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THE GREAT WHITE HOPE
Bruce Newman
August 18, 1980
Roger Staubach having retired, the Dallas Cowboys dream of beginning a bright new era of Super Bowls with Danny White at the helm
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August 18, 1980

The Great White Hope

Roger Staubach having retired, the Dallas Cowboys dream of beginning a bright new era of Super Bowls with Danny White at the helm

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From the moment the ball was snapped and the Dallas receivers headed downfield, Roger Staubach could see that the Green Bay defense had reacted so quickly that the pass wouldn't be easy to complete. Wide Receiver Tony Hill, a hummingbird with hands, was being shadowed by Cornerback Mike McCoy along the left sideline, and when Hill broke toward midfield, Free Safety Howard Sampson began closing on him. Any pass to Hill would have to be gunned between Sampson and McCoy on an absolutely flat trajectory from 25 yards down-range. It was a pass Staubach had thrown in dozens of critical situations during his 11 seasons as the Cowboys' quarterback, usually for big yardage, and he could see that it was the only pass that would keep Dallas' third-period drive from sputtering to a halt. From the broadcast booth in Texas Stadium last Saturday night, Staubach could see all these things, but there was nothing he could do about them. So, like everyone else in the crowd of nearly 55,000, Staubach watched anxiously as Danny White cocked his arm. What White did was fire a perfect strike to Hill for a gain of 19 yards and a first down.

The pass to Hill was neither the first White completed Saturday evening nor the longest, but it went a long way toward dispelling any doubts Dallas fans might have had about White's arm and his tenacity. Staubach, who retired last March, had proved the worth of his arm by becoming the NFL's alltime passing leader, and he had proved there was more to the job than just hitting receivers by bringing the Cowboys from behind to win 23 games in the fourth quarter, 14 of those in the final two minutes. When Staubach hung it up at the age of 38, the Cowboys were left with a large gap to fill, and one Great White Hope to fill it.

White answered a lot of questions, and probably a few prayers, in his first appearance as Staubach's successor. In just a little over two quarters of playing time in the preseason opener against the Packers, he completed seven of 13 passes for 99 yards and guided Dallas to its first two scores in a 17-14 victory. Twice when White was forced to scramble out of the pocket, he turned potential losses into big plays, running for 11 yards the first time and throwing a 24-yard pass to Tight End Jay Saldi in the third period to set up the Cowboys' first touchdown.

White's debut as No. 1 quarterback—he has been the Cowboys' No. 1 punter for the last four seasons—had been awaited in Dallas with a mixture of eagerness and dread, but most of the misgivings were soon forgotten. "To say that we have as much confidence in Danny as we did in Roger, after all the things he did for this team, would be ridiculous at this point," said Wide Receiver Drew Pearson, "but we've worked with Danny for four years, and we all know what he can do."

Earlier in the week at the club's training camp in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Cowboy President Tex Schramm had grandiosely billed Saturday's game as "the start of the Danny White Decade." As the principal architect of the strong Dallas teams of the past 15 years, Schramm knew the Cowboys faced a difficult period of transition. "One of the reasons for our great success in the '70s," said Schramm, "was the tremendous confidence everybody in the organization had that no matter what happened, in the end Roger would somehow find a way to win the game. When a player who has been such an integral part of your team leaves, the personality of the team can never again be quite the same. That's not to say it can't be as successful, just not the same. So the Cowboys of the '80s will adapt to Danny White."

Nobody expected that to happen right away, least of all White himself. There was still the memory of four frustrating years in Staubach's shadow to erase, so for White, the Packer game was important primarily because it was his first opportunity to be seen in public without his commas on. During his understudy days the annoying little punctuation marks had followed White's name like midget footmen. At official functions he was Danny White comma the Cowboys' backup quarterback comma. At dinner parties he was Danny White comma the heir apparent to Roger Staubach comma. And when the TV cameras panned the sidelines, he was Danny White comma who could probably be starting for most teams in the NFL comma. "I heard that last one all the time," White says, "and it slowly drove me crazy. I would hear people say I could be starting somewhere else, and that would remind me how frustrated I was. It got so bad that when people introduced me as Danny White, backup quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, I felt like strangling them."

Though it is widely known only in Memphis, White, in fact, did begin his professional career as a starter. The Cowboys selected White, who played for Arizona State, in the third round of the '74 college draft, but when the Memphis Southmen of the World Football League offered him a contract worth twice what Dallas would pay, White signed. He played for them a season and a half, completing 183 of 350 passes for 2,635 yards and 21 touchdowns. He also led the league in punting one season, and he might very well have stayed in Memphis had the WFL not folded at the midpoint of his second season. Even in Memphis, though, he spent part of his time as a backup—to John Huarte, who had won the Heisman Trophy in 1964, thus preventing a Naval Academy cadet named Roger Staubach from winning it two years in a row.

White's career with the Cowboys got off to a promising start in 1976, then went steadily downhill. When Staubach injured his passing hand and had to be taken out of a game with Chicago during White's first season in Dallas, the rookie came in and threw two touchdown passes for a 31-21 Cowboy victory. That put Dallas in first place in the NFC East with a 6-1 record, and with Staubach still nursing the hand before a game against the pathetic New York Giants, White assumed that Dallas Coach Tom Landry would call on him to start. It wasn't until the Cowboys were lined up to be introduced that Danny saw Staubach and realized that he, White, would be spending the afternoon on the bench. "It was a real blow to me," he says, "because I felt the coach didn't have any confidence in me at all. If the Cowboys believed that Roger was better injured than I was healthy, then I began to think that maybe I belonged somewhere else."

Nothing that happened to White as a rookie could have prepared him for his second season in Dallas. That year White threw only 10 passes, completing four, and on the strength of that heroic performance—with a little help from Staubach—the Cowboys went to the Super Bowl and defeated Denver 27-10.

In 1978, with Staubach resting for the playoffs, White started Dallas' final game of the regular season in New York against the Jets, and hit 15 of 24 passes to lead Dallas to a 30-7 win. Two weeks later White got still another opportunity when Staubach was knocked unconscious near the end of the first half of the divisional playoff game against Atlanta. The Cowboys trailed 20-13 when Staubach was helped off the field, but in the second half White calmly orchestrated two touchdown drives and the Cowboys pulled out a 27-20 win. Dallas went to the Super Bowl again but lost to Pittsburgh 35-31. White was on the bench, so don't blame him.

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