Watching my Dallas Cowboys fall to the Green Bay Packers last Sunday on the last play of the game in an instant classic of an NFC Divisional Playoff, I couldn’t help but think back to my grandfather.
The first time I recall watching the ‘boys play, in the 1970s, I was knee high to him, paying more attention to the gun case where he kept his Purple Heart and the loot he’d collected from dead Nazis. As the men in blue and white jerseys and silver helmets with those big blue lone stars on the side would line up on gameday, they reminded me of the helmeted protagonists from the old war movies I’d watch with my grandfather—Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach ever the hero as he launched missile after missile into the end zone. His famous arm led his team to four Super Bowl appearances (winning two), helping the Cowboys earn the moniker “America’s Team.”
And I was in good company. As the nickname suggests, much of the country began rooting for the Cowboys with me that decade. Spectators across America filled stands and fixated on their TV screens, in awe of Staubach, the team’s clean-cut Navy veteran QB, the always-stoic head coach Tom Landry in his fedora and, of course, the Cowboys cheerleaders.
Dallas managed to exude both class and swagger, not to mention exquisite timing: The Cowboys won their first championship in January of 1972, the same year a Gallup survey first crowned pro football America’s most popular sport. The team’s icons became emblematic of the sensation the game was to become, a sensation filling Texas Stadium with fans in blue and white last Sunday afternoon as the Cowboys faced off against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC division playoffs.
Watching the Cowboys with my family felt like going to church on Sunday morning. Prayer always followed third down, or whenever the ref made a bad call. It was a family tradition to follow the Cowboys religiously. Though our fandom rarely was reflected in our dress, like other Cowboys fans, there was no doubt which team we cheered whenever game day arrived.
The Cowboys cheerleaders fascinated me as a teenager in the ‘80s. They looked like Charlie’s Angels in cowboy hats, always smiling and, to my amazement, doing flips like warriors from the American Ninja movie series I obsessively watched on VHS. They were the brainchildren of Texas Earnest “Tex” Schramm. A former sportswriter for the Austin American-Statesman, he served as general manager of the Cowboys from 1960, when they first became an NFL franchise, until their purchase by owner Jerry Jones in 1989. Schramm pioneered several league innovations over the 29 years he served as general manager: the use of instant replay in the officiating of the game, referees’ microphones, shortening the play clock, and developing the wild-card playoff system. He also helped to coordinate the 1970 merger of the National Football League and the American Football League.
That the Cowboys gained such a loyal following wasn’t just about Lone Star pride, it was about Texas showmanship. Schramm understood that professional football was more than just a sport, and transformed the Cowboys cheerleaders into a squad of professional dancers, with the help of Texie Waterman, one of the top dancers in America at the time.
When the NFL decided to offer a second game on Thanksgiving in the mid-1960s, Schramm jumped at the opportunity to host the holiday games that many NFL teams at the time wanted to avoid. He knew the Cowboys playing on a holiday when many around the country gather to celebrate would increase the team’s national exposure and help cement its All-American image.
Though Schramm’s marketing prowess and Landry’s brilliant coaching drew a national following, it was NFL Films that officially anointed the Cowboys “America’s Team.” During the 1978 season, the television studio’s camera crews noticed that the Cowboys could always count on an unusually large contingent of fans on the road. When Bob Ryan, who produced and edited every Cowboys highlight video for the NFL, wrote the opening to the season recap voiced by legendary baritone voice of John Facenda, he penned what amounts to Cowboys marketing scripture:
“No matter where they play, their fans are there to greet them. Their faces are recognized by fans all across this country. The sum total of their stars are a galaxy. They are the Dallas Cowboys … America’s Team.”
The Cowboys not only became a beloved franchise as the NFL was coming into its own, but also as the city of Dallas was in sore need of a boost. A decade after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Texas metropolis was still best known to many Americans as the “City of Hate.” Schramm himself was mindful of the need to associate the city with something other than the tragedy, having once told the Chicago Tribune that he was well aware that in the aftermath of ’63, Dallas had become a “bad word” across the nation.
The Cowboys helped rebrand the city in the eyes of the nation, and gave our ever-sprawling metropolis a much-needed sense of being on the same team, a shared story and rooting interest. It would be wrong to dismiss a professional football team as just that–more than 40 years after my grandfather introduced me to the Cowboys, I am struck as a journalist working in Dallas by how much the team, and all its ups and downs, helps bind our community together. A narrative thread linking Roger Staubach and Tony Dorsett to Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith now reappears in the impressive rookie duet of Dak Prescott and Zeke Elliott.
The past two decades have been disappointing to Cowboys fans, and the division playoff loss to the Packers would seem only more disheartening. But the story of last Sunday’s defeat, with the two leading rookies bringing the ‘boys back from a 15-point deficit to tie the game with only minutes left on the play clock, only then to lose to a last-second field goal, will become part of the lore that gets handed down from one generation to another. And that’s especially true if, as I suspect, this generation’s team is on the verge of becoming another dominant dynasty deserving to be called “America’s Team.”
Christian McPhate is a staff writer at The Dallas Observer, who writes features on crime, government, social justice, and music. His work has appeared in several other publications, including The Dallas Morning News, The Fort Worth Star Telegram, The Miami Herald, and San Antonio Express News.