"Sometimes," says Rich Dalrymple, "I feel like I'm traveling with the Beatles."
At noon the Cowboys are boarding a chartered jet in a remote part of Dallas-Fort Worth Airport to begin their trip to Philadelphia to play the Eagles. Dalrymple, 34, the chief publicist for the Cowboys since 1990, knows how the journey will shake out.
"Troy is Paul," he says. "Emmitt is John. Michael and Nate, I don't know, maybe Ringo and George? We have to cordon off parts of the hotel to keep people away. We take the service elevators. There are Cowboy fans everywhere, but in the three big Northeastern cities where our divisional rivals are, they're nuts. And Philly might be the worst. We have to have guards. Police. Sometimes when we get close to the hotel, [center Mark] Stepnoski and Moose [Johnston] will count down, 'Five, four, three, two, one...' and then Troy will step out to all these shrieks."
Dalrymple, who was a fair quarterback at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pa., also knows the players' personal travel habits. Who will be the last one on the plane?
"Michael," Dalrymple says, drawing on his experience as the publicist back at the University of Miami when Irvin was cutting his swath there. Indeed, the last Cowboy to miss a team flight was Irvin. "It was 1992, Detroit," says Dalrymple. "He just slept too late. Took the next flight. Jimmy [Johnson] benched him for a certain number of plays at the start of the game. I remember [then offensive coordinator] Norv Turner wanted the national anthem and the kickoff to count as two plays."
The year before Irvin missed his flight, Swervin' Curvin Richards, a rookie running back, did the same. "The vets told him to go to Love Field [the old Dallas airport], and he did," says Dalrymple. "Jimmy wasn't happy."
Dalrymple knows that the Cowboys are America's Team, a phenomenon that transcends the narrow confines of regional fandom, but Dallas's appeal never ceases to amaze him: "We were the team of the Southwest for years, so now when we play the Cardinals in Arizona, there will be 30,000 Cowboy fans there. Fans from El Paso can't get into a game in Irving, but they can in Tempe. For years we were kind of responsible for selling out that place. We're on TV all the time. We have marquee stars. I'm from Pittsburgh, and all through the 1970s the Cowboys were the late TV game we all saw. You got sick of it. The Cowboys are like Notre Dame, only without the religious stuff."
There is a dark side to this devotion, though. The players have heard that on Wednesday evening a 23-year-old man named Christopher Goings rode his bicycle to a convenience store in a tough section of Dallas. Police say that gang members approached Goings and told him to turn over his Dallas Cowboy jacket. When Goings balked, say police, he was shot and killed. A 14-year-old was taken into custody.
With the plane full and everyone accounted for, the trip begins—with all players wearing mandatory coats and ties. A card game breaks out among Smith, Charles Haley and tackle Mark Tuinei, but most of the Cowboys read, sleep or listen to music on headphones. There is a bag containing chips, pretzels and candy for each passenger, and a lunch of cither fajitas or a Philadelphia cheese-steak sandwich will be served soon. Still, Nate Newton, unsure if he will be able to hold out until mealtime on only snacks, has brought along his own food.
"It's toughest for Troy," says Dalrymple. "We get lots of girls offering him things. Photos and stuff. You know. The other day we got eight dozen roses for him, from Ohio. He'd love to have a wife, kids, a family, someone who loves him just for himself. But how does he find that? He came home after one game, and two girls were on his screened-in porch eating pizza. He can't go out. He's this generation's Mickey Mantle. Even looks like him, and he's also from Oklahoma. He plays the most prominent position in sport, quarterback for the world champion Cowboys; Mantle played centerfield for the world champion Yankees."