"Irvin is full of the rapture that comes with being the cock of the walk, the big dog, the warrior, himself"
December 12, 1994

Equipment manager Mike McCord and his assistant, Bucky Buchanan, stand beside carts on opposite sides of the locker room, peeling stars from helmets. Before each game McCord and Buchanan pull the stars and the stripes off each Cowboy helmet, clean the surface with rubbing alcohol and carefully place a new star above each earhole. They then lay a white tape stripe down the middle of the helmet and flank it with two blue stripes.

"The helmet has a silver shell, and the paint over it is an epoxy that has shiny, glitterlike stuff in it," says McCord. "The helmets look particularly good when the sun hits them or when they're under lights at a night game." The clean-cut simplicity of the Cowboys' five-pointed logo, combined with its metallic radiance, is one of the main reasons that products adorned with the Dallas logo sell like mad—that and the fact that the Cowboys are once again winners, with colorful stars like Michael Irvin on the roster.

With practice over, Irvin climbs into his black Mercedes convertible, the one that Alvin Harper crashed only a few weeks ago. It has already been restored to its august splendor, which includes a vanity plate reading PLY MKR. Irvin accelerates into the Texas gloaming. In a red-checked jacket, black turtleneck, shades and abundant gold jewelry, he is full of the rapture that comes with being the cock of the walk, the big dog, the warrior, himself. The rapper Scarface blasts from the CD player as the star wide receiver drives with his knees, gesturing grandly with both hands as he talks. "Man, top down, I'm feeling good" he says. "Nothing like it. Driving through Dallas, everybody can see you. Makes it all worthwhile."

At the Christmas tree tent in the Vista Ridge Mall, the salespeople watch as guard Derek Kennard; his wife, Denise; and their children, Derek Jr., Denisha and Devon Jay, drive up to buy a Christmas tree. Derek Jr. is hobbled by an injury to his left ankle sustained while playing Pop Warner football, but otherwise the Kennards are in fine holiday spirit.

" 'Tis the season to be jolly," says Papa Derek, as trees are placed in front of the family for appraisal. Being a rather large man—320 pounds, to be precise—Kennard would seem a natural to play Santa Claus at this time of year. At the suggestion he wrinkles his nose under his wire-rimmed glasses, but not in merriment. "I don't do Santa," he says. "Well, I did it in 1989 with the Cardinals, for the team party. But I didn't have a good time doing it. I'm not built like Santa. No màs. That was the one and only. It wasn't me."

The Kennards select a nice, full tree and drive off, ready for whatever the real Santa might bring.

The 1,500-piece puzzle rests in its box at Jason Garrett's feet. Jason and his wife, Brill, a criminal lawyer, bought the puzzle a couple of months ago, thinking it might be a fun way to pass the time, finding tree branches, clouds and bricks and slowly assembling them into a scene just like the one on the cover of the box. But Jason grew bored after putting together about six pieces, and Brill, who met Jason at Princeton in 1985 during their freshman year and married him last May, encountered another dilemma. "We had it on the kitchen table," she says. "So when it was there, we could either do the puzzle or we could eat."

The Garretts' apartment off MacArthur Boulevard is so small—the whole place, bedroom, bathroom and living room/kitchen area, is no larger than Jerry Jones's office—that something had to go. Food stayed.

Jason, the 28-year-old Ivy Leaguer with the curly, iridescent red hair, had thrown exactly 24 passes in the NFL when he was called on to start the Thanksgiving Day game against the Green Bay Packers after both Troy Aikman and Rodney Peete went down with injuries in the previous game, against the Washington Redskins. Audiences assembled around holiday dinner tables expected to see the nationally televised dismemberment of a nice guy in the wrong line of work. (Brill, who couldn't bear to see the game in person, watched it on TV from the first-aid room at Texas Stadium.) Instead, what everyone saw was Garrett leading the Cowboys to a thrilling come-from-behind 42-31 victory.

"Now, of course, I get constant grief from the players," says the soft-spoken and self-effacing Garrett. "You know, regardless of how big or small the opportunity is, you should take advantage of it. I did, and I feel good about that. But you know what I think? Honestly? I think it's embarrassing for me. I see these guys on my team, and they do it every week. Troy does it all the time."

Garrett docs not give himself the credit that he should. But that is why he is another critical piece in this giant Cowboy jigsaw puzzle. Aikman signed an eight-year, $50 million contract in 1993. This season Garrett will make about $144,000. Still, Garrett understands and even approves of what he sees around him. "I've told Brill that these guys are not making too much money," he says. "They earn every penny. Daryl Johnston has cuts all over him, his finger is sticking out, and he hits the middle linebacker 70 times a game."

Brill, who calls her husband "the nicest guy I've ever met," likes to tell about the time Scott Turner, the 12-year-old son of former Dallas offensive coordinator Norv Turner (now the coach of the Redskins), came to camp and played catch with some of the Cowboys. "He went home and told his brother, Drew, who was four, that he'd met the players, and that one of them was Jason Garrett, the quarterback with red hair," she says. "Drew was confused. After a while he said, 'He has orange hair.' He was just learning his colors."

Somebody even asked Barry Switzer after the Green Bay game if Garrett had "punk hair." Somebody else wanted to know if Garrett "did" his hair that way. Garrett laughs. It's all O.K. with him.

On the wall in the little apartment is a framed essay by Theodore Roosevelt. It begins, "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, who strains valiantly...."

For a time there, it was none other than Jason Garrett himself.

PHOTOBILL FRAKES AND LYNN JOHNSONIrvin enjoys motoring through Dallas with the top down, the better to see and, more important, be seen. PHOTOBILL FRAKES AND LYNN JOHNSONA lonely task became even lonelier as Boniol practiced with a nonhuman holder. PHOTOBILL FRAKES AND LYNN JOHNSONAs Lassie did rehab, Woicik was behind him, providing support—and resistance. TWO PHOTOSBILL FRAKES AND LYNN JOHNSONObviously, some of the credit for the way the Cowboys have been cleaning up goes to the laundrymen. TWO PHOTOSBILL FRAKES AND LYNN JOHNSONIrvin tended to Harper's sore back, one of many subjects team publicist Dalrymple had to discuss with the media. PHOTOBILL FRAKES AND LYNN JOHNSONIn the afternoon, class was in session as the defensive unit prepared for Philadelphia. PHOTOBILL FRAKES AND LYNN JOHNSONLassie is apparently behind Smith on the depth chart even in cybersolitaire. PHOTOBILL FRAKES AND LYNN JOHNSONWith a tiny push, Devon Jay, the youngest member of the Kennard family, felled a Christmas tree. PHOTOBILL FRAKES AND LYNN JOHNSONLincoln Coleman had recovered sufficiently from practice to try out some new moves on the dance floor. FOUR ILLUSTRATIONS

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)