If there is one talent that coaches agree has made Dan Reeves (see cover), the not-so-big back in the Dallas Cowboys' attack, the kind of valuable property on which championships are built, it is a certain genius for producing the big play at the appropriate moment. And if there is one talent that is almost impossible to spot, even in this day of computerized scouting reports and sophisticated bird-dog networks, it is a prospect's ability to produce the big play. Reeves, who already this season has saved one game with a 36-yard touchdown in the last 10 seconds, knows the problem of recognition only too well. He has been playing football the last eight or so years with an intelligence and verve that should have had college and pro coaches swarming at his heels. None did. Until last season, when Reeves became the NFL's sixth-leading rusher, almost nobody had even heard of him.
The massive indifference toward the achievements of Daniel Edward Reeves began at Americus High School in Americus, Ga., where he was a quarterback. He was graduated in 1961, and not one of the big southern schools, as sensitive to football ability in a high school senior as litmus paper is to acid, came running. Only South Carolina offered Reeves a scholarship, which he accepted gratefully. A few months later, after Reeves had played in a Georgia state high school all-star game and come away with the most-valuable-player trophy, nine or 10 other universities suddenly recognized something they had previously overlooked and bid for his services. But Reeves, no doubt contributing to his own future obscurity, remained with his first choice.
Those were not good years for the Gamecocks, despite everything Reeves could do for them. He spent the usual four years at South Carolina, was first-string quarterback for three and twice was voted second-string all-conference quarterback. More comfortable running than throwing, he set 10 school records for advancing a football by land and air. In 1964 against strong Nebraska, champion of the Big Eight, he passed for 348 yards.
And what was the effect of all these bright accomplishments on the people who are supposed to know? Exactly zero. Dan Reeves finished his college career in such a blaze of indifference that he was not even asked to play in any of the numerous all-star games that drag the fall season limply into early spring. Reeves was neither surprised nor disappointed by this, but he was shocked at the treatment he received from the pros. At the time of his graduation the AFL and NFL were locked in a frantic struggle for college talent, and pro scouts infested the college-football body politic as heavily as fleas on a Georgia setter.
November 6, 1967
"I figured I'd be a late draft choice," Reeves said in the dressing room of the Dallas Cowboys the other day. "I didn't think I could cut it as a quarterback, but I played a lot defensively, and I thought I'd be drafted for a look on defense. I was stunned when no one took me, because a few of the clubs had talked to me and said they were interested. One of them was the Los Angeles Rams, and the scout said they would have to take me because the president of the Rams has the same name I have."
It was because the two had the same name that the Rams did not draft Reeves. Dan Reeves, the one who owns the Rams, explained two years after his namesake had sidled into the NFL unsung and almost unwanted why his club let him get away. "We thought we would be accused of a publicity stunt," Reeves said ruefully. "What I should have done was draft him and change my name."
As it was, no one drafted the football-playing Reeves. When the draft was over representatives of Dallas and the San Diego Chargers offered him contracts, and he chose the Cowboys.
"I wanted to try the National Football League first," Reeves said. "Then, if I didn't make it, I could always give it a shot with the other league. I wanted a warm-weather club, so I was glad Dallas offered me a job. I knew I wouldn't get a chance at quarterback, because the Cowboys had drafted Craig Morton and Jerry Rhome. They drafted four or five running backs, too, so it never occurred to me that I would get to run. I could have signed to play baseball with Pittsburgh, but I couldn't see playing every day. It's a kind of a rat race."
Reeves, a natural athlete who made the all-state basketball team in high school, was an exceptional baseball prospect. As a right fielder at South Carolina he was almost always coming up with the clutch play. It is just as well for the Cowboys that he did not heed the Pirates' summons. It was Reeves's amazing performance in 1966 that helped Dallas to its first division championship and almost to the league title. One of the main reasons why Dallas had not won consistently before was that the team lacked a halfback who could take some of the running load from the shoulders of Fullback Don Perkins.
At the end of the 1965 season, Reeves's career being what it had been, nobody expected that he would be the halfback Dallas was looking for. He had managed to stick with the Cowboys during his rookie year by making himself valuable to the kickoff and punt suicide squads, the special teams with such high casualty rates that they are populated almost exclusively by expendables.
"I never played on special teams in college," says Reeves. He has a strong, almost dour face and, although he is an articulate man, he hesitates before he speaks, considering what he will say. "But I enjoyed it with this club. We had a lot of spirit on the special teams. And I would have been very happy no matter what I did. For a long time I was afraid I was going to be cut."
A preseason game last year with the Minnesota Vikings did nothing to alleviate Reeves's fears. "I'd been playing defensive back, flanker and running back," he recalls, "but I didn't figure I was burning up the course. They told me I'd play the second and fourth quarters against the Vikings as a running back. I got the feeling I better have a pretty good second and fourth quarter or I'd be on my way."
That game hardly provided the most auspicious climate for the blossoming of a rookie. Norman Van Brocklin, the irascible coach of the Vikings, was intent on proving to the pro football world that his expansion team was better than Dallas's, and he kept his first team in action all afternoon. The final score was 57-17, Minnesota. Tom Landry, the unemotional coach of the Cowboys, concentrated instead on his young players, trying to evaluate them as future pros.
"Nobody looks very good in a game like that," Reeves said. "I know I didn't. I played the second, third and fourth quarters, but I didn't do much until just before the game ended. Then I caught a pass and went 67 yards for a touchdown, and I guess that play is why I'm in the league now."
Ermal Allen, the competent backfield coach of the Cowboys, says now that the Cowboys were really not about to cut Reeves, no matter what he thought. "He always had the ability to make the big play," Allen said. "We saw that in the rookie scrimmages we had with the Rams. Because of injuries to our backs, Danny had to play a lot at halfback on offense, although we hadn't really thought much of him as a running back until then. He broke loose for a long run for a touchdown and finished the run limping when he pulled a hamstring. But he showed us a lot on offense. We knew he would be good. We didn't know how good."
The Cowboys only began to find out how good Reeves could be early in the 1966 season after Landry, desperate for an outside threat, shifted All-Pro Safety Mel Renfro to offense. Renfro, a broad jumper and a 9.6 sprinter as well as an elusive back, was hurt in the opening game against the New York Giants, and Reeves was thrown into the breach as a stopgap halfback.
He turned out, much to his own and everybody else's surprise, to be much more than that. The Cowboys walloped New York—no great feat in view of the horrendous record the Giants managed over the rest of the season—but Reeves scored three touchdowns on passes of one, two and 19 yards from Don Meredith, caught six passes in all for 120 yards and carried the ball six times for 38 yards. By the time the sun had set in Dallas he was a legitimate offensive star, and Renfro, still languishing on the bench, was headed back to defense, although the Cowboy coaches were still not sure of that.
They were quite positive after the next game against the Vikings, the club that had provided Reeves with the opportunity to make the Cowboys in the first place. Dallas won 28-17 with Reeves carrying the ball 13 times for 81 yards and a touchdown. Reeves wound up the season not only leading the team in rushing but finishing second in pass receiving and scoring and completing three of the six option passes he tried for a total gain of 48 yards. He was picked on one All-Pro team at the end of the year.
"I would be a liar if I said I wasn't surprised by the season I had," he said the other day. "It was like a dream to me. I was lucky to stick as a rookie. How could I expect to have a year like that?"
It is almost an understatement to say that he should not have. Reeves does not have the speed, moves, size or quick starting ability of most good pro running backs. All he has is a remarkable ability to do things he has no right to do.
"He has good speed," says Allen, "not great, but good. But he doesn't have a quick start. We worked on that with him for a long time, but that's something you're born with, and we couldn't teach it to Dan. Guys like Jim Taylor, Jim Grabowski, they have quick starts. They hit the hole so fast the linebacker can't react before they're gone, but not Dan. He's more of a picker. He picks his way until he can turn upfield, then he's real good. He has good top speed and good moves."
Reeves, probably more than anyone else, recognizes his shortcomings, but he feels that his experience as a quarterback in college has helped him as a runner in pro football. "I learn all the assignments on every play," he says, "so I know what everyone is going to do. It helps me set up blocks, and I think that is my major asset as a runner. I can use a head fake to freeze a linebacker or defensive back and give the blocker a chance to take him. It helps."
Landry agrees with Reeves. "He reminds me of Doak Walker," he says. "He has that same ability to figure out what he'll have to be doing 30 yards downfield. Of course, he's bigger and stronger than Doak. He's a little like Paul Hornung, but he doesn't have Hornung's power."
The Cowboys use Reeves the way the Packers used Hornung, particularly on the halfback option play that Hornung worked so well. Hornung, too, was a quarterback in college, an All-America at that, but he probably was not as accurate a passer as Reeves, who, Landry says, is as good as anyone at getting the ball to the precise spot.
"He's a sprint-out passer, and I wouldn't recommend his style for everyone," Landry says, "but he gets the ball there. We don't throw a lot of halfback passes because they don't fit in with our offense, but we call one maybe every other game, just to give the other defense something to think about. We tried one a couple of weeks ago and the receiver was bracketed. An ordinary halfback, if he had tried to throw into that kind of coverage, would probably have had an interception. Dan threw the ball just where the receiver had a chance to catch it, but neither of the defenders could reach it. It was incomplete, but it was a good throw and the best he could do under the circumstances."
Reeves's many talents help him now where before they were a handicap. Professional football is so thoroughly a game of specialists these days that the player who can pass, run and kick well, but who cannot do any one of these things superbly, has less of a chance to make a pro club than a Hungarian soccer player who can place-kick 40-yard field goals.
"It's different in high school and college," Reeves says. "You can get by if you can do a lot of things. It even helps. But when I came up to the Cowboys and saw passers like Meredith and Morton and Rhome I knew I wasn't going to beat out one of them. They had Renfro and Perkins for running backs and there wasn't any place for me there. They had great receivers and fine defensive backs, so things looked pretty bad for me for a while. I hadn't caught any passes in college, and running from a halfback set was completely strange for me since I would drop back and run or roll out as a T quarterback. The blocking assignments were different, too. I didn't block as a T quarterback unless I was leading the way on an option."
Reeves is stubborn, however, and he is not afraid to work. He was raised on his father's 275-acre farm outside of Americus, and long, hard hours have been a part of his life for as long as he can remember. "We used to get up about five o'clock in the morning," he said. "My dad raises hogs and cattle, and crops like corn, cotton and peanuts. I fed the hogs and cows, baled hay and plowed. Rush times, I'd start plowing at daybreak and stay out until 11 o'clock at night, using headlights on the tractor. Growing up on a farm is great for children. They learn a lot of responsibility, and they don't have any slack time to get in trouble. When I get through as a player I'd like to coach and own a farm, too, to raise my own kids on."
Reeves learned quickly with the Cowboys, though nothing came easily to him. "Training camp was nerve-wracking," he said. "I got beat up a lot in college playing quarterback, but the college linemen weren't that big. Or if they were big, they weren't that fast. I was shocked at the size and speed of the linemen in the pros. Six-five, 260 and they could run and hit a ton. They made me hustle.
"I found out my big problem as a halfback was getting comfortable in my stance. I had to learn to line up with my feet even so I wouldn't tip the play, and I had to force myself not to look at the ball when the quarterback gave it to me on a hand-off. You have to look for the hole. On some of our plays you have to explode to get to the hole, others you have to stay under control. You can see I'm still learning about this. And I'm still working on my blocking."
Perkins helped Reeves on the blocks. Since the running backs usually have to pick up a blitzing linebacker who may weigh up to 250 pounds, it is a difficult technique to master. "You got to hit them quick, before they get going," Reeves said. "And it's a matter of being prepared mentally. Perkins taught me that. You have to be ready in your mind to pop quick. If you're not they'll roll right over you."
Reeves's slow start is something of a help in his ability to follow his blocks. "Slow as I am, I can't get out in front of them," Reeves says, grinning. "So I work with the guards a lot in practice, making fakes to freeze the defensive guy. If I get loose I've got good speed for up to about 40 yards, then I flatten out. A guy like Hayes, the farther he goes, the faster he gets. Funny thing, when I first came to camp I thought he'd be a cocky guy, with all his Olympic medals and all that big publicity. But he's such a great guy. And he's such a great football player."
Reeves has already produced a couple of big plays this year, the most notable being the 36-yard scoring pass he took from Meredith in the last 10 seconds to beat the Redskins 17-14. Dallas trailed 14-10 when the play was sent in from the bench. The Cowboy scouts had noticed that on a certain pattern isolating the Washington linebacker on Reeves the linebacker was wasting time checking the tight end in front of him, allowing Reeves a good start coming out of the backfield. The play worked to perfection, and Reeves grabbed Meredith's wobbly pass and outran Chris Hanburger, the linebacker, into the end zone.
"I get a bigger kick out of catching a pass like that than I do from cutting a long run," Reeves says. "I guess because it's more individual effort. On the run, once the blocks are applied and the route opens, you're gone. You're more on your own on the pass."
Although Reeves is a relatively even-tempered man, he is now at work trying to impose an even tighter control on what temper he has. He has not lost it so far this season; last year, when he had the ball stolen from him by an Eagle defender, he was kicked out of the game and fined after brushing against an official while protesting.
"I didn't get the money back," he said. "I nearly did the same thing in the Cleveland game this year, for another reason. Paul Wiggin tackled me right in front of our bench and, while we were lying there, darned if he didn't get a handful of my leg and give me a heck of a pinch. I kicked at him as hard as I could, and Coach Landry hollered at me, 'What you trying to do?' I complained to the official, and he said he had more things to do than watch to see if someone was pinching me. So I shut up. I carry the ball a lot, and I can't afford to run my mouth. You do that, and they start looking for you."
They are already looking for Reeves. The unwanted back has become one of the 10 most-wanted men in the NFL—by the opposing defense.