"Sometimes," says Rich Dalrymple, "I feel like I'm traveling with the Beatles."
At noon the Cowboys are boarding a chartered jet in a remote part of Dallas-Fort Worth Airport to begin their trip to Philadelphia to play the Eagles. Dalrymple, 34, the chief publicist for the Cowboys since 1990, knows how the journey will shake out.
"Troy is Paul," he says. "Emmitt is John. Michael and Nate, I don't know, maybe Ringo and George? We have to cordon off parts of the hotel to keep people away. We take the service elevators. There are Cowboy fans everywhere, but in the three big Northeastern cities where our divisional rivals are, they're nuts. And Philly might be the worst. We have to have guards. Police. Sometimes when we get close to the hotel, [center Mark] Stepnoski and Moose [Johnston] will count down, 'Five, four, three, two, one...' and then Troy will step out to all these shrieks."
Dalrymple, who was a fair quarterback at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pa., also knows the players' personal travel habits. Who will be the last one on the plane?
"Michael," Dalrymple says, drawing on his experience as the publicist back at the University of Miami when Irvin was cutting his swath there. Indeed, the last Cowboy to miss a team flight was Irvin. "It was 1992, Detroit," says Dalrymple. "He just slept too late. Took the next flight. Jimmy [Johnson] benched him for a certain number of plays at the start of the game. I remember [then offensive coordinator] Norv Turner wanted the national anthem and the kickoff to count as two plays."
The year before Irvin missed his flight, Swervin' Curvin Richards, a rookie running back, did the same. "The vets told him to go to Love Field [the old Dallas airport], and he did," says Dalrymple. "Jimmy wasn't happy."
Dalrymple knows that the Cowboys are America's Team, a phenomenon that transcends the narrow confines of regional fandom, but Dallas's appeal never ceases to amaze him: "We were the team of the Southwest for years, so now when we play the Cardinals in Arizona, there will be 30,000 Cowboy fans there. Fans from El Paso can't get into a game in Irving, but they can in Tempe. For years we were kind of responsible for selling out that place. We're on TV all the time. We have marquee stars. I'm from Pittsburgh, and all through the 1970s the Cowboys were the late TV game we all saw. You got sick of it. The Cowboys are like Notre Dame, only without the religious stuff."
There is a dark side to this devotion, though. The players have heard that on Wednesday evening a 23-year-old man named Christopher Goings rode his bicycle to a convenience store in a tough section of Dallas. Police say that gang members approached Goings and told him to turn over his Dallas Cowboy jacket. When Goings balked, say police, he was shot and killed. A 14-year-old was taken into custody.
With the plane full and everyone accounted for, the trip begins—with all players wearing mandatory coats and ties. A card game breaks out among Smith, Charles Haley and tackle Mark Tuinei, but most of the Cowboys read, sleep or listen to music on headphones. There is a bag containing chips, pretzels and candy for each passenger, and a lunch of cither fajitas or a Philadelphia cheese-steak sandwich will be served soon. Still, Nate Newton, unsure if he will be able to hold out until mealtime on only snacks, has brought along his own food.
"It's toughest for Troy," says Dalrymple. "We get lots of girls offering him things. Photos and stuff. You know. The other day we got eight dozen roses for him, from Ohio. He'd love to have a wife, kids, a family, someone who loves him just for himself. But how does he find that? He came home after one game, and two girls were on his screened-in porch eating pizza. He can't go out. He's this generation's Mickey Mantle. Even looks like him, and he's also from Oklahoma. He plays the most prominent position in sport, quarterback for the world champion Cowboys; Mantle played centerfield for the world champion Yankees."
After lunch Dalrymple goes to the back of the plane, to stand by the rest room and enjoy a quiet dip of snuff with Aikman, who is such a trouper that he has come along for the trip, bad knee and all. He's there just in case Dallas's first two quarterbacks, Rodney Peete and Jason Garrett, get injured and the Cowboys need someone to take snaps and run out the clock.
Back in his seat, Dalrymple ponders another of the perennial duties of his job: fielding queries from young people asking him how they, too, can become p.r. directors of major sports franchises. "I say if you're out of college, it's already too late," he says. "You've got to work for the student publication, the sports office or whatever at your school, folding letters, covering women's tennis, for free. Then, do whatever nobody else wants to do. In 1982 I got my first job as the sports information director for Otterbein College, Division III, and I was also the assistant p.r. guy for the whole school. I was even the photographer, and I didn't know how to take pictures. Before every home football and basketball game I carried the typewriter, pencils, paper and this ditto machine, a heavy, old thing with all that smelly fluid, up to the press box, 35 rows up the bleachers in the case of football."
Dalrymple stretches, smiles happily, a Super Bowl ring gleaming on his finger. "This," he says, "this is a good job." He takes a quick look at the large men behind him. "It's also a pleasure to know that if the flight crew goes down, Chad Hennings can bring this baby in. And Chris Boniol's at least the first mate."
The entourage boards two buses at the Philadelphia airport, and with one police car in front and one behind, the buses proceed downtown to the Wyndham Franklin Plaza Hotel. At the hotel the buses feint, as though heading to the front entrance, then suddenly stop on a side street. Police quickly block off the area so the players can disembark and then scurry into a back door and through the kitchen to the service elevators. Realizing the deception, fans come screaming in streams from their stakeout of the main entrance, most of them too late to see anyone but equipment men and coaches walking past.
"The Beatles did that, too," says Dalrymple of the kitchen ruse.
After dinner and meetings the players get a couple of hours to themselves, but by 10:45 p.m. most are already back in their rooms in preparation for 11 o'clock bed check. Tomorrow's starting quarterback, Peete, lies on the bed in his room, calm as a monk. He has already visited with his fiancèe, Holly Robinson, one of the stars of TV's Hangin' with Mr. Cooper, over at the Ritz Carlton, and now he's just kicking back until he is ready for sleep.
"I'm fine," Peete says. "It's not like this is the first time I've ever started in the NFL, even though some people think that." He did start 47 games in five years for the Detroit Lions; still, this is his first start for the Cowboys, who signed him as a free agent before this season.
"I'm relaxed because this is exactly why they brought me in," he says with a smile. "To fill in for Troy. It's so comfortable."
Despite his success last week, Garrett is now the backup to Peete, whose injured right thumb has healed. That's just how it is, clean and simple: Aikman, Peete, Garrett. One, two, three. Switzer wants no quarterback intrigue. "We quarterbacks have a great relationship," says Peete. "We all know our roles. We never had that at Detroit." He flips through his playbook. Even though it is balmy this weekend in Philly, Peete is wearing thermal underwear. "I'm a Southern Cal guy," he explains.
He also has a single room, though most of his teammates are doubled up. "I can't sleep with somebody next to me snoring," he says. The discounted rooms cost the team $53 apiece, and any player can have a single if he's willing to pay half of that, $26.50, for the luxury of solitude. But 36 of the players are doubled up, and only 14 have singles. How cheap are those 36? "Real cheap," answers Peete.
But remarkably, most of those with bunkmates like it that way. "Nate wants Tony Tolbert," says Dalrymple. "Harper and Irvin want to be together. Clayton Holmes and Kenny Gant. Johnston and Stepnoski. And Emmitt has to be with Tommie Agee."
As trainer Kevin O'Neill makes his rounds, knocking on doors and checking names off his list, the evening slowly winds to a close. There are security guards stationed by most of the exits. Nobody wants a repeat of the night the Cowboys spent before the game on Thanksgiving, when somebody pulled the fire alarm at the team's hotel in Dallas, at 5:30 a.m. For at least one player, though, it was a sign of good things to come on the field: Garrett, starting his first game as a Cowboy, slept through the chaos.
O'Neill determines that every player is where he should be now, except for Smith, who is still embroiled in a fierce game of dominoes in Haley's room. Smith is wearing a Pennsylvania State Trooper cap, given to him by one of the team's escorts on the trip to the hotel, and he's vowing victory or death.
At 11:15 two young women in jeans as tight as apple skins get off the elevator. A security guard confronts them. "Oh, is this 14?" asks one. They try to peer down the hallway. Nothing doing. "I thought we were on 15." The guard escorts them back whence they came. Another elevator car stops, the doors open and a couple of drunks shout curses. The doors close, and there is silence once more.
At 11:30 Smith walks in his socks down the hallway toward his room, muttering to himself. A more important game lies ahead for him and the Cowboys.