Landry, who is 48, got an early introduction to winning as a high school fullback in Mission, the Rio Grande Valley city where his father worked as a mechanic in his own garage and is still the fire chief. In Landry's senior year his team outscored opponents by over 300 points. "I helped to recruit Tom for the University of Texas," says former Texas Coach D. X. Bible, who is retired and lives on a farm outside of Austin. "He was a fine player, a leader, modest and quiet. He had a lot of influence without being loud or blustery. I used to tell the boys that if they would pay the premiums they would get the dividends. Tom paid and still is."
In the spring of his freshman year at Texas, Landry joined the Air Corps. At 19 he got his wings and became the copilot of a B-17. Stationed in England, Landry flew 30 missions for the Eighth Air Force. He crashed once, in Belgium, after running out of gas on a long flight back from a bombing run over Czechoslovakia. "We came down between two trees that sheared our wings off," said Landry, "but we had no gas so the plane didn't burn and we all walked out of it. A lot of planes were lost that night."
Out of the service, Landry returned to the University of Texas and played both fullback and defensive back on teams that won the 1948 Sugar Bowl and the 1949 Orange Bowl. Ed Price, now assistant dean of students at Texas, was line coach when Landry was a player. "There were some fairly rowdy boys in school then," Price says, "but Tom was very mature and dependable. He was no kid coming to the big city. He'd been in a war, he was older, he acted his age. I guess it's surprising to find a man of his character and religious intent in the rough, tough game of pro football, but I don't think he's changed much now from what he was then. He was quiet and poised, reliable—all the good American terminology.
"As a player," says Price, "Tom didn't break away. He wasn't flashy, but he was solid, could get the tough yardage. One thing I'll never forget, and I'm sure he won't, was in the 1947 season when we played SMU. We had Bobby Layne and they had Doak Walker. Both teams were undefeated, and the game was to see who would be No. 1 in the conference. In the fourth quarter we had a big drive going, and we decided to give the ball to Tom on fourth and one. He slipped in a mud puddle and fell down. SMU beat us by one point."
Layne was the Texas quarterback when Landry returned from service, and some of the escapades in the athletic dormitory were legendary. "I guess you'd have to say our pranks were outstanding," says his friend Andrews. "Tom's not a prude. He didn't, frown on us or criticize us, and he seemed to enjoy some of the stuff we did, but he didn't participate. Landry wouldn't let you upset him, and he wouldn't upset you."
Landry had one of his best days as a player in the '49 Orange Bowl, where Texas beat Georgia 41-28, and was signed by the old New York Yankees of the All-America Conference. Along the way he had become intramural light-heavyweight boxing champion and had married Alicia Wiggs of Dallas, a University of Texas beauty and a Bluebonnet Belle nominee. The NFL and the AAC merged on Dec. 9, 1949, and Landry became a New York Giant. He played both offense and defense and once was called upon to quarterback the Giants in a game they lost 63-7. But it was as an All-Pro defensive back, as a player-coach and as defensive coach of the Giants that Landry made the reputation that got him the Dallas job.
"I was playing defense with Tom in 1952 and 1953," says Frank Gifford, the ex-Giant halfback who is now an ABC-TV sports announcer. "It was hit or miss. You had an area to watch or a man to guard. But Tom put the same kind of discipline into defense that the offense had. Tom created pro defense as it is played today. I don't know who takes credit for the 4-3 defense, but Tom exploited it. Few people outside pro football realize what a great coach he is. Most coaches should be worshipping at his feet.
"We used to have a slogan on our blackboard that said WHOTIF and underneath THERE IS NO WHOTIF. That's because Tom would be talking to the defense, and he'd tell them something an offensive back would do in a certain situation, and somebody would say, 'What if he doesn't?' and Tom would say, 'He will.' Sometimes Tom was wrong, but not often. His defensive rules are rigid, even for the tackles. I intercepted a pass one day and I suppose I was way out of position when I did it. Later Tom pointed out that I was in the wrong place. He believes in what he says. He's real. It shocks the hell out of people when they can't find anything neurotic or complex about him as a person, but I think he's exactly what you see that he is."
Glenn Davis, the famed Army All-America and later a halfback for the Los Angeles Rams, tells a story about playing against Landry. Davis got 10 yards behind him, caught a pass and was 12 yards ahead of Landry at the goal line but he heard footsteps still coming. "I knew he was going to punish me for what I'd done to him," says Davis, "and he really racked me in the end zone. I said, 'If you want the ball so bad, you can have it,' and I threw it at his head and ran for the bench."
The extreme competitiveness of Landry, mixed with a frustrating lack of speed, led him to analyze the teams he faced so he could be in the right place without having to outrun anybody to get there. "When I came to the Giants as a defensive back, Tom would tell me what the offense was going to do on every play, and I would think there was no way he could know that," says Dick Nolan, a former Landry assistant who is now head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. "But finally I accepted it and trusted him, and he was nearly always right."