Before Dez Bryant was number 88, there was Michael Irvin.
Before Irvin, there was Drew Pearson.
And before Pearson, there was an incomplete, insufficient Cowboys Ring of Honor.
Owner Jerry Jones has a history of eventually righting his wrongs, and he'll do it again when he belatedly inducts Pearson into the Cowboys' Ring of Honor this season. The legendary receiver will become the first player enshrined since the team moved into Cowboys Stadium, and the first into the Cowboys' exclusive team Hall of Fame since Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin went in together at Texas Stadium in 2005.
Over the weekend in Canton, Ohio, where he attended the Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremonies, Jones reiterated a decision he initially announced early in training camp to re-open the Ring of Honor in 2011. Pearson isn't the only deserving Cowboy, but he's next in line and long overdue.
'Bout damn time.
"I don't want to get ahead of myself because I've heard rumors for years now, but it would obviously be the highlight of my career," Pearson says. "I've basically been in a holding pattern, hoping and waiting. If it were to happen ... for me and my family, it would be an incredible honor to go up alongside the greats of this great organization."
Iconic Cowboys radio voice Brad Sham puts it more bluntly: "Let's be honest; he belonged in there a long time ago."
Jones shied away from inducting a player in 2009 because he didn't want to overshadow the opening of his $1.2 billion stadium in Arlington. Last season he was preoccupied with Super Bowl XLV coming to town. Now, finally, the time is right. Jones has settled personal differences with Pearson. And as a one-man judge and jury, the owner will also apparently bend his rule about inducting only those Cowboys who are first recognized by the Hall of Fame.
"Tex Schramm made it clear that I should keep the Ring of Honor very exclusive and that's what we're doing," Jones said during Super Bowl week in February. "You've always got to consider your Hall of Fame players when you're talking about the Ring of Honor."
But the Cowboys' newly minted Hall of Famer, Deion Sanders, was little more than a mercenary in Dallas. He helped the Cowboys win Super Bowl XXX but then quickly flamed out because of foot injuries. All other Cowboys in the Hall of Fame already have their immortality secured around the field in Arlington: Bob Lilly, Mel Renfro, Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, Randy White, Bob Hayes, Rayfield Wright and Aikman, Irvin and Smith. Also in the Ring are former coach Tom Landry, founding father Schramm and five players who never made it to Canton: Don Meredith, Don Perkins, Chuck Howley, Lee Roy Jordan and Cliff Harris.
"Drew should probably be in the Hall of Fame, too," Sham says. "He's on the NFL's All-Decade Team of the 1970s but not in the Hall of Fame. Come on, what are we talking about here?"
The problem in Dallas was actually a lack of talking. Until recently, Jones and Pearson had not been speaking to each other. At all.
Pearson is the CEO of Drew Pearson Companies, a manufacturer of licensed caps since 1985. He and Jones engaged in a legal battle over logos and apparel in the '90s. Multiple sources tell me those wrinkles have now been smoothed over. Pearson has also offered biting commentary on radio and TV post-game shows in recent years, including chastising Jones for "tarnishing the star" by signing free-agent receiver Terrell Owens in 2006. The fractured relationship became a source of comedy for Pearson, who joked last season that when the two cross paths, Jones mistakenly calls him "Preston Pearson," a running back on Drew's Cowboys team in the '70s.
"My stats are my stats, I'm not going to add to them," Pearson said during Super Bowl week. "I like to think I belong up there, but it's not up to me."
Along with an olive branch from Pearson, Jones might have been motivated by public pressure and a significant push from Drew's former teammates, especially his influential quarterback. When none other than Roger Staubach starts a petition, even billionaire bullies like Jones are forced to listen.
"Drew will be in the Ring of Honor," Staubach said back in February, between his duties as North Texas Super Bowl XLV Host Committee Chairman. "He's why the Ring of Honor was created. I believe that and Jerry believes that, too. I'm not big into politicking, but I've just got a really good feeling that the hole in the Ring of Honor is going to be filled."
"I'm serious when I say this," Jones said later. "I take no one's input more seriously or more precious than that of Roger Staubach."
But it never should have required Staubach's input.
We can debate the future Ring of Honor merits of Charles Haley, Larry Allen, Harvey Martin and Darren Woodson. We can waste time squinting at the 2011 roster, trying to envision Jason Witten or DeMarcus Ware one day chiseled into history in Arlington. But Pearson is a no-brainer. He is the franchise's original and best No. 88. Bryant has more raw athletic ability and Irvin played with more outward passion on more successful teams, but no one in franchise history caught more clutch passes than Pearson.
Pearson was a high-school quarterback in New Jersey and went undrafted out of Tulsa. He played from 1973 to 1983 and finished with 489 catches (third in team history), 7,822 yards (third) and 48 touchdowns (fifth). But he played at a time when 100-yard games were rare and 1,000-yard seasons were almost impossible, because quarterbacks regularly attempted fewer than 15 passes in a game. Pearson was subjected to physical bump-and-run coverage and fearlessly crossed over the middle of treacherous, violent secondaries, where the rules of the day had not yet protected "defenseless" receivers. It was a tougher game. And Pearson was a better receiver.
He was a three-time All-Pro who carved some of the Cowboys' most indelible moments with epic receptions. The 50-yard touchdown from backup Clint Longley to beat the Redskins on Thanksgiving in 1974. The Hail Mary from Staubach that won a playoff game in Minnesota in 1975. The two scoring catches in the last two minutes to help Dallas rally past the Falcons in a playoff game in 1980.
To Cowboys fans in the '70s and '80s, there was only one "Mr. Clutch."
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"Remember, Drew played in an era where you can't judge his numbers by today's standards," Sham says. "That's apples and oranges. He's simply one of the best ever in the NFL, and he needs to be in. End of story."
There has been a prevailing opinion that Jones wouldn't induct any more players that pre-dated his ownership reign, but Pearson's case shreds that thinking. And his inclusion gives future hope to Martin and perhaps even Charlie Waters, two Landry Cowboys who got lost in the transition.
Once upon a time, Jones alienated fans by firing Landry, then scabbed those wounds by inducting the coach into the Ring of Honor in 1993. Since this year's team — which looks an awful lot like last year's team — is meandering toward mediocrity on the field, perhaps, by canonizing Pearson, Jones is angling for success any way he can scratch it out.
Better (very) late than never.