It's noon, and the Dallas Cowboys—57 players and 16 coaches plus assorted front-office personnel, equipment men, trainers, janitors and security people—have descended on the team's sprawling football complex at Valley Ranch, 28 miles from downtown Dallas. The two-time Super Bowl champions beat the Green Bay Packers on Thanksgiving Day 42-31 and then scattered to all parts of the country for three days of freedom, but now it's time to fold the napkins, pull on the boots and cinch up the saddles. Practice resumes today for the Cowboys, who are 10-2 and comfortably atop the NFC East, with a game against the Eagles in Philadelphia six days off.
The training complex is actually a vast single-story maze connected by glassed-in hallways that give one the feeling of being trapped in a large gerbil run. Within are offices for everything from public relations to the Dallas Cowboys Travel Agency, a whirlpool big enough to hold 20 players, and a dance studio for the Cowboy cheerleaders. Built in 1985, during the reign of Dallas's original ruling triumvirate—general manager Tex Schramm, personnel director Gil Brandt and coach Tom Landry—the complex reflected a corporate philosophy that promoted technology over human interaction. In the locker room, for instance, small cubicles were scattered throughout, each with its own sitting area and a desk where a player could study alone or, eventually, work the computer that surely was destined to replace the standard team playbook.
In 1989, when Jimmy Johnson was hired to coach Dallas by new owner Jerry Jones, Johnson threw out the whole high-tech mess. Now the locker room is one grand, empty square ringed by simple open lockers. The blue carpet in the middle is the stage where the Cowboys interact.
Running back Derrick Lassie enters this stage at noon. Lassie blew out his right knee in the first preseason game this year, and now he spends his days rehabbing with Mike Woicik, the strength and conditioning coach. Lassie sees 40 or so media people clotted around a player who is hidden from view, and he scratches his chin. "Uh, let me guess," he says. "Emmitt?"
Of course, it is All-Pro running back Emmitt Smith. As a rookie, Lassie was called on to start the first three games of the 1993 season at tailback in place of Smith, who was holding out because of a contract dispute with Jones. The Cowboys lost the first two games, and after the second, defensive end Charles Haley erupted in the locker room, smashing his helmet through a wall and screaming, "Get Emmitt back in here—we're never going to win with a——rookie!" Jones caved in, Smith was back in the starting lineup for Game 4, and Haley and Lassie appear to have made peace.
In time the clot around Smith thins, breaks up and re-forms elsewhere in the room. Smith emerges like a runner from the bottom of a pile. The media demands on Smith, quarterback Troy Aikman and wide receiver Michael Irvin are intense, and they're only slightly less so on fullback Daryl Johnston, wide receiver Alvin Harper, guard Nate Newton and tight end Jay Novacek. Even the lowliest practice-squad player feels some of the media heat.
Smith sits now with some teammates, discussing the vacation from which they've just returned. Smith and backup fullback Tommie Agee crack open cans of snuff and put pinches of tobacco inside their lips.
"I don't dip," Smith says, ever image-conscious. Then he winks. "This is light, anyway." Then he holds up Agee's can of snuff, opens it and lets the cherry aroma spread. "See this stuff? This will mess you up."
Newton, known as the Kitchen, large as a restaurant stove, verbose as a street-corner preacher, strolls into the group. His holiday experience included driving through rural Alabama at the peak of deer-hunting season. "I want to tell you, there were all these white people with guns out there," he says. "Cars and trailers parked up in the woods, people driving down the road with deer strapped to their trunks, blood running off. Damn!"
He shakes his head in mock horror at the image. "My son says, 'Daddy, they killed those deer!' And I said, 'Yep, son, they done messed up Bambi.' And I saw this one dude, orange hat on, fat neck red as can be, and he, like, sensed me—he's looking at me with this squint. I'm thinking, Uh-oh. He'll be saying, 'Yeah, I shot this bear, it was just sitting behind the wheel of a car. There, it's hanging in that tree.' "