The Dallas Cowboys! There was no mistaking that logo. The silver helmet with the blue star on its side staring at me from the upper left corner of the stationery told me who the letter was from before I read it. This was the spring of 1964; the Cowboys hadn't yet been to five Super Bowls or run off 20 straight winning seasons. They weren't even America's Team yet, but I knew them just the same.
I couldn't imagine why the Dallas Cowboys—or any professional football team, for that matter—would be writing to us. I was then the 28-year-old freshman basketball coach at Michigan State, and I had just completed my first year as head recruiter under varsity coach Forrest (Forddy) Anderson. One of my duties was to answer all the form letters that came across Forddy's desk, and this was easily the most interesting of those letters.
The letter was signed by Gil Brandt, player scouting director for the Cowboys. He wrote that Dallas was looking for basketball players between 6' and 6'4" with high school football experience who might have the potential to become defensive backs in the NFL. He added that the Cowboys' starting cornerback, Cornell Green, had played basketball, but not football, at Utah State.
Replying to form letters can be tedious, but I decided to have some fun with this one. I would give Brandt a list of names that would take him years to check out. Why stop with defensive backs? Did he want some defensive tackles? How about 6'7", 230-pound center Bill Buntin of Michigan? Linebackers? How about the Wolverines' 6'5½", 218-pound Cazzie Russell or Oliver Darden, who was 6'7" and 220? Tight ends? Why not 6'5", 195-pound Larry Tregoning, also from Michigan? Cornerbacks? The Wolverines had a kid named George Pomey who was 6'4", 196. In one fell swoop I had sent the entire roster of our cross-state rival to the NFL. I was enjoying this immensely.
There was no stopping me. At split end I recommended the Van Arsdale twins, Tom and Dick, from Indiana, both 6'5" and 210 pounds, and their teammate Jon McGlocklin, who was the same size. Safeties? Archie Clark of Minnesota, at 6'2" and 170, was ideal. So was 6'1", 175-pound Emmette Bryant from DePaul.
I went on and on. The list took up one typed page, single-spaced. Of course, almost every name I sent would end up in the NBA, not the NFL. The last person on the list was our leading scorer at Michigan State, 6'4", 190-pound forward George D. (Pete) Gent. I included him not so much because I thought he was a pro football prospect but because he was a "gamer," that rarest of athletes who comes through when you need him most. In fact, a few weeks earlier his jump shot at the buzzer had given the Spartan varsity a one-point win against Ohio State, at Columbus, in the season finale.
I slipped my list into an envelope, dropped it into the outgoing mail basket and forgot about it. Two days later I received a call from Brandt. He was a Mid-westerner like me, but he had picked up that slow Texas drawl. He had even added a syllabic to both his first and last names, introducing himself as "Ghee-ole Brayundt." He said he was calling about Pete Gent. He wanted to sign him.
"Wait a second," I said. "I had no idea this would happen. I haven't so much as talked to Pete about this. Why don't you let me try to reach Pete? For all I know, he may have other plans. He has all sorts of talents. I hear he may be up for a Rhodes scholarship. What's more, he's a surefire NBA prospect; he has the best understanding of the one-on-one game I've ever seen." Brandt said, "Talk to him, and call me back... collect."
I reached Pete on the first try. I started to apologize for using his name in the NFL list without asking him, but he cut me off. "I've always wanted to be a professional football player," he said. "Call him back! Tell him I'll meet him, anywhere, anytime!"
I hung up and called Brandt...collect. I said, "Well, Pete says that he's interested. So what comes next?" Brandt said, 'Time him for the 40-yard dash. See how lie does in that, and then call me back...collect."
I informed Pete of Brandt's request. Ten minutes later he was in the basketball office at Jenison Field House. We went to the track office, and I asked the coach, Fran Dittrich, if he would take Pete down to the track and time him. By now Pete was so excited he was practically hyperventilating. I feared the worst. Pete was out of shape, and I thought he would have a bad time in the 40.
Even before Pete and Dittrich started their work, I was back up in the basketball office, calling Brandt again...collect. "Look, how soon do you need this time for the 40?" I said. "I mean, the poor guy hasn't worked out in a month. He's a straight-A student and has probably been studying day and night since the season ended. Can you give him a little time to get himself into condition?"
Brandt said, "Of course. When he's ready, let me know." Just then Pete burst into the office—and burst is the only way to describe it—and shouted, "Four-six! Three times." I still had Brandt on the line, so I said, "Pete just did four-six three times." Brandt replied, "Well, that's probably not right. He's probably about a four-eight. In any case, I'll be up there tomorrow to sign him."
This whole thing was going too fast for me. "Look, Pete's right here," I said. "Why don't you talk to him about that?" I put Pete on the phone, and after he and Brandt exchanged formalities, I heard Pete say, "See you tomorrow."
The next day, there was Gil Brandt of the Dallas Cowboys in our office. He shook hands with everyone, rounded up Pete and took him away to talk business. I would learn later that he offered Pete a choice of two one-year contracts: a $10,000 salary, which was not guaranteed, plus a $1,000 guaranteed bonus, or an $11,000 salary plus a $500 bonus. Pete took the latter offer, and when Brandt asked him why, Pete said, "I plan on making the team. I'll have $500 more when I do." Brandt signed him on the spot.
Before leaving East Lansing, Brandt asked me to do him a favor: He wanted me to find out if Pete, who hadn't played football since high school, could work out with the Spartan football team during spring practice. I told him I would see, but I promised nothing. When I asked coach Hugh (Duffy) Daugherty about it, he said, "Fine with me. Of course, you understand, he'll have the dirtiest jobs out there, and there will be no special favors?" I understood, and so did Pete.
After the six weeks of spring football, I ran into Daugherty. I asked him how Pete had done, and he said, "Are you sure they want him as a defensive back? I mean, first of all, he can't cover anybody. Second, he has yet to tackle anyone. I can't see him making it past the first cut as any sort of defensive back."
Fresh off this dazzling spring display, Pete headed off to Thousand Oaks, Calif., for the Cowboys' preseason camp. Brandt called me regularly to keep me informed of his progress. He told me the Cowboys had discovered what Daugherty had: Gent was no defensive player. So Dallas had shifted him to wide receiver. This made sense. After all, Pete was tall, he had great jumping ability and sure hands, and as a superb offensive basketball player, he was used to reading defenders.
Pete survived cut after cut. Finally, Dallas had one more to go, and it was clear that either Pete or Sonny Gibbs, a second-year quarterback out of TCU, would be it. I figured Gibbs would make the team because he was a Texas boy who had played college ball in Fort Worth. When I shared my reasoning with Forddy, he said, "I wouldn't be so sure. Just remember, Pete Gent is the only player from a Class C Michigan high school [Bangor High] to make it in the Big Ten. He did that on determination. Let's wait and see."
Forddy was right. The Cowboy coaches liked Pete's drive. He had injured his ankle during practice, and when he showed up the next day, he was told to sit out. Knowing it would hurt his chances of making the team if he did that, Pete worked out anyway. When it came time to decide who would be the Cowboys' 40th man, receiver coach Red Hickey remembered this and was one of Pete's strongest advocates.
Pete played five years in the NFL, from 1964 to '68, and gained some fame after that by writing North Dallas Forty, the best-seller that critics described as a "thinly veiled autobiography." The book was later made into a movie starring Nick Nolte as Phil Elliott, a thinly veiled Pete Gent.
I saw Pete in action only once, in the fall of 1966, when Dallas played the Redskins in Washington. I had just been named head basketball coach at the University of Delaware, and it was just a 90-minute drive down I-95 from Newark, Del., to Washington.
Brandt had left a good seat for me. As I was making my way to it, I wondered if Pete might actually get in for a down or two. He had improved quickly over the two preceding years, but Cowboy coach Tom Landry had told him he still had to "go up a level." He had to "become a gainer," Landry said.
This was to be the day it would all come together for Pete. Not only did he play, but he was also the go-to guy for quarterback Don Meredith. Pete had six catches, and, as I recall, every one of them was worthy of a highlight film: Each seemed to come on third-and-long, each seemed to be good for a first down, and each seemed to lead to a score. (I admit my memory may be clouded on these details.)
Pete's last reception set up a 20-yard field goal by Danny Villanueva, which gave Dallas a 31-30 win. As that kick sailed through the uprights, no Cowboy fan could have been happier than I was. I had hoped to see Pete get in for a down or two, and now here he was, the star.
Brandt had invited me to the locker room after the game. I had never been in an NFL locker room, much less after an emotional victory. Meredith was a leader, all right. His charisma filled the room. He told his teammates that it had been a great win, that they had bounced back from a tough loss the week before, that they had beaten a good team and that they had done so on the road. He said he was proud of them.
All the while Meredith was talking, he was shuffling the game ball from one hand to the other. Seeing that, I understood that he would soon be awarding that ball to some deserving Cowboy. Dare I think it? Why not Pete? Just then, Meredith interrupted my hopeful daydream. "And, Villanueva, this game ball is yours!" Meredith shouted. Villanueva, who had missed a crucial field goal the previous week, was mobbed by his teammates, and it looked to me as if he was crying. I looked over at Pete, thinking he might be disappointed that he didn't get the ball, but he wasn't. He was pounding Villanueva on the back, and his smile looked as if it would crack his face.
After I left the locker room, I waited for Pete near the lot where my car—and the Cowboys' team bus—was parked. He was one of the first players out of the locker room. As each of his teammates walked by, Pete would introduce me to him as "my coach." I had never been his coach, of course, but he was so happy after the game that he was giving everyone credit for his success.
One of the last people out of the stadium that day was Gil Brandt. As Pete and I were saying goodbye to each other, Brandt walked by and asked me, "Hey, you don't have any more like this, do you?"
"No, Gil," I said. "No, I sure don't."
Dan Peterson has retired from coaching and now lives in Italy. This is his third article for SI.