and nothing but a hotel room in Dallas.
There is, of course, a caste system on the Cowboys.
Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith, for example, get to park their cars up by the door at Valley Ranch. It isn't really a parking area--it is more of a covered sidewalk which became the private "garage" for the two a few seasons ago.
But everyone just knows they have to make special accommodations for the cars of the kings--so that they'll never see pigeon droppings.
If only what's-his-face should ever see a game.
That would be David Lang--who has no idea that the great Chris Scales played backup to a guy named Jim Brown.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Dallas and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.