Barry Switzer walks down the hallway at camp before practice begins. He is smiling, feeling loose. And why not? He has lost only 31 games in nearly 17 years as a head coach, first at Oklahoma and now with the Cowboys. "You know what?" he says. "Jerry Jones said to me yesterday, 'Don't you ever stop calling me at 12:30 in the morning! You only call the people you love after midnight. You quit calling me, you don't love me anymore.' "
Love, in its many manifestations, permeates the Dallas locker room. Jim Schwantz, a backup linebacker and special teams player, came to the Cowboys in a trade with the Chicago Bears just before the season began. He was worried that he would be ostracized because of his late arrival. "Jim Morrissey, one of my friends from the Bears, went to the Green Bay Packers last season, and he told me it took a long time before the players there accepted him," says Schwantz. "Here, guys went out of their way to make me feel at home—Bill Bates, Jim Jeffcoat, Russell Maryland and, believe it or not, Charles Haley. He's rough and loud, but he's one of the nicest guys around. There's a common bond, a closeness here. A lot of little things go on that are special."
In the training room Emmitt Smith is playing video hockey with defensive tackle Leon Lett, he of the now legendary Super Bowl gaffe of two years ago and the equally infamous flub last season in a game against the Miami Dolphins. There is such a great amount of hollering, shoving, giggling and taunting that the ruckus draws the attention of Michael Irvin, who has been studying his hair in the mirror even though he is wearing a hat.
Irvin looks at the video screen, sees that Smith is winning handily and says, "Leon, you got Chicago and you're still losing? You're garbage."
"If I'm garbage, then what's Emmitt?" Lett fires back.
"He's the garbage can," revises Irvin. "And you're the Dumpster."
None of this commotion disturbs the silent hulk of Nate Newton, who, covered with a baby-blue blanket, is napping soundly on a nearby taping table.
At noon, however, there is a reality check in the midst of all these good feelings. Players dressing for practice look for safety Joe Fishback, only to find his locker empty, save for a topless can of deodorant. This morning former New York Jet and New England Patriot running back Blair Thomas was signed as a backup for Smith, and Fishback, who had been with the Cowboys since early last season, was sent into exile. Just like that. Fishback went to this morning's meetings, learned his fate shortly thereafter and vanished. "He came to me about 11 and asked for a garbage bag to put his stuff in," says equipment man Mike McCord. "I took his nameplate off. Yeah, it's sad."
Brock Marion, a second-year safety whose locker was next to Fishback's, stands by the vacant cubicle, stunned. "I didn't have any idea he was going to be cut, and I don't think he did, either," says Marion. "It really opens your eyes. My chemistry is out of whack, because he was my roommate on the road...."
Out on the field there is a reality check of a different sort. The players are in full pads for the most important practice day of the week as the coaches take the offense and the defense through the game plan for Sunday. Thomas participates in his first practice as a Cowboy, and backup quarterback Rodney Peete takes snaps for the first time since he sprained his thumb against the Redskins on Nov. 20. After a two-hour session Peete says that he is healthy, and Switzer announces that he will start against Philadelphia. Jason Garrett, who was named the Miller Lite Player of the Week at a noon press conference for his performance on Thanksgiving, will be back on the bench.
After a hard day at practice Bates, the 12-year veteran safety, walks into his house and is tackled—nay, stampeded—by his four children. There are five-year-old triplets, boys Hunter and Graham and a girl, Brianna, and a three-year-old son, Tanner.
After the attack Bates staggers into the living room, where he greets his wife, Denise. The boys practice hook slides on the white carpet, and their dad tells them to stop. Of course, they don't. Brianna sits on Bates's lap, and when asked by her father's guest if she likes being a triplet, she replies, "No, I want a sister."
Before the family sits down to dinner, Bill breaks the news to the kids that there is going to be an addition to the household: Mom is pregnant. When the good news has been digested, Bill finds a moment of peace to comment on the evocative landscape painting that sits on an easel in a prominent place in the living room. It was a gift of love for Denise.
"I bought that for her on our anniversary," he says.
"No, honey, it was my birthday," Denise corrects.
"Oh, yeah, I knew it was a special occasion. I bought that about eight years ago," he says.
"No, Bill. It was four."
At 7:30 p.m. at a restaurant called The Filling Station, Smith and his good buddy Tommie Agee sit on a stage in a room decorated in the style of a vintage Mobil gas station. Pegasus soars overhead, a traffic light blinks in the corner, and the waiters wear striped shirts reminiscent of gas-station attendants from the 1950s. The master of ceremonies for this monthly Cowboy talk-fest is Preston Pearson, a former Cowboy running back. He tries to keep order in the noisy establishment, but it's a futile effort. Speaking for the many Cowboy alumni in the Dallas area, he will say later, "When the Cowboys do good, we all do good."
Agee tells the crowd that when he saw Smith play with a badly separated shoulder against the New York Giants in the last game of the '93 regular season, he "knew that Emmitt was something special. He sacrificed a lot."
Pearson turns to Smith. "Why not come out of that game?" he asks.
Smith thinks for a moment. "I play for the love of the game and for my teammates," he says. "We laugh, cry, hurt, win, lose together."
"There just seems to be something different here, in the locker room, doesn't there?" says Pearson.
The players discuss this, though they acknowledge that they don't know what the mood is in other teams' locker rooms. "I do know that you can't have thin skin on this team," says Agee.
"Has to be thick," agrees Smith. "People mess with you. Like just today, Michael Irvin didn't know it, but he practiced the whole day with a banana under his shoulder pads."
Getting into the limo for the ride home, Smith seems blissfully unaware of the fans in the parking lot pressing toward him for autographs. He is questioned about a quote from his recently published autobiography, The Emmitt Zone. It reads, "Every so often, if an athlete is lucky, he meets an older man who makes him a better young man." In Smith's case, the older man was Dwight Thomas, his coach at Escambia High in Pensacola, Fla. Smith is asked if he has met another man as influential as Thomas; would Jerry Jones qualify?
"No," Smith says. "But even Jerry you can learn from." Smith still has not recovered from last year's contract dispute, during which, he believes, Jones treated him shabbily. But, he adds, he won't let his teammates suffer for it. "What Jerry did to me is not my teammates' fault."
And then he is gone into the night.