"I never played on special teams in college," says Reeves. He has a strong, almost dour face and, although he is an articulate man, he hesitates before he speaks, considering what he will say. "But I enjoyed it with this club. We had a lot of spirit on the special teams. And I would have been very happy no matter what I did. For a long time I was afraid I was going to be cut."
A preseason game last year with the Minnesota Vikings did nothing to alleviate Reeves's fears. "I'd been playing defensive back, flanker and running back," he recalls, "but I didn't figure I was burning up the course. They told me I'd play the second and fourth quarters against the Vikings as a running back. I got the feeling I better have a pretty good second and fourth quarter or I'd be on my way."
That game hardly provided the most auspicious climate for the blossoming of a rookie. Norman Van Brocklin, the irascible coach of the Vikings, was intent on proving to the pro football world that his expansion team was better than Dallas's, and he kept his first team in action all afternoon. The final score was 57-17, Minnesota. Tom Landry, the unemotional coach of the Cowboys, concentrated instead on his young players, trying to evaluate them as future pros.
"Nobody looks very good in a game like that," Reeves said. "I know I didn't. I played the second, third and fourth quarters, but I didn't do much until just before the game ended. Then I caught a pass and went 67 yards for a touchdown, and I guess that play is why I'm in the league now."
Ermal Allen, the competent backfield coach of the Cowboys, says now that the Cowboys were really not about to cut Reeves, no matter what he thought. "He always had the ability to make the big play," Allen said. "We saw that in the rookie scrimmages we had with the Rams. Because of injuries to our backs, Danny had to play a lot at halfback on offense, although we hadn't really thought much of him as a running back until then. He broke loose for a long run for a touchdown and finished the run limping when he pulled a hamstring. But he showed us a lot on offense. We knew he would be good. We didn't know how good."
The Cowboys only began to find out how good Reeves could be early in the 1966 season after Landry, desperate for an outside threat, shifted All-Pro Safety Mel Renfro to offense. Renfro, a broad jumper and a 9.6 sprinter as well as an elusive back, was hurt in the opening game against the New York Giants, and Reeves was thrown into the breach as a stopgap halfback.
He turned out, much to his own and everybody else's surprise, to be much more than that. The Cowboys walloped New York—no great feat in view of the horrendous record the Giants managed over the rest of the season—but Reeves scored three touchdowns on passes of one, two and 19 yards from Don Meredith, caught six passes in all for 120 yards and carried the ball six times for 38 yards. By the time the sun had set in Dallas he was a legitimate offensive star, and Renfro, still languishing on the bench, was headed back to defense, although the Cowboy coaches were still not sure of that.
They were quite positive after the next game against the Vikings, the club that had provided Reeves with the opportunity to make the Cowboys in the first place. Dallas won 28-17 with Reeves carrying the ball 13 times for 81 yards and a touchdown. Reeves wound up the season not only leading the team in rushing but finishing second in pass receiving and scoring and completing three of the six option passes he tried for a total gain of 48 yards. He was picked on one All-Pro team at the end of the year.
"I would be a liar if I said I wasn't surprised by the season I had," he said the other day. "It was like a dream to me. I was lucky to stick as a rookie. How could I expect to have a year like that?"
It is almost an understatement to say that he should not have. Reeves does not have the speed, moves, size or quick starting ability of most good pro running backs. All he has is a remarkable ability to do things he has no right to do.