The Cowboys' Domestic Violence Troubles Didn't Begin with Greg Hardy. Just Ask Nate Newton's Ex.
Illustration by Allen Douglas
Dorothy Newton knew she and her unborn child were going to die. The sense of doom forced a frigid clarity of mind. So first, she stopped at her best friend’s house and drafted a letter to secret away, to open in the event of her murder. It named her killer.
An emotional mess but still lucid, Newton pressed her friend Ingrid Ford for a promise. If anything happens to me, she told her, you must promise you will raise Tré. In another room, Tré, Dorothy’s 8-year-old, played with Ingrid’s twin boys.
Ingrid was scared for her friend but too tense to cry. “You should not go back there,” she implored her. “Stay here. Don’t go home.”
“I have to,” Dorothy said. “You don’t understand.”
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Of course it made no sense, looking in from the outside. No one knew the breadth of the abuse she endured, in a sick cycle that hewed to her husband’s ups and downs as an athlete and celebrity. There were the inevitable setbacks on the field, even in the midst of a record-breaking, three-Super Bowl run. And the drinking, the clubbing, the DUIs. And the latest in a series of women who’d emerge, claiming they’d been fondled or assaulted or just jilted. Dorothy always stood by her famous husband’s side, but she paid for it dearly in private.
No one knew the full extent of it. Not her family in Louisiana, not her friends. The verbal abuse was relentless, with every sentence containing a barrage of B’s and F’s. The words, in fact, cut deeper than anything. But he also shoved her, choked her and kicked her, all 325 pounds of him, sometimes leaving her on the floor, beaten so badly she was unable to move.
This time, Dorothy had finally decided to leave Dallas Cowboys superstar Nate Newton. But first she had to face him. Someone had informed the Cowboys organization about Nate’s personal “business,” and he was enraged. Assuming Dorothy was responsible, he ordered her to come home — or he would kill her. So she left Ingrid that day in 1997 and drove to Argyle, in Denton County, her son Tré beside her. She knew Nate would never hurt Tré — or would he? She arrived in the afternoon at their home, set on six wooded acres where no one around them could see or hear anything. Stay in the car till I come and get you, she told Tré. Then, strangely calm, she stepped inside.
Nate was waiting. “What the fuck are you doing?” he shouted.
Dorothy sat down stiffly at the kitchen table, bracing for a lengthy rant. Then she spotted the rifle lying on the counter. Nate shouted again, then grabbed the table and shoved it toward his wife. The thick, glass tabletop jarred loose and slammed onto the floor, grazing her stomach.
Dorothy erupted in anger. “You are sick, Nathaniel Newton!”
Nate seized the rifle and leveled it right between his wife’s eyes. “I’m going to kill you,” he said. He held the barrel in place for a moment, observing her fear, then shifted it just a few inches to the right. He pulled the trigger. The kitchen window shattered.
Dorothy dropped to the floor and screamed as Nate hustled outside.
As he got in his car and drove away, he had to have seen the terrified little boy hiding behind the barbecue grill, popping his head up to peer inside, in front of the same window that had just been blown to pieces. But like his mother had for so many years, Tré remained silent.
Dorothy Newton, ex-wife of former Cowboys star Nate Newton, writes of her years of being the abused wife in a football crazy town.
Dan Davis Photography
Now, more than 15 years later, Dorothy Newton is speaking out, and people are listening. Long divorced from Nate, she released a book last month called Silent Cry: The True Story of Abuse and Betrayal of an NFL Wife, chronicling her abusive marriage, eventual escape and recovery through faith. In a fascinating addendum to the book, Nate Newton allows himself to be interviewed by Dorothy’s collaborator, and he acknowledges the abuse while insisting he is regretful and, today, a changed man.
Though an earlier, self-published version of the book told the same story, media are paying attention this time, thanks to a pair of horrific domestic-violence incidents involving NFL players: Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy, accused of battering his former girlfriend from head to toe, and former Ravens star Ray Rice, caught on video decking his fiancée (now his wife) into unconsciousness in an elevator in an Atlantic City casino in 2014. Images from the cases went viral online, impossible for the NFL or anyone else to ignore.
The NFL is being pressed hard to crack down on domestic violence. It wasn’t always that way, Dorothy says. A tall, stylish woman with a powerful build that, at the age of 53, gives away her past as a college volleyball player, Dorothy tells how she made an appointment with two people “at the top” of the Cowboys organization in 2012 to inform them about the pending release of her self-published book and to ask for support in creating awareness about domestic abuse. The Cowboys canceled the appointment, she says.
The Cowboys knew about the abuse while she was still married to Nate, her book reveals, and chose to do nothing. In a written statement last week, Cowboys spokesman Rich Dalrymple responded: “At the time the Cowboys were first made aware of issues in the Newton family, the organization’s ownership was in the earliest stages of putting our player assistance department in place … In the ensuing 17 years since Nate Newton left our organization, our assistance programs have grown to help not only players but their spouses and all employees…”
Today, Cowboys players and their families have access to a full-time psychologist, counselors and “regularly scheduled presentations involving abusers and victims of domestic violence,” Dalrymple continued. To ensure confidentiality — a huge consideration, as Dorothy’s story shows — the programs are operated without involvement from team management.
Dorothy is less than optimistic about the prospect for institutional change. “Winning supersedes everything,” she says. She observed the dynamic with Nate. “It just seemed like winning that Super Bowl, this entire city, everyone had them on this pedestal.”
Though the physical abuse in her marriage started at the beginning of the Cowboys’ fabled Super Bowl run in the ’90s, Dorothy didn’t dare tell the authorities. “I saw things,” she says. “I saw how no matter what happened, they [the Cowboys] are treated differently. They’re special. Who would believe me? I wasn’t Nate Newton.”
Newton says she is speaking out today so other women trapped in similar circumstances can see a way out. “Abuse is so complicated,” she says. There are the children, the finances, the fact that no one wants to believe you when your husband is idolized by the city you live in. And if you speak out, will anyone do anything? Or will you just pay a higher price at home? “Trying to navigate your way through all these things is devastating,” Dorothy says. “It’s a very, very difficult thing to do.”
She, of course, is aware of the armchair response: “Just leave! Call 911!” But one thing is for sure. You will never again think domestic violence is a simple matter after reading Silent Cry. And, surprisingly, Nate Newton will upend your stereotypes of the abuser.
Jolly, big-bellied, fun-loving Nate Newton. The massive guard was the wisecracking, good-natured counterpart to his highly intense fellow superstars Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin, iconic players on coach Jimmy Johnson’s legendary teams. A six-time Pro Bowler, literally a big reason behind Smith’s Hall of Fame success as a running back, Nate was comic relief to Aikman’s and Smith’s wooden public personas and Irvin’s lavish debauchery. Notorious for ballooning well above his official playing weight of 325, Newton reportedly frequented a Dallas-area deli so much they named three sandwiches after him.
A media favorite, Newton could always be counted on for a funny quote. He is responsible for perhaps the most memorable one of that era, at a point when the Cowboys’ reputation for partying had grown as big as its on-field success. When a reporter inquired about the White House, a place near Valley Ranch where players like Irvin partied, Nate waxed inadvertently hilarious. “We’ve got a little place over here where we’re running some whores in and out, trying to be responsible, and we’re criticized for that, too,” he whined.
When Nate tried to explain himself later, noting that by “whores” he really just meant women, he only dug the hole deeper. But his public image remained relatively benign.
Lynn Martin, wife of Cowboys wide receiver Kelvin Martin, a significant player on Johnson’s first Super Bowl team, recalls her impressions of Nate. “Nate has always been a fun-loving guy and fun to be around,” she says. Ingrid Ford, who, along with her husband and the Martins were close friends of the Newtons, shared the same thoughts. “He’s a lot of fun,” Ingrid said. “And he loved my kids, especially my little one, and my kids loved him. We were all close.”
This was the Nate that Dorothy Johnson fell in love with, back in the late 1980s. Dorothy met Nate just a few months after she’d moved to Dallas for work. A fresh graduate of the University of Southwestern Louisiana, Dorothy was eager to begin her career in health-care operations. One day she was at the bank when she noticed a man staring at her. And it wasn’t the first time. She’d spotted this guy checking her out before.
When Dorothy went out to her car, there the man stood, “smiling from ear to ear.” He introduced himself as Nathaniel, “but most people just call me Nate,” he said, and invited her to dinner. No, thanks, Dorothy immediately replied. She was on her way out of town. But this guy persisted. He talked and talked, and he could talk. They discovered that their birthday was the very same day, same year. They’d both attended college on sports scholarships. He was a professional football player, and her brother, Mike Johnson, was, too. They had so much in common.
Though Dorothy brushed off Nate that day, he continued to pursue her. She found he was easy to talk to and hang with, like settling into a soft, old couch. Soon they began dating. She was a devout Christian, a virgin, and he respected that. Though he didn’t share her faith, he wanted her to be exactly who she was: strong, loyal and kind.
Nate did cuss a lot. Dorothy took note of that, and she didn’t like it. Same with his drinking. But it wasn’t long before she was in love. He listened intently as she told her life story, sharing details she’d never confided in anyone else. He reciprocated, revealing that his birth mother was an alcoholic, that he’d been raised by his father, that he did stuff at Florida A&M that he wasn’t especially proud of.
Dorothy saw the good in Nate Newton, the sensitive, serious side. She knew her faith would eventually win him. And there was just so much to talk about.
Dorothy Newton says her ex-husband could be funny and charming at times. He was also verbally and physically abusive and threatened to kill her.
Courtesy of Dorothy Newton
The sounds terrified her. The metal door of their trailer creaking open in the early hours. Angry words, growled demands followed by sharp slaps. Flesh thudding against walls, furnishings and floors. Her stepfather silent, her mother crying.
Dorothy Johnson grew up in tiny Buras, Louisiana, 60 miles south of New Orleans, in an abusive home. Her father was an old-fashioned drunk, the kind who showed up every day for his job as a crane operator, worked hard, then hit the streets with his pay, drinking and gambling half the night. When he finally staggered home, he had little to say, but he was quick to fight. Dorothy’s mom became the target of his rages, to the point that she suffered severe headaches and seizures, which Dorothy believes were a direct result of the beatings.
Little Dorothy would cringe in her room, then, as the oldest child, attend to her mom when her stepfather succumbed to the booze and dropped off to sleep. Sometimes she and her siblings ran and told their neighbors, and sometimes their Uncle Sam, a respected man in their community, would come and attempt to talk sense to his brother. Things would get better for a while, but the change never lasted.
“It was painful,” Dorothy recalls. “I knew it was wrong. But it seems like it was just something that was happening a lot. I was confused … I remember thinking, this is just something that happens in a family. But I was also able to recognize love, and love didn’t hurt.”
Her stepfather’s drinking and gambling got so bad that it pushed the family into poverty. Dorothy’s mom took a job in a school cafeteria, where one of the benefits was that she could squirrel away cast-off food. She would take partly eaten sandwiches, trim the nibbled edges and bring them home to feed her six children. Though the family’s situation grew worse and worse, Dorothy’s mom, known affectionately to everyone as “Keeby,” stayed in the marriage. It wasn’t until her stepfather was shot in the stomach during a fight at a nightclub and lay gravely ill in the hospital that he took an interest in Dorothy, a top student and athlete, and showed a softer side.
He died soon afterward, while Dorothy was in college.
She and Nate talked about all of these things early in their relationship. “There was such a level of comfort talking to him,” Dorothy says. “It was just all good. I didn’t have to hide dark secrets about what I witnessed as a child and how it affected me.”
Nate confided as well. “He expressed a lot of personal things he had been through,” Dorothy says. “Things he had experienced in his college days, the lifestyle he had lived. He didn’t want to be that way anymore. And he claimed I was everything he was looking for.”
Only many years later, while writing her book, did Dorothy see the striking parallels between her mother’s life and her own. Their strong Christian faith, their concern for others. Their hard-working husbands who’d come home late at night, making demands. Their ability to endure hardship and unbelievable abuse.
The red flag, looking back, was communication, Dorothy says. Nate’s cussing, his habit of raising his voice and becoming angry over anyone who frustrated him or challenged whether he was right. “How he responded and reacted to others — that was the sign.”
All of this took place off the field. With the Cowboys, Nate was an extremely hard worker. He respected his coaches; they were working toward the same goal, after all.
Dorothy never cursed, but she overlooked it in Nate. “I didn’t like the cussing. I didn’t like the anger. I shouldn’t have tolerated the small things,” she says, “because those small things escalated into bigger things.”
She sees the early stages of their relationship as one of increasing spiritual compromise. Before long, she and Nate were having sex. Still, Dorothy entertained thoughts of changing him, of showing him the benefits of being a Christian through her own godly life. Nate never stood in the way of her faith, but he never joined it, either.
Then Dorothy got pregnant, unexpectedly. When Nate found out, he blamed her for letting it happen, complained about having two children already and not wanting any more and encouraged her to abort their child. Yet another sign. But Dorothy was in too deep.
She refused to have an abortion, and she recalls how alone she felt, “wanting so badly to be loved and cared for.” Just when she found herself ready to let Nate go, he came around — welcoming the birth of Nathaniel Newton III, nicknamed Tré, in 1989.
Though Nate presented her to family and friends as his wife long before they were actually married, Dorothy lived with a lingering sense of shame. She felt she’d betrayed God. The disappointment in herself infected her to the point that she viewed her later troubles as the inevitable consequences of her various acts of spiritual “compromise.”
Even so, Nate and Dorothy experienced many good days. Despite his initial, selfish reaction to the pregnancy, Nate was immensely proud of his son, eager to show him off at the public appearances expected of a Dallas Cowboy. He and Dorothy would often embark on road trips, one of Nate’s favorite pastimes, and the SUV would ring with laughter on the way to Louisiana or wherever. Dorothy savored those times.
Her family back home enjoyed him, too. Nate showered them with gifts, including cash and cars, and entertained them with his funny quips.
By now, the Cowboys were on the path to winning the first Super Bowl of the Johnson era, after the 1992 season. Though Dorothy suspects that Nate was cheating on her even during her first pregnancy — “There was always another woman,” she says — Nate’s drinking and partying increased with the Cowboys’ success, along with the ensuing complications. Nate would come home late at night, demanding that Dorothy get up and cook him a hot meal or have sex. Like any wife, she wanted to know where her husband had been.
What had started as rough conversation became regular verbal abuse, Dorothy says. In her book and in an interview, she won’t repeat her ex-husband’s words verbatim. But, she says, they went something like this:
“B——, you don’t question me where I’m going or what I’m doing — who the F—- do you think you are?” Except this would turn into a tirade that lasted an hour, even hours, and the anger turned up several notches if Dorothy dared to respond.
Not long after they married, in 1992, their frequent arguments turned physical. “He would hit. He would choke. He would pull my hair. He would kick. He would push,” Dorothy says. “I’m grateful that I survived the physical, but the verbal and emotional abuse was far worse than anything imaginable. Anything imaginable.”
Courtesy of Dorothy Newton
Dorothy confided in no one at first. She blamed herself, after all. She started this chain of events by having sex with Nate Newton, against her convictions. With a little more patience, Nate might turn around. Each peaceful interval in their marriage fueled Dorothy’s hope that this was the last time, that Nate was changing his ways, becoming the family man she knew he wanted to be. The truth is, most of those times of peace were because her husband was in trouble in another area of life, she says. Something was fixing to blow.
Nate always had some kind of trouble brewing — DUIs, angry girlfriends. One time, Nate’s agent forwarded his American Express bill to the house, and Dorothy saw it. There were charges to Louis Vuitton and jewelry stores, for luxury items she never saw or even asked for. After one argument about another woman, Nate struck Dorothy above her left eye, leaving a bruise, Dorothy says in her book. When she went to the next Cowboys game, she donned big sunglasses to hide the mark. Sandy Irvin, Michael Irvin’s wife, came up to her.
“Dot, can I tell you something?”
Dorothy tensed up. Can she see it? Does she know?
“Dot, you are a beautiful person,” Sandy said. “You are just so beautiful.”
Dorothy wanted to cry; if only she knew. Sandy and Dorothy are good friends today, but Dorothy didn’t dare confide in another Cowboys wife; if word got out somehow, she knew what was waiting for her at home.
Nate’s life had become hugely complicated, with so many people to please and placate, and he took out his frustrations on his wife. “All he wanted was freedom to enjoy the ride, because it was a great ride,” Dorothy says. “And you know, being married was the last thing — having a wife who demanded respect, who demanded love, who expected these things, was interfering with his lifestyle.”
Whenever Nate got in trouble publicly, he expected Dorothy to come by his side. He became tender and loving, pleading that he needed her. “My heart softens,” Dorothy says, “and the next thing you know, I’m back to square one.”
During one of those times, Nate and Dorothy decided to have another child. Just three months into her second pregnancy, though, she started getting calls from a woman who claimed she was Nate’s mistress. Dorothy didn’t believe her at first, but the woman insisted on providing the lurid details. Clearly, she was in a relationship with Nate.
One night, Dorothy announced to Nate that she was leaving him.
His reply, she says: “I will kill you first.”
It was a broken confidence that led to the gunshot in their home. Though Dorothy gradually spoke about her home situation to Ingrid, a hand-picked friend whom she subjected to several trust tests, she never contacted authorities. She didn’t know if she’d survive the aftermath. In a moment of weakness, though, she mentioned the abuse to a female publicist who worked with several Cowboys players. She begged the woman not to tell anyone.
Though not a Cowboys employee, the woman evidently told someone in the team organization, and word filtered back to Nate, setting up the potentially deadly confrontation.
Nate disappeared for several weeks afterward. Dorothy thought he’d run away because of their fight, but another reason emerged: He was in trouble again. The same woman who’d harassed Dorothy on the phone would accuse Nate of sexual assault. Though Dorothy wanted a divorce, Nate begged her to stand by him. If she did, he told her, he’d grant the divorce.
Nate apologized; he seemed eager to change. Dorothy believed the rape allegation was untrue, and she thought the right thing to do was to stand by her husband. They also had a new baby, King, to think about. A grand jury ultimately declined to indict Newton.
It wasn’t until more than two years later, when Nate was finishing his career with the Carolina Panthers and Dorothy stayed in Dallas, that she would find herself with enough emotional and physical space to make a plan to leave her husband and, with her two boys, fend for herself.
She describes this time as one of spiritual renewal. Away from Nate, she realized that God had forgiven her for her mistakes. This was not her fault. Abuse, in fact, was never excusable. Dorothy felt strength welling up in her, and she entered a sort of spiritual zone that allowed her to detach from the reality of the abuse, which resumed when Nate was around, and extended, she claims, to sexual abuse.
“I didn’t want to have sex with him,” she says. “Sometimes, there was no choice. I did what I had to do to survive.”
By the time they divorced in 2000, Nate had spent all of the money from his football years. All they had was their home, which they sold, splitting the proceeds. Dorothy was relieved just to get out. She found a good job in health-care operations and created a life for herself and her boys, who would go on to become college athletes themselves.
Nate Newton, however, spiraled down. He was busted twice in 2001 for carrying a total of nearly 400 pounds of marijuana in his vehicles. Sentenced to federal prison, Nate came out two years later a remorseful man. Since then, he has remarried and identifies himself today as a Christian. In numerous interviews, to his credit, he has never blamed anyone but himself for his troubles. (Newton did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)
If you have bothered to look up at a billboard in the last several years, you have probably seen a vastly slimmed-down Newton drowning in his old fat pants, showing off the results of weight-reduction surgery at the hands of the ubiquitous Dr. David Kim. Using his volubility to good effect, Nate has also launched a career as a public speaker. A little over a week ago, he could be heard as the keynote for a men’s health conference at the Dallas Public Library.
Dorothy Newton steps into the foyer of Gateway Church, smartly dressed in a dark blazer, jeans and high-heeled boots. A diverse crowd swarms in the hallways and around a food truck, attendees of an event at the Southlake megachurch, where she is a member.
I discover something else she and Nate share: a brilliant smile.
For nearly three hours, Dorothy answers the most personal questions. There isn’t a trace of bitterness in her answers; several times she stops to correct the balance concerning Nate, to note his good qualities — his work ethic, his close relationship with his boys. Dorothy isn’t ready to climb on a soapbox and declare that Nate is a new man, but she accepts he has changed.
The conversation naturally turns to the NFL’s tawdriest stories this year, the Greg Hardy and Ray Rice cases. When the news came out, Dorothy responded the same each time. She prayed, from the depths of a knowing but healed heart. “Lord, give these women the strength and courage to seek you, to clear their minds because of the pressures and everything that surrounds them,” she says, recalling her words. “It makes it so complicated, so hard. Lord, send someone to these women who will walk with them, who will hold their hands and not let go…”
It is so hard for the abused woman to break away, she says, because repeated abuse “strips you completely of any identity of who you are, any freedom … It violates your rights spiritually, physically, emotionally. You’re no longer your own.”
Dorothy doesn’t believe Nate — or Hardy or Rice, for that matter — woke up one day and decided to become abusers. “Nate, at the core, I don’t believe he purposely wanted to be this kind of person,” she says. “I have to believe that no man in their right mind would want to do something like that. I honestly believe there’s a root cause, and it requires professional help.”
Do you think Nate would have ever killed you? I ask.
“I wouldn’t think so,” Dorothy says. “But this is really important — it was always in rage. In the moment, when he’s really, really mad, anything’s possible.”
Dorothy and Nate enjoy a cordial relationship today. She is happy to see him flourish; he’s an awesome public speaker, she says. As we talk, Dorothy is winding down her career in health care. Starting in January, she will enter full-time ministry.
With her story suddenly getting attention nationwide, Dorothy notes the ironies. Some media outlets are only interested if they can get Nate on camera too, she says, and right now he isn’t talking. Dorothy fields questions about why she wrote a book, and why now. Her answer is simple: I’m happy to help just one woman find her way through an abusive situation.
A million stories, it seems, have been written about Nate’s foibles off the field, with an almost mirthful, boys-will-be-boys tone. Their entertainment quality is boosted immeasurably by Newton’s humorous, plainspoken mea culpas. But here is Dorothy, having to explain why she wrote a book.
Even now, it seems, Nate Newton gets the benefit of the doubt.
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