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Monday, November 5, 2012
Updated: November 9, 10:17 AM ET
From military veteran to NFL star

By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com

He was a 10th-round draft choice. That's the first thing. It speaks to the reality -- laughable in retrospect, fair at the time -- that future Hall of Famer Roger Staubach was considered a genuine risk for any NFL front office. Staubach was a roll of the dice.

And no, there were no positional concerns. This wasn't an Eric Crouch kind of a thing, or people wondering whether Andre Ware's game could translate one level up. Staubach was a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback for Navy, and no one was suggesting he would have trouble playing QB in Tha League. By consensus, really, it was strictly a question of good versus great.

Roger Staubach
Roger Staubach was MVP of Super Bowl VI.

So why did Staubach fall and fall, to the point that he was still on the big board by the time of the 1964 draft's 10th round? And why, even then, were the Dallas Cowboys questioned over the choice after they made it?

Well, Roger Staubach had a professional handicap. And it was immovable.

He was military.

This was a practical issue, not a personal one, and it doesn't matter how silly it sounds now. Staubach, at the time, still owed the Navy five years; it was the deal he made when he accepted his appointment to the Naval Academy -- the deal all Annapolis attendees made. Not only would he serve; he was a fair shot to pull a tour of duty. It was the 1960s, and it was real life.

And thus, the Dallas Cowboys were very possibly just burning their 10th-round pick on this guy with the elite college record and the pro handicap. By the time Staubach was scheduled to return from the Navy, he would be a 27-year-old rookie. The NFL wasn't exactly teeming with such.

In the end, coach Tom Landry and president/GM Tex Schramm forged ahead with their best guess. They signed Staubach to what amounted to a "futures" contract -- as the story has it, Schramm wrote the details on a legal pad during a meeting with Staubach at a hotel -- the gist of which was that he would work out with the Cowboys during his leaves from the Navy, and when Staubach resigned his commission in 1969, Dallas would be his team.

Best futures contract in NFL history featuring notes and doodles hand-scrawled by a team executive? I am inclined to say probably so.

If you're of a certain age, Roger Staubach is front and center in some of the greatest memories of a golden era of Cowboys football, years in which the marketing slogan "America's Team" felt like it actually might apply. Some of us grew up thinking that every Dallas team was this good, because when Roger played, the Cowboys pretty much always were.

Landry raved about him, even as the two butted heads over Staubach's propensity to scramble out of the pocket. The great Sid Luckman said of him, "You knew someone special was on the field." It was just so obvious. You felt like Dallas had an advantage in every game, because the Cowboys had Staubach and the other team didn't.

Even so, Staubach waited. You talk about patience by a young quarterback in the NFL? Try this: Staubach served five years, finally cracked the league at 27, and then sat two more seasons behind Craig Morton. It wasn't until 1971 that Landry finally made the switch, and even then it was only after he tried a game in which he literally alternated Morton and Staubach on every play (result: almost 500 yards of offense but seven turnovers).

Staubach took over and led the Cowboys to 10 straight wins, and then to their first Super Bowl title. He was the QB of four NFC championship teams during the 1970s and made the Pro Bowl six times. He was almost routinely excellent.

He was a towering figure and unquestionably one of the all-time team leaders. Staubach earned the nickname "Captain Comeback" by engineering 23 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter, all but nine of them coming in the last two minutes or overtime. He seemed too good to ever fail.

And he was military. Staubach volunteered for that year he served in Vietnam. He ground out football workouts when he could during the other years, played ball on some of the service teams to try to stay sharp. He credited his time in the Navy with helping to mold him as a leader.

Here on the cusp of Veterans Day, it is worth wondering whether anyone like Staubach will come along again. David Robinson went from an abbreviated Navy stint to the NBA and on into the Hall of Fame, and the history of professional sports is replete with stories of great players -- Ted Williams, Bob Feller, on and on -- whose career primes were shortened by their service.

But Staubach had to wait to even begin, which may explain why, once he grabbed the reins with the Cowboys, he so seldom let go.

Roger Staubach
Roger Staubach, center, studies with fellow midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy in 1964.

He literally coined the term Hail Mary. Imagine that: Staubach created the term himself, just by answering a question honestly. It came after one of those storied comebacks, a 1975 playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings. With the clock winding down and his team trailing 14-10, Staubach scrambled around and finally heaved a 50-yard pass downfield, to where he thought Drew Pearson might be running.

Reporters wanted to know: What then?

"I just closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary," Staubach explained afterward, to laughter and recognition among the press corps. A Hail Mary. What could be more perfect? Pearson made a nice catch of Staubach's imperfect pass and finished the play, the Cowboys beat the Vikings 17-14, and football found itself suddenly in possession of yet another catchphrase.

By that time, of course, you couldn't throw a dump pass without hitting a war term that football had somehow co-opted. It has often been said that football in America was popularized as a peacetime substitute for war, and among the ground attacks, aerial assaults, bombs, field generals and blitzes, the NFL marketing wizards did a wonderful job of confusing its game with actual skirmishes. (Years later, "game" and "skirmish" came to mean about the same thing in football, proof that the plan had succeeded beyond anyone's imagination.)

But Roger Staubach, like so many others in sports over the decades, truly served. He knew the difference between a game and a skirmish. And maybe they won't make 'em like that anymore.