There is this oneslow, sad truth about pro quarterbacks: almost to a man they are deadly dull.It is as if the game they dominate, with its brute violence and constant pain,has leeched them of precisely those qualities—fury, rage, sharpness oftongue—that make other, lesser men appear more interesting. For every JoeNamath or Joe Kapp, caustic and cocky, there are five Bart Starrs, so clean andstraight and self-effacing that they make one yearn, say, for the ribaldcompanionship of Saint Francis of Assisi. Craig Morton (see cover), suffice itto say, is no Joe Namath. Nor is he a Saint Francis, or so claim the youngladies of Dallas.
Last week, as theCowboys prepared for their first Super Bowl, Craig Morton's already legendaryreputation for deathless dialogue took a new turn. He developed laryngitis.Forbidden by his doctor to speak for two days, and afterward in a whisper,Morton kept to his Playboy-modern apartment, attended only by a game plan, agirl named Patty and the sounds of silence. In a way. muteness suits Morton, aquarterback whose plays, for the past seven games, have been called from thebench. Talking with him—or at him, to be accurate—one almost expects the backdoor to fly open and a breathless Mike Ditka or Pettis Norman, the messengertight ends, to rush in with the latest fresh quote from Coach Tom Landry.
Dig the scene: itis freezing cold in Dallas, so cold that the syrup in the ubiquitous Texandrawl has congealed into fudge. A cheery oak fire crackles in Morton'sfireplace; the game balls dangling from the ceiling cast amorphous shadows."Seven game balls," whispers Morton. "Three of them from theCowboys." The firelight plays odd tricks with the decor: a gold-platedModel 94 Winchester .30-30; a gaudy, grinning statue of Cyrano de Bergerac; abronze beetle on the cocktail table; a chinchilla rug fully six feet square;masses of gnarled wrought iron that resolve themselves into lamps andchandeliers. A photograph of John Wayne, wearing the black eye patch and wickedgrin of Rooster Cogburn, pulsates on the far wall. "Good luck, Craig,"says Wayne's gritty handwriting.
"Luck,"whispers Morton. "I'll need it. I'm hurtin'." Yes, he is. Including thelaryngitis, which will have passed by the time he begins hutting his audiblesin Miami, he is currently sporting six separate injuries of greater or lessermagnitude. During the off season, the doctors who rebuild football playerstransplanted a tendon from Morton's foot into his right shoulder to repair aseparation. His passing elbow is infected. "I rubbed it raw on AstroTurfand an infection set in, but it's pretty much cured by now," he says. Notso the three-inch gash in his passing hand, inflicted by a Cleveland cleat inthe Cowboys' 6-2 "baseball" victory last Dec. 12. A small, suppuratinghole remains in the palm, just north of the lifeline.
January 18, 1971
Bruised ribs,courtesy of the 49ers' Stan Hindman in the NFC title game, and a sore butt thathas tailed him all season round out the injury picture. Painful as all thesewounds are, nothing bothers Morton more than the wasting disease of the scalpthat won him his nickname on the team. Morton, at 27 the Cowboys' wavy-hairedbachelor plenipotentiary to the football groupies of this world, is starting tolose his hair. When that fact became evident, Don Meredith—always the one for agentle witticism—began calling him Curly.
No man infootball has a better understanding of what Craig Morton has been through thisyear than Meredith. As the prime target for those deafening Dallas boos whenthe Cowboys blew a big one, which was often, Meredith ultimately chose earlyretirement rather than face anymore Big D grossouts: "You dawg! You yallerhoun'! Whyncha get a tail so you can tuck it between your laigs?" In Julyof 1969, Morton was driving to San Francisco from a weekend at Russian Lakewhen he heard the news of Meredith's retirement on the radio. "I almostwrecked the car," he recalls. "I had to pull over to the side of theroad and yell." Aha! So he once was capable of yelling. Could thatlaryngitis be psychosomatic? As Meredith said last year when Morton was namedcaptain: "Curly's going to find out there's a lot more to being a leaderthan just going out and calling a coin toss."
Morton can callmuch better than that, of course. In the risky business of checkingoff—changing the play at the line of scrimmage when a defensive set becomesobvious—Morton has long been an acknowledged master, and this skill helpsexplain why he regained his job from Roger Staubach, who started the first twoCowboy games this season. In the third game, the first of two losses to theCardinals, Dallas was on its five and Staubach failed to see Larry Wilson—theman who virtually invented the safety blitz—lined up over tackle, ready to dohis thing. Staubach sent Walt Garrison into the left side, and Wilson zappedhim for a three-yard loss. In the next game, against Atlanta, Morton was thestarter. Two games later, against Kansas City, he spotted Johnny Robinsonpussyfooting up for a safety blitz. Craig went audible and hit Bobby Hayesbehind everybody—right where Robinson normally would have been—for an 89-yardtouchdown. "Against the 49ers," Morton says, "I called 10 or 12audibles, most of them pitchouts to Duane Thomas." That in itself indicatesMorton is capable of daring, since pro quarterbacks rarely check off to arunning play. It won the championship for Dallas.
Still, Meredithis right about the need for learning leadership on a team as cerebral as theCowboys. "Don conveyed more confidence," says Danny Reeves, theplayer-coach whose elevation to the hierarchy early this year vastly improvedcommunication between Landry and his troops. "Craig has greatself-confidence, but the problem is getting it across to the others."
In effect, theCowboys have played two seasons: in the first, they went 5-4 and were drubbedby St. Louis and Minnesota; in the second, they went 24 quarters without givingup a touchdown and won seven straight games. During the second season, Landrycalled most of the plays, ostensibly to relieve Morton of the added pressure ofcalling the plays on top of reading defenses (something he is demonstrably goodat) but perhaps also to show that Landry's own head—which might have rolled hadthe Cowboys collapsed—was still among the most astute in football. "Noquarterback likes to have plays called from the sideline," says Reeves,"but Craig was man enough—mature enough—to accept the help. If we hadn'tbeen successful, I'm sure he would have rebelled. But it worked."
More importantwas the emergence of Duane Thomas as a game-breaking runner, the superbstiffening of the Cowboy defense and the spirit of cohesion that infused theteam. "Cleveland was the tester," Morton says. "We had a way ofgoing under for those guys when something went against us. In the Browns' game,when Bobby Hayes dropped a punt for a safety, we began to get it together.Before, we might have caved in with the bad break. Well, there it comes again.Fate, you know. But everyone sort of said, 'That's O.K., Bobby. We'll get itback.' And we did and we won and we kept on winning."
Nonetheless, itwill take more than Togetherness to win a Super Bowl for Dallas. It willrequire a toughness at the finish that the Cowboys, for all their boots andspurs, have yet to demonstrate conclusively, a grit even truer than that whichradiates from Morton's photo of John Wayne. Indeed, there is something suspectabout Morton—something just a touch soft, just a whiff too gentle. Perhaps itis that California cool—a breeze from the Bay, where he sails in the off seasonwith his pal Loren Howley in the 38-foot ketch Kahana. A puff of dust from thetwo bookstores he and Howley own in Berkeley, compounded with the revelationthat Morton himself doesn't read many books. "I just finished TheGodfather" he whispered last week as the fire crackled. "Now I'm intothe Bible."
But mostly, thesuspicion arises from the things in which the man wraps himself. Morton is abit of an art fancier—one of his best Dallas friends is Rual Askew, who runs agallery—and Morton's walls are hung with decorative abstracts by a chick nameof Nancy Sims, and a striking orange painting centering on the head of a lovelyblack woman, done by another girl named Martha Gilbert.
One begins tosound...anti-intellectual. But that isn't the point, for Morton is nointellectual. He is rather, like most quarterbacks, a man of superiorintelligence (his IQ is said to be 126) but primarily a man of action, aMeursault straight out of the Camusian sunlight—no sorrow, no regrets, just theact followed by the act followed by the act once again. Football, golf, skiing,sailing, tooling the freeways in his silver Porsche 911, dice, chicks, BurtBacharach tunes and no sorrow, no regrets. The hair may be thinning but theeyes are a calm, baby blue. They have always been empty of fury.
Dinner was steak,mushrooms, crunchy salad and a Bordeaux. The conversation was muted,necessarily, but one felt that hard words, electric words, did not suit thathousehold. Patty, a cute, perky blonde who hails from Missouri but now works ina Dallas bank, had cooked well and lovingly. "Craig doesn't seem like ajock," she said. "He's gentle, and he doesn't come on like abrute." The talk swung around to racial attitudes, and Morton shook hishead sorrowfully about some of the Dallas fans. Toward the season's end, whenyoung Thomas had come on as something of a savior, one of them had approachedMorton. "He said to me, I used to think of Thomas as a nigger, but now Ican see he's a good ol' colored boy.' I ended the conversation as quickly andquietly as I could."
Perhaps that'sit. A quick, quiet ending. No harsh words, no lists. One is, after all, an NFLquarterback.