Standing in the world's most famous sports tunnel last Saturday night, the symbolism smacked me like the arctic north wind howling up from Texas Stadium's frigid field.
In a chaotic clash of eras—smack dab in the middle of the Astroturf-lined walkway where championships were celebrated and legends were born—the present Dallas Cowboys walked up toward the locker room (pre-season Super Bowl favorites now booed off the field after a kick-to-the-crotch loss to the Baltimore Ravens) while the past Dallas Cowboys walked down toward the sacred acreage (four decades and five championships cheered one last time in a post-game ceremony before Texas Stadium shuttered its doors).
Sprinkle in a throng of media, a gaggle of shivering cheerleaders, and the junction of old-meets-new deteriorated into a jammed juxtaposition.
Going up: Current receiver Terrell Owens, head down and silent after a pedestrian five-catch performance in the 33-24 loss.
Going down: Former receiver Michael Irvin, mouth wide open.
"How can you not win this game?!" Irvin screamed at no one in particular but the current team in general. "This was the last game at Texas Stadium. Ever. You've got to win this game!"
Thanks only to the inadequacies of their competitors for NFC Wild Card spots, the 9-6 Cowboys can win Sunday in Philadelphia, make the playoffs and save their season. But for what they did and didn't do during the final act of one of sports' most iconic theaters, they'll never save face.
With more than 100 former players and 64,000 fans braving 30-degree temperatures and 30-mph winds, the Cowboys were supposed to retire their stadium with a bang, not a blunder. Ignoring the old joint's dingy amenities, piles of trash and puddles of standing water, we planned to see Dallas beat Baltimore before sticking around to praise the stadium's proud history.
Turns out the Cowboys aren't a quality football team, but a collection of party poopers.
Down 19-17 with four minutes remaining, the stage was set for a triumphant send-off. Three run stops, three timeouts, one drive, a field goal and—presto—everlasting magic. But with Roger Staubach, Bob Lilly, Emmitt Smith, God and even Leon Lett watching, the Cowboys instead allowed touchdown runs of 77 and 82 yards. Safety Ken Hamlin, just minutes after botching a fumble recovery, was unblocked on both plays and had both hands on both Ravens' runners, ultimately unable to tackle either Willis McGahee or Le'Ron McClain.
"I've never seen two long runs at the end of a game like that," said head coach Wade Phillips, his job now hanging on Sunday's result in Philly. "There's not much you can say."
The crowd, perched on the edge of its seat for an enthusiastic eulogy, was disgusted by the pathetic pallbearers.
The Cowboys' final possession in Texas Stadium included a false-start penalty, a delay-of-game penalty and a mistimed shotgun snap from Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode to quarterback Tony Romo. Dallas' final play: on fourth-and-two, a pass that lost two yards.
The nauseating display hatched 64,000 Scrooges. Make that 64,001.
The house that Tex Schramm constructed and Tom Landry perfected deserved better. In a season forcing us to bid farewell to Reunion Arena and Cotton Bowl games in Dallas, Texas Stadium evokes the saddest "so long."
Unfortunate enough to have witnessed the finale, I was blessed to attend the debut.
I was 7. It was heaven.
I attended the first Cowboys game there on October 24, 1971, and I remember how Texas Stadium looked like a big, white hamburger. From my seat—Section 12, Row 24, Seat 8 (10-yard line, visitors' side, opposite the player tunnels)—it was delicious.
Back then the walls were gray and starless. The goal posts sat in the end zone. There was a Cowboys band, a gap void of luxury suites between top row and roof, and a rudimentary scoreboard that boiiiinged with pertinent stats. Murphy Martin was the booming voice. The pre-game entertainment was recorded college fight songs, the national anthem was played by solo trumpeter Tommy Loy and the halftime shows alternated between the Cowboys cheerleaders, Apache Belles, Kilgore Rangerettes and the Grambling band.
When we arrived early for sultry noon kickoffs, I remember bugging Dad with: "How long till the shade?"
For the right to buy two seats for 10 years, our family purchased a $300 bond. (Original Cowboys owner Clint Murchison wanted to build the stadium in downtown Dallas in 1965, but city leaders—stop me if you've heard this one before—balked at splitting the bill.) Today, similar seats at the new Jonestown Coliseum in Arlington require a personal seat license upward of $32,000. And get this, once the stadium was paid for, the city of Irving even repaid the bond.
As a Cowboys fan, former souvenir concessionaire, high-school football connoisseur, sportswriter in this area since 1986 and Cowboys beat writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram from 1990-'94, I've attended well more than 100 events at Texas Stadium. Until Jerry Jones shoved us media up just beneath the ceiling's bolts and girders, my weekly view was from atop the Ring of Honor's second "l" in "Lilly." On the midfield star I saw a friend get married, another couple "re-consummating" their vows and, on May 25, 1982, I became a graduate of Duncanville High School after walking across the 50-yard-line stage.
In its final days the stadium was 37 going on 87. A concrete, steel and chain-link fence mess. We were still treated to a pre-game blue-and-white balloon release. But there was no band. The old scoreboard was a giant Miller Lite ad. George Dunham replaced Martin. And Loy's simple artistry had long been drowned out by the distorted racket of The Jonas Brothers.
Most of my eternal goose bumps—like yours—are classic Cowboys. The 213-100 record. The four NFC Championship Game victories. Roger Staubach's final comeback win in '79. Emmitt's rushing record in '02. Clint Longley's improbable bomb in '74. Tom Landry's stare. Crazy Ray's whistle. The cameos in Any Given Sunday and on TV's Dallas, making Texas Stadium the most recognizable piece of Texas architecture this side of The Alamo.
All the history. All the glory. All the memories. You'd think Texas Stadium would lie in state in some grand rotunda, gracing fans with one last embrace before becoming a gigantic museum, one of those preserved places adorned with a historical marker, or at least the planet's biggest sports-themed casino.
The building and its team are going out with a collective whimper. Irving officials plan to implode Texas Stadium and erect upon its hallowed ground—prepare to cringe—an outlet mall. The Eagles plan to beat the Cowboys on Sunday, sending them into another cold, harsh, empty winter.
So here we are.
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The world's most recognizable hole in the roof destined to become just another hole in the ground, and its former tenants just 60 minutes from the most disappointing season in franchise history.
Nothing left to do but cue Don Meredith:
Turn out the lights, the party's over;
They say that all good things must end...