If there is one talent that coaches agree has made Dan Reeves (see cover), the not-so-big back in the Dallas Cowboys' attack, the kind of valuable property on which championships are built, it is a certain genius for producing the big play at the appropriate moment. And if there is one talent that is almost impossible to spot, even in this day of computerized scouting reports and sophisticated bird-dog networks, it is a prospect's ability to produce the big play. Reeves, who already this season has saved one game with a 36-yard touchdown in the last 10 seconds, knows the problem of recognition only too well. He has been playing football the last eight or so years with an intelligence and verve that should have had college and pro coaches swarming at his heels. None did. Until last season, when Reeves became the NFL's sixth-leading rusher, almost nobody had even heard of him.
The massive indifference toward the achievements of Daniel Edward Reeves began at Americus High School in Americus, Ga., where he was a quarterback. He was graduated in 1961, and not one of the big southern schools, as sensitive to football ability in a high school senior as litmus paper is to acid, came running. Only South Carolina offered Reeves a scholarship, which he accepted gratefully. A few months later, after Reeves had played in a Georgia state high school all-star game and come away with the most-valuable-player trophy, nine or 10 other universities suddenly recognized something they had previously overlooked and bid for his services. But Reeves, no doubt contributing to his own future obscurity, remained with his first choice.
Those were not good years for the Gamecocks, despite everything Reeves could do for them. He spent the usual four years at South Carolina, was first-string quarterback for three and twice was voted second-string all-conference quarterback. More comfortable running than throwing, he set 10 school records for advancing a football by land and air. In 1964 against strong Nebraska, champion of the Big Eight, he passed for 348 yards.
And what was the effect of all these bright accomplishments on the people who are supposed to know? Exactly zero. Dan Reeves finished his college career in such a blaze of indifference that he was not even asked to play in any of the numerous all-star games that drag the fall season limply into early spring. Reeves was neither surprised nor disappointed by this, but he was shocked at the treatment he received from the pros. At the time of his graduation the AFL and NFL were locked in a frantic struggle for college talent, and pro scouts infested the college-football body politic as heavily as fleas on a Georgia setter.
"I figured I'd be a late draft choice," Reeves said in the dressing room of the Dallas Cowboys the other day. "I didn't think I could cut it as a quarterback, but I played a lot defensively, and I thought I'd be drafted for a look on defense. I was stunned when no one took me, because a few of the clubs had talked to me and said they were interested. One of them was the Los Angeles Rams, and the scout said they would have to take me because the president of the Rams has the same name I have."
It was because the two had the same name that the Rams did not draft Reeves. Dan Reeves, the one who owns the Rams, explained two years after his namesake had sidled into the NFL unsung and almost unwanted why his club let him get away. "We thought we would be accused of a publicity stunt," Reeves said ruefully. "What I should have done was draft him and change my name."
As it was, no one drafted the football-playing Reeves. When the draft was over representatives of Dallas and the San Diego Chargers offered him contracts, and he chose the Cowboys.
"I wanted to try the National Football League first," Reeves said. "Then, if I didn't make it, I could always give it a shot with the other league. I wanted a warm-weather club, so I was glad Dallas offered me a job. I knew I wouldn't get a chance at quarterback, because the Cowboys had drafted Craig Morton and Jerry Rhome. They drafted four or five running backs, too, so it never occurred to me that I would get to run. I could have signed to play baseball with Pittsburgh, but I couldn't see playing every day. It's a kind of a rat race."
Reeves, a natural athlete who made the all-state basketball team in high school, was an exceptional baseball prospect. As a right fielder at South Carolina he was almost always coming up with the clutch play. It is just as well for the Cowboys that he did not heed the Pirates' summons. It was Reeves's amazing performance in 1966 that helped Dallas to its first division championship and almost to the league title. One of the main reasons why Dallas had not won consistently before was that the team lacked a halfback who could take some of the running load from the shoulders of Fullback Don Perkins.
At the end of the 1965 season, Reeves's career being what it had been, nobody expected that he would be the halfback Dallas was looking for. He had managed to stick with the Cowboys during his rookie year by making himself valuable to the kickoff and punt suicide squads, the special teams with such high casualty rates that they are populated almost exclusively by expendables.