It was a sunny Sunday, and 60,000 and ten people went to the Cotton Bowl to watch the Dallas Cowboys underline their claim to the championship of the Eastern Division of the National Football League. They were there despite a threat of rain, and they were so charmed by the Cowboys in their 52-7 obliteration of the New York Giants that three times they cheered warmly when their heroes perpetrated incomplete passes.
The crowd was not the largest of the NFL's second Sunday; Cleveland, where more than 83,000 saw the Packers beat the Browns 21-20, had that distinction. It was not even the largest crowd to see the Cowboys in Dallas this year; 75,504 had turned out for an exhibition game against Green Bay last month. But it certainly was the kindest crowd ever to watch the Cowboys and it may be deduced from this affectionate response that the team finally has been accepted by the most reluctant fans in NFL history. For six years, the Cowboys have striven mightily to capture the fancy of this football-mad city, but it was not until Sunday that they were reasonably sure they had succeeded.
"I think that docs it," said General Manager Tex Schramm when it was all over. He watched the crowd straggling happily out of the big bowl. "The weather cost us maybe 10-15,000," he said, then laughed. "Already I'm spoiled. I can remember when I would have been happy to see half this many people here."
The team that the fans saw in action bore small resemblance to the one that opened the campaign for the approval of the Dallas populace six years ago. On this bright, warm day, the Cowboys put on a brilliant offensive show and justified the contention that they have the fastest football team in the world.
September 25, 1966
In those early years, the Cowboys seemed a young team, lacking in poise and the ability to execute; this time it was the Giants who were young. Abruptly, in their seventh year, the Cowboys have achieved the polish and poise of veterans, which they demonstrated early in this game.
The Giants, low on running backs and desperately in need of a surprise to compensate for a shortage of personnel, opened their first series of downs with a completely unorthodox unbalanced attack that had only one running back behind Quarterback Earl Morrall and four receivers poised on the right flank, flooding the left side of the Cowboy defense. After the Giants had run two plays successfully from this set, Lee Roy Jordan, the young middle linebacker who calls the Cowboy defensive signals, ordered a time-out and trotted over to the sidelines to confer with Coach Tom Landry and Defensive Coach Dick Nolan.
"They were trying to force us into man-to-man single coverage on Homer Jones," Jordan explained later. "We hadn't seen them use this set before. We worked it out on the sideline and used a man-to-man and sometimes a variation that gave the corner back help from the weak safety covering Jones, and I think it worked out pretty well."
It worked well enough to limit Jones to four catches for 46 yards and the Giants' only touchdown. But, for a change, it was not the veteran Cowboy defense that won the victory: it was the Dallas offensive unit that was cheered mightily each time it left the field.
Meredith, who has been anathema to the Dallas fans for six years, had the best day of his pro career, operating for the first time with a full complement of high-quality offensive personnel. He responded to these unaccustomed riches by completing 14 of 24 passes for 358 yards and five touchdowns.
Two of these touchdowns went to Bob Hayes, the world record holder in the 100-yard dash. Hayes, unlike most trackmen turned football player, has all the equipment a receiver needs: deceptive moves and exceptional hands as well as that unmatchable speed.
"He may be the single most dangerous player in football," Landry said. He thought seriously for a few moments. "Well, with Gale Savers," he added. However, Sayers probably is less dangerous than Hayes, because, as a running back, he attracts less attention than Hayes does as a flanker. Hayes's enormous value stems in part from his ability to distort an entire defense by his threat of catching the bomb. As an example, three of Meredith's touchdown passes were thrown to Halfback Dan Reeves, who is a fine football player, but who has only good, not great, speed. He is an elusive runner with marvelous feints, but he would not have caught six passes, three for touchdowns, had not Hayes lured swarms of defensive backs away from him. Hayes himself caught six passes for 195 yards. On his longest touchdown pass, he was chased by Clarence Childs, a very fast Giant defensive back.
"I wasn't worried about Clarence," Hayes said later. "I knew him at Florida A&M. He was just a 9.4 man."
On one long, long pass, thrown some 60 yards in the air and barely out of the reach of the flying Hayes, the crowd's spontaneous applause was not interrupted by the incompletion. Later they applauded an unsuccessful halfback option play when Reeves, who once was a quarterback, rifled a long ball into the hands of Pete Gent. Gent dropped it. Late in the game, just before Meredith left for good, to ringing cheers, the fans applauded another long pass to Hayes that fell beyond the sprinter in the end zone. A shocked New York writer said, "These are the most loyal fans I have ever seen. They don't cheer for incomplete passes even in Baltimore!"
The kindness had been a long time coming. When the Cowboys played their very first home game in the Cotton Bowl, against Pittsburgh, a fractious crowd of 30,000 was scattered about the big cement stadium and some expressed their displeasure by pelting Roy Rogers and his wife, Dale, with ice cubes as they toured the field in an open convertible.
"After that, it got worse," said Schramm. "I never doubted that we would make it eventually," he says now, fat and happy with crowds of 75,000 and 58,000 and 60,010 already recorded this year. "I guess if I had realized just how bad we were at first and how long it would take to build a contender, I would not have been so complacent. But I agreed with George Preston Marshall."
Marshall, the owner of the Washington Redskins, had insisted that the Eastern Division choose Dallas instead of Minnesota when the league expanded in 1960.
"Marshall figured that the Eastern Division needed another big park in a warm-weather city," Schramm said. "He also thought Dallas would be a good city because it was football oriented, with SMU and a big high school program, and it had no major league baseball team."
Marshall was premature. "Our season-ticket sale in 1960 was 3,165," Schramm recalled. "I found out the next year that many of those people had only been curious. We sold 1,914 in 1961."
Now season-ticket sales have passed 15,000. "I guess that's the smallest in the league," Schramm said, "but it looks good to me. It's not the only badge of success. You live dangerously with a big stadium, but the rewards are big when you hit."
As management suffered fiscal discomfort during the first years, the fans made life miserable for the players.
"They used to really get mad at us when we lost," Schramm said. "In 1961 we started oft" by winning three games and losing one, and we came home from the road off a 28-0 win over the Vikings. We were playing the Giants in the Cotton Bowl and we drew 41,500. I thought, 'Now we're over the hump.' Then the Giants tore us up, 31-10, and the next week we dropped to 25,000. Same thing in 1962. We drew 45,668 against the Giants, got clobbered 41-10 and the next week the fans were so mad only 12,692 showed up for the game."
"I was never booed in my life until I came to the Cowboys," Meredith said at breakfast the day of the game. "When it happened here I was pretty bitter. I guess part of the process of growing up as a pro quarterback is learning to accept the boos, because you sure are going to get them. I've got it blocked out now; I ignore the boos and the cheers. But that first time I wondered what had happened to all my friends in Dallas. Then I realized it wasn't my friends booing. It was a new kind of fan, a pro fan.
"This is the first year our offense has really been a solid one," Meredith said. "I can't blame the fans for getting on us in the past. For a long time, when we didn't have the personnel, we had to try to win games by fooling people. All I did was go out on Sunday with a list of plays as long as my arm and start a guessing game with the other team's defense. When I was guessing right we had some pretty spectacular wins. But when I guessed wrong we had some pretty spectacular losses."
The first glimmerings of affection became apparent when the sticky Dallas defense began to win friends. The emergence of a razzle-dazzle offense seems to have completed the conquest.
"First time I noticed the fans warming up was in 1964," says Jerry Tubbs, who is winding up a long and effective linebacking career back-stopping Jordan. "After we made a good stand and took the ball away from someone, we'd get a big ovation when we left the field.
"Those first few years, we were like strangers," he said. "We were kind of like a circus that had come to town, only not as important. Now everybody knows us. We belong."
Even Meredith belongs. "I think maybe they have decided to accept me as Don Meredith," he said. He is a handsome man and serious now. A reputation for insouciant recklessness had contributed to the former booings. The Dallas fans take football very seriously, and they expect their quarterbacks, college or pro, to be equally serious.
"I guess I came along too soon after Doak Walker and Kyle Rote at Southern Methodist," Meredith said. "Everybody, consciously or subconsciously, was looking for the Walker-Rote image, and that's what they expected of me. Well, I'm not Walker or Rote. I'm Meredith."
The image the average fan had of Don until this year was typified by an incident in the Cleveland game in Dallas last season. The Browns were leading the division and, of course, eventually were the division champions, but the Cowboys were giving them a tough game. A touch-down behind in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys drove to a first down on the Cleveland one-yard line. The 76,251 fans in the Cotton Bowl waited expectantly for one of the Cowboy backs to plunge into the end zone, but, unbelievably, Meredith passed over the middle into a horde of players, and the ball was intercepted by the Cleveland middle linebacker. The play took the heart out of the Cowboy attack and Cleveland won the game 24-17. As Meredith left the field, he was booed as never before.
In the Dallas Morning News the next day, Gary Cartwright started his story of the game like this: "Outlined against a grey November sky, the four horsemen rode again. You remember them: death, pestilence, famine and Meredith."
Actually, Meredith's call was not that bad. Against the massed Cleveland goal-line defense, the Cowboys had only two plays on their ready list: the pass and a wedge.
"If it had worked, he would have been a genius," a Cowboy veteran said the other day. "In the same circumstance, I hope he tries it again sometime."
He did try it again against the Giants, as the Cowboys scored their third touchdown of the day. This time his two-yard pass to Reeves was good, and the stands rocked with glee. Earlier, he had had first and goal on the Giant one and he sent Don Perkins into the line four times, Perkins scoring on the last attempt.
"I thought about passing a little," he said after the game, grinning and holding the game ball given him by his teammates. "But we can run this year."
Indeed they can run—all the way to a championship.