Editors' Note: Joe Nick Patoski is a former writer for Texas Monthly, the Austin American-Statesman and Rolling Stone who has been writing on Texas — and Texans — for four decades.
In 2008, he wrote a comprehensive biography on the life of Willie Nelson. Earlier this month, Patoski released his next great feat: a comprehensive history of "America's Team," the Dallas Cowboys.
Below is an excerpt from The Dallas Cowboys: The Outrageous History of the Biggest, Loudest, Most Hated, Best Loved Football Team in America, released Oct. 2012. Check out CultureMap's interview with Joe Nick Patoski here.
Everything’s Bigger in Texas
Ours is bigger screamed the message across the front of the navy-blue-and-gray T‑shirts draped on mannequins at the entrance of the Cowboys pro shop. The fifteen-thousand-square-foot bazaar was neither souvenir stand nor gift store exactly but another element of what was becoming known as the Cowboys Experience — as was the newest, most modern football stadium in the entire universe. In Cowboys tradition, the shop set new standards for swag, extending the brand to a logo-adorned tailgating rig with an official Dallas Cowboys grill and official Dallas Cowboys charcoal briquettes and official Dallas Cowboys barbecue sauce.
Two sections over, two babes in designer jeans and matching caps with matching blond ponytails stylishly bobbing out the backs admired pink designer tops and thongs with the Cowboys star attached. The Dallas Cowboys logo adorned sleeping bags, soft monkeys, draft-day caps, stadium shot glasses, hitch covers for trailer hitches, a five-foot-high inflatable helmet, and miniature cheerleader uniforms. Premium items, such as framed photographs of Aikman or Irvin or Smith in action, fetched $99 each, while $299 bought an old-timer a Don Meredith–autographed helmet. A jersey signed by current QB Tony Romo was priced at $1,199.
The pro shop was but one segment of the spanking-new Cowboys Stadium, where everything was bigger, better, and state‑of‑the-art, which explained why thousands of visitors were paying sixteen dollars and up to peep at a building still under construction.
The giant dome sat, bloated and squat like a chrome Transformer bulldog, in the middle of a 140-acre asphalt field, a long spit from the part of Interstate Highway 30 that’s identified by green signs bearing the profile of a fedora as the Tom Landry Highway. The guys on the Ticket, a sports-talk radio station, referred to the stadium as the Death Star, citing how it dwarfed all other neighborhood landmarks, including the Texas Rangers baseball stadium; the thrill rides and roller coasters at Six Flags Over Texas; the high-rise chain hotel, slides, and tubes of the Six Flags Hurricane Harbor water park; a slew of chain restaurants and bars; and a fairly humongous Walmart.
“Look what Jerry did,” said the sprightly blond tour guide with the little Cowboys star painted on her right cheekbone. She pointed toward the east from the end-zone standing-room section. “See?” She beckoned to the thirty fans in her tour group. Straight ahead was Rangers Ballpark, home of the Texas Rangers major-league baseball club. Off to the left in the distance was the white dome of Texas Stadium, the former home of the Dallas Cowboys, months away from its date with a demolition crew. Off to the right in the far distance loomed the gleaming skyline of downtown Dallas.
Jerry planned it like that, the guide said. He wanted fans who bought party passes, the twenty-nine-dollar standing-room-only tickets with access to the open end-zone areas, to have that sweeping panorama. The guide went on to demonstrate how much Jerry cared, pointing out that the television, radio, and press midlevel seating areas were close to the goal lines. Prime 50‑yard viewing was reserved for the fans — the people — or at least those people who had the wherewithal to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to lease private skyboxes, game tickets extra. Getting a box would be a popular write-off for any of the twenty-three Fortune 500 companies clustered around Dallas and Fort Worth and the airport in between, a real middle-management-employee pleaser.
The outstanding attribute of Cowboys Stadium was size: sixteen hundred toilets, three thousand flat-screen televisions, and 100,000-spectator capacity. Its centerpiece, the Mitsubishi Diamond Vision four-sided LED video display hanging above the field, was the world’s biggest scoreboard: a pair of high-definition video screens seventy-three feet tall and a hundred and sixty feet long that hovered almost a hundred feet above the ground from 20‑yard line to 20‑yard line (most of the field) and two smaller screens, one facing each end zone. Each large screen was the equivalent of two thousand fifty-two-inch televisions. The translucent cover above the video screen and the field was the fastest retractable roof in the business; it could close in twelve minutes, enabling eleven thousand tons of air-conditioning to kick in and keep fans in 72‑degree comfort no matter how blazing hot the outside temperature was. The three hundred private suites, leased for $175,000 a year and up, were the most luxurious ever built.
The Statue of Liberty could fit inside Cowboys Stadium standing up. Laid down on its side, the Empire State Building could too. The two 1,292-foot-long curved steel arches that bore the weight of the building and the roof, eliminating the need for support columns, were each bigger than the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, creating the world’s largest column-free room, 104 million cubic feet. The slanted glass exterior walls on both ends made the venue glow warmly at night.
Cowboys wide receiver Roy Williams declared the facility “the greatest thing on Earth” before he’d even run a skinny post on the field. It made the retired Cowboys Hall of Famer Drew Pearson wistful. “I wish I could turn the clock back a little bit, lace up the cleats and strap on the hat,” he said when he first saw the stadium.
Football was merely one of the amusements that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones envisioned for the facility. Rock legends, the king of country music, basketball, and soccer were all fair game to sell out the house and generate the kind of gross and net receipts that could lead a promoter to early retirement. No Final Four, no tournament, no world championship, including the Super Bowl, was too big for this stadium’s glass-concrete-and-steel britches.
A fairly broad mix of entertainment and sporting events during August and early September of 2009 introduced the stadium to the public. But the concerts by George Strait, the Jonas Brothers, and Paul McCartney; the international soccer matches (one of which set an all-time attendance record for the sport in the state of Texas); the college and high school football games; even a Cowboys preseason exhibition game were all merely dry runs.
The exhibition against the Tennessee Titans stirred up the stadium’s first controversy by revealing one glaring flaw. The forty-million-dollar high-def scoreboard, which was unofficially dubbed the JerryTron, extended to below a hundred feet over the field, low enough for Tennessee’s punters to hit the bottom of the screen during warm-ups, pissing off stadium officials with each kick. Then, in the third quarter of the game, A. J. Trapasso, the second-string Titan punter, booted one from his own 37‑yard line that was high enough to bounce off the metal grating of one of the end-zone boards and deflect the ball backward (in the replays, the ball looks like it is entering a Star Wars mother ship). Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher threw his red challenge flag to point out the interference to game officials, who declared the punt a dead ball.
Fox network announcer Joe Buck observed, “Good thing [Trapasso] wasn’t a Cowboy.” The remark gained gravity after the game when Dallas Cowboys owner, president, and general manager Jerry Jones (the Jerry behind JerryWorld, as the stadium was becoming known), was asked about the kick. He didn’t think his JerryTron was too low. He thought the Titans’ kickers were trying to hit it.
“That’s not the point. How high is high if somebody just wants to sit there and kick straight up?” he snapped during a postgame press conference. “If you look at how you punt the football, unless you’re trying to hit the scoreboard, you punt the ball to get downfield. You certainly want to get some hang time, but you punt the ball to get downfield, and you sure don’t punt the ball down the middle. You punt it off to the side.”
He knew what he was talking about. Jones took pride in being the only National Football League franchise owner who’d excelled as a player on the college level. Punter Trapasso admitted to aiming for the board and nailing it three times before the game but claimed he’d tried to avoid it during the game. “We were peppering that thing during warm-ups,” he said. “Mind you, they’re good kicks that are going up there and hitting it. It’s nothing that is going to happen every time, but it’s got to be addressed. I don’t know how much further up it can go, but it’s in the way.”
The Titans’ regular punter, Craig Hentrich, agreed. “I hit it probably a dozen times in pregame. Probably somewhere around a five-second punt is going to hit it and some of the guys in the league wouldn’t be able to punt here if it’s not raised, they’d just be nonstop hitting it. I don’t know what the people were thinking. I guess they should have tested things out before they put that thing in place.”
The JerryTron was so massive, the Fox TV announcers admitted to being distracted from the field of play — a common reaction, judging from camera shots of Titans QB Kerry Collins, Coach Jeff Fisher, and other players glancing skyward.
The screen marked the triumph of televised sports. The video of the event out-wowed the event in real time — and at the event.
For years, rock concerts in large venues had utilized huge video screens to satisfy fans in the nosebleed seats, far from the stage. With the JerryTron, which Fort Worth Star-Telegram sportswriter Randy Galloway immediately inflated into the JumboJerryTron, spectator-sports events could apply the technology to achieve the same effect. As Ed Fiducia, a Dallas salesman, marveled, “You feel like you’re at home watching the big screen when you’re at the game. It’s brilliant.”
A network camera caught Jerry standing alone in his private suite during the game, a diagonal shadow crossing his face, one side of it bathed in warm light, the other in a dusky shadow, which drew attention to his watery, surgically enhanced almond-shaped eyes. For a brief moment, he appeared beatific, almost angelic.
So it went for the man behind the Show Palace of America’s Team, or whatever the stadium would come to be known as. There was plenty of hype and anticipation, little of it spontaneous and much of it magnified by the local mass media, whom the Cowboys ruled. No other subject generated as many column inches in the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram or hogged as much airtime on the six television stations with local news programming.
Some aspects of the stadium deserved criticism, such as the acoustics that amplified echoes to the point that “fans needed a decoder to interpret the most basic messages,” wrote the Morning News’s Tim Cowlishaw.
But acoustics were not the issue. What mattered was Ours Is Bigger. Ever since there was a Texas, going back to 1836, Texans have enjoyed expressing their zeal for bigness. The pride was rooted in Texas’s once-upon‑a‑time status as the largest state in the Union and in the astounding amount of wealth that the discovery of oil brought to some of its people. Then Alaska was admitted to the United States, in 1959, a year before the Dallas Cowboys came into being, relegating Texas to number two. That was about the same time that Texas’s dominance as the world’s greatest oil producer began to wane, the state giving way to Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and the whole Middle East as oil’s newest and biggest play. But those technicalities didn’t stop Texas or Texans.
One of the sincerest forms of expressing large love was through the game of football, a team sport that has been the national pastime in Texas since the early twentieth century. For all the ways its various parts were refined and finessed, the game was built on brute strength, physical power, and strategy — as close to war as most folks could get (or cared to get, at least), a grudge-settler and rivalry decider. The Dallas Cowboys, the home state’s professional team of choice, were the pinnacle of Texas’s infatuation with football, the one true thing that brought together fat cats and yardmen, painters and politicians.
It took one big sumbitch to build this stunning pleasure dome. And Jerry Jones was the sumbitch to do it. After playing football, he’d proven to be exceptionally gifted when it came to buying and selling oil and gas leases in his native Arkansas, Texas’s poorer hillbilly relative to the northeast. Energy ownership, a gambler’s instinct, and a surplus of good luck blessed him with enough money to buy the Dallas Cowboys in 1989 and then proceed to fire the only coach the Cowboys ever had, something that a significant number of longtime Cowboy fans had not forgiven him for. But now this outrageous, over-the-top building was making everyone forget the fallow post– Super Bowl era of the Cowboys, one marked by too few wins, too many dramas, and too much meddling from the owner. For a brief period that autumn of 2009 when the stadium opened, all was forgiven and forgotten, for Jones had championed one last hurrah of the Texas brag with something that was the largest and grandest. Jones had become enough of a Texan as the Cowboys owner to know the other part of the Texas brag equation: it ain’t bragging if it’s true.
Cowboys Stadium (aka JerryWorld; aka the Death Star) was all about superlatives — a $1.2 billion jewel, constructed with the help of the good citizens of Arlington, who kicked in $325 million, and the spectators paying from $2,000 to $1 million for licenses to dib seats that were each priced from $59 to $340 per game. With standing-room-only tickets going for $29, a $60 fee for a tailgating space, $75 for a close‑in parking space, $10 for popcorn, $12 for Cowboyritas, and $40 for a pizza, the revenue streams flowed.
Jones compared the look of the stadium’s exterior to “a really contemporary cell phone,” then to a tractor. “As beautiful and as proud of it as I am, it’s a tool to entertain a lot of people,” he said.
Dallas had long ago shed its stereotype of being an oil baron’s playground full of women with fake boobs and cotton-candy hair, a city that was once the divorce capital of the world. Twenty-first-century Dallas was a gay hotbed, according to Time magazine. Its officeholders included the country’s only big-city African American district attorney, a gay county judge, and a lesbian Latina sheriff.
Dallas had the largest rail construction program in the country (DART), with several new lines joining the existing lines, including a genuine subway that would eventually connect Fair Park, an area with the largest collection of art deco exhibition buildings in the world, with Dallas–Fort Worth International Airport, one of the world’s busiest. The Dallas Museum of Art, the Nasher Sculpture Center, the Meyerson Symphony Center, and the Crow Collection of Asian Art would soon be joined by four new buildings, including a theater and an opera hall, designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architects — a $300 million add‑on.
The city could brag that it had the top high school in the United States, according to Newsweek magazine (the School of Science and Engineering Magnet), and that four other high schools in the Dallas Independent School District had made the top half of the magazine’s list.
It was only fitting, then, that football’s finest showcase was the home of the Dallas Cowboys.
“This to me is what football can be for the future,” Jerry Jones proclaimed when Cowboys Stadium officially opened on September 20 with a game against the New York Giants. His image on national television was followed by a video roll call of the Seven Man-Made Wonders of the World, concluding with the Roman Colosseum before the shot dissolved into the new stadium with announcer Al Michaels’s declaration, “What the Roman Colosseum was to the first century is what Cowboys Stadium is to the twenty-first century!” Former president of the United States and Dallas resident George W. Bush, wearing
a coat and tie, conducted the coin toss midfield to start the game. Flames erupted from cannons on the field as a hundred-yard-long flag was unfurled for the national anthem. Randy White, Bob Lilly, Rayfield Wright, the Triplets (Aikman, Smith, and Irvin), Roger Staubach, and other legendary Cowboy players were on hand.
Paid attendance for the first official game was 105,121 — an all-time record for an NFL game in the United States. The arena’s record is unlikely to be broken; Arlington officials complained that Jones sold close to thirty thousand party passes to access standing areas behind the end zones, prompting police to erect barricades and turn ticket holders away and inspiring some fans to chant curse words at Jones. Thirty-seven arrests were made, including thirty on suspicion of public intoxication; two for public intoxication and assault; and one each for public intoxication and marijuana, public intoxication and resisting arrest, and public intoxication and evading arrest. “There [were] beer bottles flying around and a lot of pushing and shoving,” Arlington mayor Robert Cluck told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
“I don’t think we want to see a repeat of that.”
The televised game attracted 24.8 million viewers and a 15.1 final national rating, the largest audience in the three-plus seasons of Sunday Night Football for the NBC network. Locally, NBC’s Sunday Night Football telecast drew 1,700,608 Dallas-area viewers, while the Emmy Awards on CBS drew just 166,075 viewers, and ABC’s showing of King Kong counted 86,359 pairs of eyeballs.
The Giants’ Lawrence Tynes kicked a field goal as time ran out, earning the visitors a 33–31 victory. At that point, it had been thirteen years since the Cowboys had won a playoff game; the first home game played in their new house did not suggest that this status would change come December.
Jerry Jones may have built something even bigger than the football team he owned. But Jerry Jones couldn’t be happy with that; he admitted a week later that he would love nothing more than to coach the team he owned. He wanted to be George Halas, the owner-coach of the Chicago Bears, a founder of the National Football League, and one of the key reasons the Dallas Cowboys even existed.
The prevailing sentiment was that by building the stadium, Jerry Jones had done something no one before him had. But somewhere on the other side, Clint W. Murchison Jr. was enjoying a hearty laugh. Poor Jones. All the hype, all the gripes, all the hoo-haw about this stadium was a rerun of what Clint experienced in 1971 when Texas Stadium opened as the home field of the Dallas Cowboys. Exactly what section of the other side Clint was on depended on whether his embrace of Christianity late in life had resolved the dilemma posed in Matthew 19:24: Was it easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God?
In other words, JerryWorld was hardly the first state‑of‑the-football-art stadium in that metropolitan area. Clint Murchison (pronounced “Murkison”) built his palace expressly for football, designed the grandstands to be closer to the action than any comparable stadium’s before it, incorporated luxury suites into it like no stadium before it, and protected the seating area with a roof so the game could be played in the elements while the spectators stayed dry.
That’s where the similarities ended. Murchison was the one who created the mystique and prestige out of nothing. Jones just bought it.
To the old guard who remembered his backstory, Jones was still an uncouth, reptilian Arkie, no matter how fairylike his visage had been rendered. Until all the old farts were dead and gone, Jones’s past would not be forgotten.
The team before Jones was a whole other organization, led by a brain trust that designed the blueprint upon which professional football franchises were subsequently built. Dallas too was very different then, an adolescent city just beginning to flex its muscles as a powerhouse.
This is the story of that team, those people, and the city that made them.
Catch Joe Nick Patoski at the Texas Book Festival on Saturday, Oct. 27.