|The man beneath the hat|
By Pat Toomay
Special to Page 2
Editor's Note: Former NFL defensive end Pat Toomay played in the league for 10 years (1970-79) with the Cowboys, Bills, Bucs and Raiders. On the second anniversary of Tom Landry's death, Toomay reflects on his experiences with Dallas' legendary head coach.
Of course I'd heard the news of Coach Landry's passing. I'd read the obituary in Sunday's New York Times, but until now it hadn't occurred to me to attend services. I had too many mixed feelings about the man. While part of me respected his analytical mind, and the myriad innovations he brought to the game, another part loathed the emotional distance he insisted on maintaining in a game whose essence was emotion. Other mind-numbing contradictions included his willingness to lend his born-again Christian piety to an organization whose aims were anything but Christian or pious. "I don't worry about things I can't control" was how he handled such incongruities, but that rationale, for many of us, was scotch tape on a stress fracture.
But now, in this admittedly generic invitation, I sensed a desire to present a unified outpouring of love and respect for a towering figure by those who knew him well. I wondered if it might also provide an opportunity to explore the wounds and, with luck, to heal them. Maybe now there was a chance to see the man whole.
I replayed the message. "The viewing and burial will take place at the Sparkman-Hillcrest Funeral Home …"
"Viewing?" I played the message again. Viewing, yes. But did that mean an open casket?
I tried to imagine it, but couldn't. However, the effort produced other images. Training camp, Cal Lutheran College, Thousand Oaks, Calif. The Presence. Always in gray coaching shorts, wearing a crisp, white Cowboy T-shirt. Square-jawed handsome. Deeply tanned. Cap pulled tight. Whistle dangling. The "hitch in his giddalong," as Walt Garrison characterized the limp. Was it a war wound or just a crumbling joint? Despite the gimp, he was in tremendous shape. Better than many of us. Strong legs and arms. Thick hands, like a carpenter's. Too stout to have played cornerback, I always thought. At 6-foot-2, he was built more like a linebacker. Yet he did play cornerback, for six years, in the early '50s, with the New York Giants, before taking the job as that team's defensive coordinator, alongside offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi. A more formidable coaching staff would be difficult to imagine.
But having arrived, you could let him down. If you did, shame was the expected response. If you were having difficulty feeling shame, he would help you feel it by hanging you out in front of the team.
Usually, it happened during game films. Often the criticism was justified, but at those times when it wasn't, other things could be revealed.
I remembered running him down once, after a film session following a game with the St. Louis Cardinals. During practice that week, the defensive ends had been instructed to charge inside on goal-line defense, to keep the Cardinals guards off Lee Roy Jordan, our undersized middle linebacker. During the game, Larry Cole and I did what we had been instructed to do, but the Cardinals changed tactics, slipping the tackles instead of the guards. Jordan got nailed on nearly every goal-line play.
The films were unbearable. "Look at this," Coach Landry said, rerunning yet another Cardinals' touchdown. "We worked all week on this. Yet you guys -- what were you doing? What were you thinking?"
On and on it went. Coach Landry was furious with us, yet mistaken in his assignment of blame. I glanced at Ernie Stautner, the defensive line coach, to see if he would set things right. Ernie was asleep in his chair. I looked around for Cole, who also might have helped. But Larry was slumped against the wall, his eyes rolling back in his head, as he struggled to absorb the thrashing.
After the meeting, I dug up the game plan and caught Coach Landry under the weight shed in back of the field house. I showed him the game plan, explained that Cole and I had only done what we had been told to do, that embarrassing us in front of everybody was not only unnecessary but unfair.
He smiled. "You worry too much," he said. "If you didn't worry so much, you'd be a better player."
I stared at him. Older players often grumbled about his utter inability to admit a mistake. Never, in their recollection, had he admitted to a poor call, or to being outcoached, or to being ill-prepared. At the time, I was aware I was witnessing the expression of an unswerving force whose sole concern was to remain beyond reproach. But now I wondered if he wasn't right. Maybe I did worry too much. Not only about football but about life. Especially about pleasing people like him. Maybe I'd be a better person if I let it go.
After playing the message again, I booked a flight and room, then phoned my son in Dallas. One of the benefits of the trip would be a chance to spend time with him. He was busy with medical school there. I hadn't seen him in months.
When I got him on the phone, I explained what was happening. "One thing surprised me," I said. "I mean, apparently, there's going to be an open casket."
My son sighed. Then he warned me about the ravages of acute myelogenous leukemia, the disease that had claimed Coach Landry's life.
Oh, man, I thought.
We talked for a while longer, trying to figure out when to meet. Then I tried to get some sleep before rousting myself for an early flight. In Dallas, I rented a car, checked into the Radisson Hotel. My phone was ringing as I walked into the room. It was Bob Hayes, who was in the hotel, but without transportation. I told him I'd meet him out front at 3:30.
"I can ride with you, Pat?"
"Absolutely," I said.
Unpacking, I showered, hoping the rumors I'd heard about Bob weren't true. Reportedly, he was in poor health with no money and few prospects, living in Florida with his elderly mother. No. Not Bobby, I thought. Not the Olympic gold medalist known as "Bullet," whose blistering speed had revolutionized pro football -- not "The World's Fastest Human." Toweling off, I changed into a suit.
Downstairs, the lobby was full of former players who'd come from out of town. Every point of the compass was represented. Eddie LeBaron, the club's first quarterback, had traveled from California. Running back Claxton Welsh had made it in from Oregon. Tackle Rayfield Wright and guard Jim Arneson from Arizona. Cornerback Mark Washington from Virginia. And there, from Florida, was Bobby Hayes.
At the funeral home, in the reception area, more players had gathered, along with former physicians, trainers, staff, coaches, everyone talking quietly as they waited to speak with Alicia Landry, Tom's widow. Beautiful, as always, but looking frail from her ordeal, Alicia graciously greeted each of us, accepted our condolences.
In the chapel itself, other mourners had assembled, each face evoking a universe of memories. Mike Ditka. Danny and Pam Reeves. Roger and Marianne Staubach. Jerry Tubbs. Gene Stallings. Gil Brandt. Tex Schramm.
Brandt and Schramm. Seeing them again made my head swim. Under the hands-off management of owner Clint Murchison, Schramm, along with Landry and personnel director Brandt, ran the club for almost 30 years. "A perfect match" was how Schramm characterized his relationship with Landry. But I often wondered how Landry would characterize his relationship with Schramm. I often wondered if he was aware of the extent to which his pious image was exploited by the money men behind him.
I ran into it on the day I was drafted. At the time, agents were new on the scene, and I was unsure whether to hire one to negotiate my contract. For advice, I went to my college linebacker coach, the one coach on the staff whom I'd come to trust. When I asked him what he thought, he told me, no, I didn't need an agent. "The Cowboys are good people," he said. "Tom Landry is a fine, principled man. A man of God. The Cowboys'll treat you right."
Good, I thought. That settles that. But then, as I was about to leave, my coach said, "By the way, when you see Gil Brandt, ask him where that new suit he promised me is. I was supposed to get it last week."
Ignoring the implications of the suit deal, and of the Cowboys paraphernalia plastered all over my college trainer's office, I trusted the reputation and integrity of my new coach and negotiated the contract without the services of an agent. Several years later, when the NFLPA published a salary survey, I realized the magnitude of my error. A starter by then, I discovered I was making less than backup pay.
"I love you guys," Tex said, swallowing hard as he stood shuffling in front of us. "Love, isn't that the right word? Hell, you're my product."
Instantly, I fogged over. I'm his product? I thought I was one of those noble gladiators you see in the mythic NFL Films productions. The slow-motion, driving athlete, with the determined look on his face, striving against all odds to achieve whatever it is he might be trying to achieve, with the heroic orchestra music blasting in the background, and with the deep-voiced narrator describing his exploits. That's what I was raised to believe playing ball growing up. It was on television every week. Yet here was my boss, really, and not only my boss but one of the most powerful men in the league, and what he was telling me must be a higher truth -- I was his product. But how could I be both of these things at the same time? How could I be a noble man engaged in what appeared to be a noble endeavor, and at the same time be somebody's product?
Against the disorienting swirl of this dichotomy, I sought refuge in Coach Landry's conception of a "Pro." It was a natural thing to do. The highest compliment Coach Landry could pay a player was to say he was a "Pro."
We all knew what he meant. A pro conducted himself in a certain way. He was businesslike in his approach to the game. He was relentless in his determination to play well. He was reliable and steadfast.
But these qualities, as admirable as they are, were not sufficient to make a pro. There was one other thing a pro had to do to truly be a pro -- and this, in Coach Landry's view, was the quintessential characteristic. A pro had to play when he was hurt. It was part of his being steadfast. He had to be able to distinguish the difference between pain and injury. Coach Landry said this all the time. A big sign in the locker room was plastered with those words. On the surface, the ideal appeared to be about sacrificing for the good of the team. But then a lawsuit revealed that the club routinely failed to inform players of the nature of their injuries, in order to keep them on the field for as long as possible. In this way new players would not have to be hired to replace the injured. Suddenly I understood that the ideal I was trying to serve was in fact a ploy, and I lost faith in the organization. Again the question hounded me -- what did Coach Landry know?
"I don't worry about things I can't control." This was Coach Landry's mantra, too often uttered. Were the activities of Schramm and Brandt among those uncontrollable things? What of the notorious affairs of our libidinous owner, multimillionaire Clint Murchison?
"It was hard for me to get used to all the 'Bob and Carol and Ted and Dallas' within Tom Landry's organization. One secretary was known for her parking garage liaisons with a high-ranking team official. Another secretary was juggling affairs with a scout, a running back and a safety. Two married staffers had affairs with training camp secretaries. On and on it went."
Bayless was told by a colleague who'd covered the team for 12 years, "The Cowboys had the most incestuous front office in the NFL."
For the most part, players were ignorant of these shenanigans, but it was impossible to ignore the dissonant vibe on charter flights. Habitually, Tom and Alicia Landry, both devout Christians, sat in first class, directly behind the owner and his wife. But the owner's wife had previously been married to the personnel director, Brandt. Where she sat during that marriage I couldn't recall. But I did know that that marriage was suspected of being a sham.
Bayless probed the relationship in his book. What caught his attention was a curious coincidence that later became an issue when the club was sold. "As Mrs. Gil Brandt became Mrs. Clint Murchison in 1975," he reported, "Murchison promised Brandt lifetime security as the Cowboys' personnel director." Insiders had it that the young woman, before marrying Brandt, had been one of Murchison's many mistresses and that she'd continued to see him during the marriage. Did Brandt know what was going on? "Gil was always very eager to please Clint," Bayless was told by a Murchison associate.
Whatever the reality of these entanglements, the tension in the first-class cabin was more than palpable, as players made their way back to their own seats in the rear of the plane. Landry, in the midst of it all, would lose himself in the novels of Louis L'Amour. While some saw Landry's unwavering routine as an example of towering dignity, others saw it as merely a way of coping with the compromises he'd made to pursue his career. But that was then. Did any of it matter now?
Turning from Schramm, my eyes were drawn to the front of the chapel, where a casket was positioned on a platform perpendicular to the center aisle. Draped with an American flag, the lid panel was closed but the bridge was open revealing a profile white as bone. To the casket's left a table held a vase of flowers and one of Coach Landry's trademark fedoras. A portrait of Coach Landry flanked the table. A lectern flanked the portrait.
Faltering, I stepped into a pew, sat down, got up. I wasn't sure what to do with myself. Two rows in front of me, Mike Ditka was talking to several women, his back to the casket. When he looked at me, I stepped over, shook his hand. His recent firing as New Orleans head coach must have been foremost in his mind, because without prompting he blurted out, "It just wasn't fun anymore."
I nodded. As Mike moved off, I found myself in the aisle, edging closer to the coffin. Then I was there. My son was right. So shrunken was the man in front of me that it was impossible to reconcile his present state with the vital images that lived in my head. The disease had left him a pale, shriveled husk. His once powerful hands were tiny, desiccated, as they lay at his side.
An image popped into my mind. It was of Lisa Landry, Tom's daughter. I was staring at Tom but thinking of Lisa. Her death and his, I realized, were inextricably linked.
Lisa, I thought. She was barely a teenager when I met her. Dark hair, blue eyes. An accomplished young horsewoman in need of a better horse. Coach Landry had asked Walt Garrison to help her find one and that was our mission when we picked her up that morning in front of her house.
"What's in the cooler?" Lisa asked, giggling, her blue eyes flashing, as she clambered into Walt's pickup. A stunning young woman, she gestured at the cooler nestled in a blanket beneath the camper behind the cab.
"Beer left over from the rodeo," Walt said. "Ol' Bill and I just come back."
Ol' Bill was Bill Robinson, Walt's sidekick. Together they traveled the rodeo circuit every offseason.
"I'm gonna grab one," Lisa said. She slid back the rear window, started squeezing herself through the crawl space.
Walt shook his head. "Preacher's daughters are always the wildest," he cracked. Then he grabbed Lisa by the seat of her pants, jerked her back. "Not while I'm workin' for your daddy you won't!" he yelped.
That was the last time I saw Lisa. But over the years news of her drifted back. Wild into her 20s, she settled down when she met and married golf pro Gary Childress. They wanted a family but had difficulty getting pregnant. Finally, after five years of trying, they were thrilled to succeed. But then a routine sonograph revealed tumors in Lisa's liver. Mysterious lumps had appeared on Lisa's legs. The diagnosis was a rare form of liver cancer. The doctors wanted to terminate the pregnancy and start chemo. But even under that scenario Lisa's chances of survival were only 10 percent. Delaying treatment, Lisa carried the child.
Christina, a baby girl, was born in August 1991, happy and healthy. But now Lisa herself was in danger. It was too late for chemo. Her only option was a liver transplant. Ten days after delivering Christina, she was wheeled into surgery. The operation was deemed a success.
Three cancer-free years followed. Lisa cared for her family and spoke often and eloquently about the importance of organ donation. But then a recurrence was discovered in a routine follow-up. She died of complications in 1995.
Lisa's ordeal was incomprehensible. Standing in front of her father, but thinking of her, I felt it was enough to sink any parent. I knew it would sink me.
Back in my seat, as the room quieted and a minister stepped to the lectern, I thought of Robert Landry, Tom's older brother, whose death in 1943 was the other personal tragedy that had marked Tom's life. Four years older than Tom, Robert was ferrying a B-17 to England when his plane inexplicably exploded near Iceland. Tom was devastated by the news. Only a college freshman, he left school and enlisted. Like his brother, he applied for pilot's training. Thirty combat missions later, after escaping unscathed from a harrowing crash, Tom returned to Texas with a confidence in himself he'd never known before.
Thinking of Robert, I could feel his loss lurking under the labyrinthine defensive schemes Landry, as coach, later devised. Although I knew Landry himself attributed their genesis to a humiliating performance in a game against the Cleveland Browns, I also felt they were far too complex to be merely the result of wounded pride.
In fact, it was their extraordinary complexity that made them revolutionary. While defenses of the day could best be described as "Tackle the man with the ball," Landry's schemes required recognition of offensive patterns, internalization of the probable outcomes of those patterns, and a corresponding reaction. Locating the football only came after following the branches of his logic tree -- a counterintuitive approach that could take years to master.
As a player, I considered the project Landry's narcissistic exercise, bent on fashioning an image of himself to be absorbed and reflected. But now I realized that it could also be seen as a profoundly human response, not merely to wounded pride, but to the deeper wound inflicted by the sudden, incomprehensible loss of a beloved brother. To transcend that mystery. To attain certainty in a confusing world and win. These were the driving forces of Tom Landry's personality, from the beginning of his career to the end.
There was a cost. Driven, he had little time for anything other than his game plans, his theoretical defensive schemes, and their human implementation. His shut-out-the-world focus could give the impression of unapproachable arrogance. "The Look," as it was called, could make those who erred feel like a guilty dog. Like "a sheep-killing dog," as a longtime assistant accurately put it. Many players, having been fixed, never forgot. A handful of others found a place in his heart.
While Tom appreciated talent, the players he truly loved were those most like himself: gritty performers who lacked great physical gifts but who, with guile and intelligence, and with an unshakeable faith in the efficacy of his systems, transcended their limitations to scale the heights of their profession. They were all here, of course. Charlie Waters, a quarterback turned All-Pro defensive back like Tom. Cliff Harris, a free-agent safety from nowhere who also ascended to All-Pro. Drew Pearson, who excelled at making the miraculous catch. Roger Staubach. Walt Garrison. Danny Reeves …
They were all here, listening intently, as the minister concluded his remarks, watching now, as he stepped from the lectern. After a moment, Tom Landry Jr. appeared. A middle-aged version of his dad, Tom Jr. moved to the table, picked up his father's fedora. Placing the hat on his father's chest, he patted his father's hand. Resigned, yet smiling a little, he closed the coffin. Amidst sniffles and quiet sobs, someone from the mortuary sealed the lid.