On This Sunday Morning, Pete Gent's Passing Reminds: Time to Re-Read North Dallas Forty

Pete Gent, No. 35 on the 1964 Dallas Cowboys roster
Pete Gent, No. 35 on the 1964 Dallas Cowboys roster

In 1997, an insurance company called Rushmore sued Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys in federal court, insisting that Jones owed close to $1 million in workers comp claims filed by former players -- among them Harvey Martin, Tony Dorsett, Billy Joe DuPree, Randy White and Bob Breunig. The suit stemmed from a contract bought in 1982 by Clint Murchison, which Jones insisted wasn't his problem; he said he bought the team, not its legal obligations. Injured Cowboys, paid an average salary of $90,000 just 30 years ago, had every right to collect workers comp; it was in their contract, fought for by the players' union. Jones disputed this, in court case after course case.

When I was writing about this battle, one of those to whom I spoke was a man who knew more than most about how owners felt about players: Peter Gent, whose book North Dallas Forty chronicled the "chronic pain" (an oft-repeated phrase in the book) suffered by the disposable heroes of Sunday afternoons. Chronicling his tenure under Tom Landry and Tex Schramm, the fictional tome was "a story of violence, drugs, racism, commercialism and hypocrisy," as Andy Barall neatly sums it up on The New York Times's Fifth Down blog this morning.

On This Sunday Morning, Pete Gent's Passing Reminds: Time to Re-Read North Dallas Forty

Gent, drafted by Dallas in '64, loved the game. But he couldn't stand how owners treated the men who played it -- as throwaways whose had it coming to 'em. "I've always believed there's an attitude toward ball players that they deserve to get hurt," he told me from his home in Michigan, which he then shared with his mother. "And whoever thinks that way doesn't have the faintest idea how we feel."

Gent died Friday complications from pulmonary disease; he was 69. North Dallas Forty remains one of the greatest books about sports ever written; the movie, one of the most honest ever made on a subject too often romanticized -- winning at all costs. (Just two months ago, we said farewell to actor G.A. Spradlin, who played its cold coach, B.A. Strother.) But it's not just a great sports book; it's also one of the few essential pieces of locally set lit. I started re-reading it again this morning. From Page 10 of the August 1974 paperback:

I accelerated into the main lanes of the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike, heading for Dallas at about ninety miles an hour, a high-speed island of increased awareness and stereophonic sound heading back to the future. The turnpike was twenty-eight straight miles of concrete laid on rolling hills, connecting the two cities for anyone with sixty cents and a Class A automobile. Factories, warehouses, and two medium cities smother the land the length of the highway. Back in the early sixties, five minutes past the toll gate, heading for either end, you were out in the West. That was when Braniff's planes were gray. Jack Ruby ran a burlesque house. And the School Book Depository was a place that kept school books.
"Smoke will rise
In the Dallas skies
Comin' back to you
Dallas Alice..."

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