The Dallas Cowboys! There was no mistaking that logo. The silver helmet with the blue star on its side staring at me from the upper left corner of the stationery told me who the letter was from before I read it. This was the spring of 1964; the Cowboys hadn't yet been to five Super Bowls or run off 20 straight winning seasons. They weren't even America's Team yet, but I knew them just the same.
I couldn't imagine why the Dallas Cowboys—or any professional football team, for that matter—would be writing to us. I was then the 28-year-old freshman basketball coach at Michigan State, and I had just completed my first year as head recruiter under varsity coach Forrest (Forddy) Anderson. One of my duties was to answer all the form letters that came across Forddy's desk, and this was easily the most interesting of those letters.
The letter was signed by Gil Brandt, player scouting director for the Cowboys. He wrote that Dallas was looking for basketball players between 6' and 6'4" with high school football experience who might have the potential to become defensive backs in the NFL. He added that the Cowboys' starting cornerback, Cornell Green, had played basketball, but not football, at Utah State.
Replying to form letters can be tedious, but I decided to have some fun with this one. I would give Brandt a list of names that would take him years to check out. Why stop with defensive backs? Did he want some defensive tackles? How about 6'7", 230-pound center Bill Buntin of Michigan? Linebackers? How about the Wolverines' 6'5½", 218-pound Cazzie Russell or Oliver Darden, who was 6'7" and 220? Tight ends? Why not 6'5", 195-pound Larry Tregoning, also from Michigan? Cornerbacks? The Wolverines had a kid named George Pomey who was 6'4", 196. In one fell swoop I had sent the entire roster of our cross-state rival to the NFL. I was enjoying this immensely.
There was no stopping me. At split end I recommended the Van Arsdale twins, Tom and Dick, from Indiana, both 6'5" and 210 pounds, and their teammate Jon McGlocklin, who was the same size. Safeties? Archie Clark of Minnesota, at 6'2" and 170, was ideal. So was 6'1", 175-pound Emmette Bryant from DePaul.
I went on and on. The list took up one typed page, single-spaced. Of course, almost every name I sent would end up in the NBA, not the NFL. The last person on the list was our leading scorer at Michigan State, 6'4", 190-pound forward George D. (Pete) Gent. I included him not so much because I thought he was a pro football prospect but because he was a "gamer," that rarest of athletes who comes through when you need him most. In fact, a few weeks earlier his jump shot at the buzzer had given the Spartan varsity a one-point win against Ohio State, at Columbus, in the season finale.
I slipped my list into an envelope, dropped it into the outgoing mail basket and forgot about it. Two days later I received a call from Brandt. He was a Mid-westerner like me, but he had picked up that slow Texas drawl. He had even added a syllabic to both his first and last names, introducing himself as "Ghee-ole Brayundt." He said he was calling about Pete Gent. He wanted to sign him.
"Wait a second," I said. "I had no idea this would happen. I haven't so much as talked to Pete about this. Why don't you let me try to reach Pete? For all I know, he may have other plans. He has all sorts of talents. I hear he may be up for a Rhodes scholarship. What's more, he's a surefire NBA prospect; he has the best understanding of the one-on-one game I've ever seen." Brandt said, "Talk to him, and call me back... collect."
I reached Pete on the first try. I started to apologize for using his name in the NFL list without asking him, but he cut me off. "I've always wanted to be a professional football player," he said. "Call him back! Tell him I'll meet him, anywhere, anytime!"
I hung up and called Brandt...collect. I said, "Well, Pete says that he's interested. So what comes next?" Brandt said, 'Time him for the 40-yard dash. See how lie does in that, and then call me back...collect."