Forget Bill Parcells. What would the Cowboys do without Wilford Jones?
Considering the glaucoma and the strokes have left him blind, he's probably not going to replace Drew Bledsoe. He'll have a hard time upgrading the pass rush with an amputated right leg and that clunky wheelchair. And his Social Security checks won't alleviate much salary cap stress.
No, he's not going to boost plunging morale at Valley Ranch or end the playoff victory drought that's reached nine years. But what he will do until his dying breath is make 'em laugh.
Without Wilford "Crazy Ray" Jones, the team's unofficial mascot for 43 years, the Cowboys would be less fun, less fanatical, less America's Team.
"My three favorite things have always been my wife, the Cowboys and making people happy," said the 74-year-old Ray just before Christmas. "Ain't about to change now."
Since his 1962 debut selling pennants in the Cotton Bowl, Ray has been as synonymous with the Cowboys as the star on the helmet. Back then he bounded up aisles and through concourses with a whistle in his mouth, a smile on his face and a trick up his sleeve. Reach out for one of his trademark balloon toys and get--surprise!--a squirt of water from the silver faucet rigged to his black "RAY" bowler hat.
Though never on the team's payroll, in 43 years Ray has missed only three Cowboys home games--two while in the hospital and one to attend his father's funeral. He's entertained more than 20 million Cowboys fans, is enshrined in a wing of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and has a face place reserved on the metroplex's Mount Fanmore beside the Rangers' drum-beating Zonk, the Mavericks' 88-year-old towel-waving Grandma Cinatl and the gaggle of high-maintenance hotties that magically appear on the glass at every Stars game.
Said Ray: "Nothing's ever made me feel better than going to a Cowboys game."
Recently, however, even those Sunday sojourns can't slow his declining health. Whistlin' Ray is now Wiltin' Ray.
"Honestly, he's just not in good shape these days," said friend and neighbor Wayne Walker. "His wife [Mattie] has some pretty serious heart conditions, and Ray can't see well enough to get himself a drink of water. Their house needs a ton of work. He could really use some help."
Ray, who also worked for the Rangers, Mavericks, SMU and even the old Dallas Blackhawks, has long been sports' silliest sideshow. Through the years he galloped the sidelines on a stick pony, pulled a toy pistol on the Redskins' mascot, wiped the sweat from his bald head with a 49ers pennant, chased a Giants player out of the end zone on a scooter and pulled countless pennies from countless ears.
He's a legend, shoved to the sidelines in an era when creative human mascots are a dying breed. Instead of cool, comical Ray, Cowboys fans are these days subjected to "Rowdy," a creepy-smiling, giant-headed dork who routinely signals "no good" to opponents' obviously good field goals and, in the recent season-ending loss to the Rams, orchestrated a loud and extremely passé "wave"--while the Cowboys had the ball.
There are those who say Crazy Ray belongs in the Cowboys Ring of Honor. For now, he's an icon in isolation.
Ray's downfall began when his only daughter, addicted to drugs, left him bankrupt before dying of an overdose in 1994. Between diabetes claiming his right leg at the knee in '97 and five heart bypasses, Ray was making ends meet with tips from bending balloon animals at the Wal-Mart near his East Dallas home. Two years ago, arthritis in his hands took away that joy/job. Last winter the Joneses had their electricity and water turned off because of late bills. And last summer, after his latest stroke, Ray was driven home by a Good Samaritan after he was found stranded and disoriented along Interstate 30.
In stepped Walker, who established www.savecrazyray.com.
"He's such a kind, wonderful man," said Walker, director of video productions at Dallas Theological Seminary. "How can you not want to help him? I think we'd all agree he's earned it."
Donations from the site--which go directly to the Joneses' bank account--helped Ray pay off the mortgage on his modest home and catch up on bills. But there is still work to be done, so much so that Walker (unsuccessfully) petitioned ABC's Extreme Makeover Home Edition to remodel Ray's 30-year-old home.
"There are boxes from floor to ceiling in some rooms, filled with stuff that belongs in a museum," Walker said. "His pistols, his hats, eight Cowboys suits complete with chaps. People say we should sell it on eBay, but those things don't belong on someone else's mantel."
Mostly, the place needs to be handicapped-accessible. With no ramps or rails, Ray struggles--sometimes for hours--just making the simple trip from kitchen to bathroom.
"He can only see a couple feet in front of him," said Walker, who accompanies Ray to games and provides him play-by-play commentary. "And only then just white shapes."
The simple solution--shame on you for thinking it--would be for Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to write Ray a big check. But quietly, privately, he's been doing just that for years.
Nothing official. Nothing steady. Just a parking pass and field access to every home game. A couple thousand dollars via handshake during Ray's amputation operation. Mysteriously catered food to the family in the week after their daughter's death. And every Cowboys appearance in a Super Bowl came complete with airfare, hotel, game tickets for Ray and Mattie and a wink.
"As Ray will tell you, the Cowboys have been more than gracious," Walker said. "Now it's time for the fans to give back."
They've started. A fan flew Ray to Washington, D.C., for last month's game against the Redskins. And he received a priceless autographed football for Christmas.
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"Whooooo!" Ray belted out as Mattie read the names he couldn't see--Pat Summerall, Rayfield Wright, Gene Stallings, Charlie Waters..."She's my eyes. I keep trying to convince her I'm her heart and soul."
After you donate and before you go thinking the last game of the Cowboys season was the final game of Ray's life, here's his balloon-twisted optimism once again:
"I want to be there for the grand opening of the new stadium" in Arlington in 2009, Ray said with the enthusiasm of a child sitting on Santa's lap. "As long as I can breathe, I'll be their No. 1 fan. And last time I checked, I'm still breathing."
C'mon, everybody love Raymond.