Barry Switzer walks down the hallway at camp before practice begins. He is smiling, feeling loose. And why not? He has lost only 31 games in nearly 17 years as a head coach, first at Oklahoma and now with the Cowboys. "You know what?" he says. " Jerry Jones said to me yesterday, 'Don't you ever stop calling me at 12:30 in the morning! You only call the people you love after midnight. You quit calling me, you don't love me anymore.' "
Love, in its many manifestations, permeates the Dallas locker room. Jim Schwantz, a backup linebacker and special teams player, came to the Cowboys in a trade with the Chicago Bears just before the season began. He was worried that he would be ostracized because of his late arrival. "Jim Morrissey, one of my friends from the Bears, went to the Green Bay Packers last season, and he told me it took a long time before the players there accepted him," says Schwantz. "Here, guys went out of their way to make me feel at home—Bill Bates, Jim Jeffcoat, Russell Maryland and, believe it or not, Charles Haley. He's rough and loud, but he's one of the nicest guys around. There's a common bond, a closeness here. A lot of little things go on that are special."
In the training room Emmitt Smith is playing video hockey with defensive tackle Leon Lett, he of the now legendary Super Bowl gaffe of two years ago and the equally infamous flub last season in a game against the Miami Dolphins. There is such a great amount of hollering, shoving, giggling and taunting that the ruckus draws the attention of Michael Irvin, who has been studying his hair in the mirror even though he is wearing a hat.
Irvin looks at the video screen, sees that Smith is winning handily and says, "Leon, you got Chicago and you're still losing? You're garbage."
"If I'm garbage, then what's Emmitt?" Lett fires back.
"He's the garbage can," revises Irvin. "And you're the Dumpster."
None of this commotion disturbs the silent hulk of Nate Newton, who, covered with a baby-blue blanket, is napping soundly on a nearby taping table.
At noon, however, there is a reality check in the midst of all these good feelings. Players dressing for practice look for safety Joe Fishback, only to find his locker empty, save for a topless can of deodorant. This morning former New York Jet and New England Patriot running back Blair Thomas was signed as a backup for Smith, and Fishback, who had been with the Cowboys since early last season, was sent into exile. Just like that. Fishback went to this morning's meetings, learned his fate shortly thereafter and vanished. "He came to me about 11 and asked for a garbage bag to put his stuff in," says equipment man Mike McCord. "I took his nameplate off. Yeah, it's sad."
Brock Marion, a second-year safety whose locker was next to Fishback's, stands by the vacant cubicle, stunned. "I didn't have any idea he was going to be cut, and I don't think he did, either," says Marion. "It really opens your eyes. My chemistry is out of whack, because he was my roommate on the road...."
Out on the field there is a reality check of a different sort. The players are in full pads for the most important practice day of the week as the coaches take the offense and the defense through the game plan for Sunday. Thomas participates in his first practice as a Cowboy, and backup quarterback Rodney Peete takes snaps for the first time since he sprained his thumb against the Redskins on Nov. 20. After a two-hour session Peete says that he is healthy, and Switzer announces that he will start against Philadelphia. Jason Garrett, who was named the Miller Lite Player of the Week at a noon press conference for his performance on Thanksgiving, will be back on the bench.