So there I was, a snotty-nosed lil’ 24-year-old.
Couple years out of college, cutting my journalistic teeth at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. On this particular Sunday – Dec. 18, 1988 – my simple assignment was to “run quotes” at the Dallas Cowboys’ season finale at Texas Stadium. Talk to players, coaches, etc. and give their quotes to a columnist named Gil LeBreton.
Capping a dismal 3-13 season, the game was forgettable. The aftermath, however, would shape the future of the NFL for a decade.
Coach Tom Landry’s team flat out quit that season. In the finale, quarterback Steve Pelluer threw three interceptions, a rookie receiver named Michael Irvin was bottled up and the Cowboys' lone Pro Bowler – running back Herschel Walker – scored the only touchdown in a fitting 23-7 loss.
In the post-game locker room I remember how Landry looked so sad, so defeated. So old. A bunch of us were talking to somber general manager Tex Schramm. Suddenly, the loss morphed into a monumental victory.
Schramm kept interrupting our chat to look up at the TV in the interview room – same room still used today by Wade Phillips, Tony Romo and a whining Terrell Owens. He was watching the Green Bay Packers-Phoenix Cardinals game, and suddenly he got a sparkle in his eye.
All the 3-12 Packers had to do to secure the No. 1 overall pick in the 1989 NFL Draft was to lose to the 7-8 Cardinals in Phoenix. But when quarterback Don Majkowski hit tight end Clint Didier with a touchdown late in the third quarter, Green Bay nabbed a 26-17 lead it would not relinquish.
“Well, lookie here,” Schramm beamed. “This day’s not a total loss.”
Green Bay’s win handed the top pick to the Cowboys. “An early Christmas gift,” I remember Gil writing.
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Two months later an Arkansas oil man named Jerry Jones fired Landry and Schramm. And four months later new head coach Jimmy Johnson enthusiastically announced the Cowboys’ No. 1 pick: Troy Aikman.
Aikman went on to win three Super Bowls. Mandarich, addicted to painkillers and alcohol and steroids, lasted only three years. With that December Sunday serving as the catalyst, the Cowboys landed a player with an eventual Hall-of-Fame bust while the Packers got, well, simply a bust.
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. -- Richie Whitt