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Joe Nick Patoski on The Dallas Cowboys: Uncovering the history of "America's Team"

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The Dallas Cowboys by Joe Nick Patoski
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Joe Nick Patoski Photo by Wyatt McSpadden

“The Cowboys play the same game, but on a whole other level. No organization comes close to what they created and the image that has been burnished and maintained since 1960,” author Joe Nick Patoski says of what is arguably the most loved — and hated — football team in history.

“No team does storylines or drama like the Cowboys,” he continues of the team that is the subject of his latest bookThe Dallas Cowboys: The Outrageous History of the Biggest, Loudest, Most Hated, Best Loved Football Team in America.

As the Cowboys embark on their 53rd season of professional football, Patoski’s book is exposing the history of “America’s Team” — from its birth as a Dallas icon, through its victorious Super Bowl years in the ‘90s, and onto its current iteration housed in the infamous, larger-than-life JerryWorld.

Ahead of his engagement at this weekend's Texas Book Festival, CultureMap talked to Patoski (former writer for Texas Monthly, the Austin American-Statesman and Rolling Stone) about digging into the twisted past of the legendary team, how he did it, and what Jerry Jones will say.

CultureMap: In 2008, it was Willie Nelson, in 2012 — The Dallas Cowboys. How was the jump from writing about Texas’ biggest music phenom to the world’s biggest football dynasty?

Joe Nick Patoski: The jump from storied musician biography to storied football franchise history was no way seamless. It was more like a leap; the tie between the two subjects was Texas and culture. Willie was in many respects a history of Texas since the Great Depression, as well as the history of popular music from then to now.

The Dallas Cowboys book uses the national sport of Texas as a means of understanding a place (Dallas) and its people. Both Willie and the Cowboys are pegged to the Texas brag Ours Is Bigger, but in very different ways. Both Willie and Cowboys are forms of entertainment when you boil them down to their respective essences. And they are both about place.

CM: You’re a lover of football — but especially interested in Texas high school football — what led you to pursue an in-depth look at an NFL franchise?

JNP: I'd been asked to apply for, then was awarded, the role of guest curator for a Texas High School football exhibit at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in early 2009. Curating a museum exhibit got me out of my comfort zone and into a whole new way of storytelling.

I figured since I was going to be spending two years researching and preparing a museum exhibit on high school football, I might as well dive down deep and try to tell the big story of the organization that created and has maintained the biggest football team in Texas, and really, of all pro football. The Cowboys story is the story of the modern National Football League. 

CM: The introduction to the book is a detailed account of JerryWorld. How did JerryWorld influence your interest on covering the Cowboys?

JNP: JerryWorld was my entree to the Dallas Cowboys franchise in the here and now. It is the source of most of the conversation about the team, besides their erratic performance, and the ultimate expression of the incredible ego of the owner.

No stadium is nicknamed in honor of the team owner, except the Palace in Dallas at Arlington, aka the Death Star. No stadium in the modern era has created the kind of buzz it has since… Texas Stadium opened in Irving in 1971. Stadium-building is a key element of the book showing how the venues have elevated the team's profile, transcending their won-loss record.

CM: How did you begin to dig into the history of the Cowboys?

JNP: I went back to 1841, when John Neely Bryan came from Arkansas to set up a trading post near a ford crossing the Trinity River. I wanted to find out about how Dallas historically operated, and who its leaders were. For pro football, I went back to 1952 when there was a National Football League franchise in Dallas called the Texans. They drew so poorly that the team folded before the end of the season and became the Baltimore Colts. High school football and Southwest Conference college football were too strong to compete against.

Eight years later though, not one, but two, pro teams were established in Dallas. Lamar Hunt's Texans of the startup American Football League, which Hunt created; and Clint Murchison's Cowboys of the National Football League, an expansion franchise awarded by the league basically to put the Texans and the AFL out of business.

CM: Was the research process similar to how you worked on other projects?

JNP: No two stories are alike. My research for this book focused on the written record. No subject has been so extensively covered by North Texas media as the Cowboys have, and that includes the Kennedy assassination. So I spent a lot of time reading at the city historical section of the Dallas Public Library, then, at the invitation of the Cowboys organization, I invested about three months at Valley Ranch, reading newspaper clippings from 1959 to 1980, to see the story unfold on a day-to-day basis.

The print journalists in the early and mid-sixties in particularly did a stellar job covering the team and the organization. Then again, it isn't everyday or every place when you have folks like Blackie Sherrod, Gary Cartwright, Bud Shrake, Dan Jenkins, Sam Blair, Carleton Stowers, Steve Perkins, and Bob St. John covering your team.  These journalists were as storied as the team they covered.  

CM: Did you interact at all with Jerry Jones?

JNP: I made three requests to Rich Dalrymple, the head of Cowboys publicity, to interview Jerry Jones, not that there wasn't an abundance of coverage to cherry pick from. Never heard back, although a couple folks close to the organization said I wouldn't be accommodated because Jones had nothing to gain by talking to me. As I said earlier though, the written record is quite extensive, and Jones is hardly a retiring wallflower. I had plenty to work with. 

CM: Your introduction offers a firm stance on the cultural significance of the Cowboys being built by Murchison and capitalized on by “sumbtich” Jones. Does that thread build in the book?

JNP: Throughout the book, I try to make the case that no professional football team reflects its city like the Dallas Cowboys do; similarly, no city has been influenced by its team like Dallas has been. Dallas' Can-Do business attitude, its significant marketing, advertising, and media sectors, and its sense of style have all contributed to the football team's image and look. No sports logo resonates like that blue star, and Dallas had cool-looking uniforms long before any other team paid attention to that element.

Conversely, the Cowboys got Dallas over the Kennedy assassination, and then got the rest of America to forget Dallas as the City of Hate. The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and America's Team signified the shiny new Dallas that emerged on the national stage in the 1970s. It was no coincidence that the opening shot of the television series Dallas, which became the most-viewed drama in the world, included a flyover above Texas Stadium where the Cowboys' logo was prominently displayed. 

CM: Have you heard any reactions from Jones on the book or your depiction of him? 

JNP: Nope, I hope he'd read it and learn some history about the team he owns. In that respect, I wrote the book for fans of the First Regime, when the team was owned by Clint Murchison, and who will never forgive Jones for the way he fired Coach Tom Landry in 1989, but also to show those old fans how Jones, for all the failures of the team on the field since 1997, has managed to raise the team's profile and keep them part of the national conversation despite their lousy record.

I also wrote the book for newer fans who have traveled Interstate 30 that runs through Arlington and wondered who was the guy that the Tom Landry Highway was named for. 

CM: What do you see as the future of this team?

JNP: Same ol', same ol' until the owner fires the general manager, which he won't because he's the same person. Jones came in and cleaned house, installing Jimmy Johnson as coach, after seven lousy years. Well, it's been 16 lousy years since the last Super Bowl win and there's no new Jones to come in and clean house because the owner has made the team a family business.

Big changes won't come until Jerry Jones steps down and yields power to his son Stephen, who is already very involved in the team ownership. Stephen Jones doesn't have his daddy's ego or lust for the spotlight, which makes me hope he's wise enough to hire a football person to be general manager so Stephen can focus on ownership. This is a terribly complicated sport and business to try and run everything like Jerry Jones does.  

CM: Before we go, what gives this little team from Texas the ability to be the “most hated, best loved” team all at once?

JNP: It ain't bragging if it's true. It's that old Texas  thing. We stand out in a crowd. Lots of people are attracted to this; lots of people are repulsed by this. We're lightning rods. You can't ignore us.

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Joe Nick Patoski speaks at the Texas Book Festival on Saturday, Oct. 27. His book is available on Amazon and through Barnes and Noble. Visit CultureMap on Saturday to read an excerpt from the book.

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