Tom Landry and Charles Schulz died on the same day: Feb. 12, 2000. Mike Thompson, the Detroit Free Press cartoonist honored them both with a cartoon showing them entering the pearly gates together. Schulz was depicted as Charlie Brown and Landry had his arm around him. Landry said, “Now a few pointers on kicking a football…”
For Coach Landry, at least, I can’t imagine a finer eulogy.
I mourned Landry’s passing, of course, along with millions of other Landry fans. A day that was almost as tough, though, was the day Landry was fired, in 1989. That day, too, hit me like a death in the family. Landry had been our coach since many of us were children. And when he was fired, we were 40. He had been our father on the field. He raised us within the game, teaching us to be gracious in victory and dignified in defeat. And with one stroke of Jerry Jones’ pen, he was gone. Devastating.
Landry was known as the man in the hat. He was the stoic leader on the Dallas Cowboys sidelines, always impeccably dressed and sporting his fedora. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said, “If there were a Mount Rushmore for the NFL, the profile of Tom Landry would have to be there, wearing his trademark hat.”
While coaching, Landry was so focused he rarely smiled. He was often called “unemotional.” But I can think of words that would be more fitting: a man of character, honor, integrity, and faith. He was pure class, on and off the field. He was ethos personified.
In his 29 years as Dallas’ head coach, Landry led the Cowboys to more playoff seasons, by far, than they have had since. And here is another statistic hard to fathom: the Cowboys still have not played as many games without Landry as they played with him.
Under Landry, the Cowboys won 13 Divisional titles and played in five Super Bowls, winning two. They enjoyed 20 consecutive winning seasons, a record no NFL coach has ever come close to matching.
As glorious as those years were, none equalled Landry’s finest season in football. He played for the New York Giants professionally, and was all-pro one year, but that was not his finest season, either. He played football on scholarship for the University of Texas, but after only one semester, his career there was put on hold by World War II. He volunteered to join the Army Air Corps and flew 30 missions over Germany, crash landing once in Belgium. Though the wings were shaved off, he and all his men walked away without serious injury. Not bad for a 20-year-old.
One could consider his WWII service, in a Churchillian sense, his finest season, but as we are talking football, we have to go back further.
To get to his best season ever, we have to go all the way back to his high school years in Mission, Texas, way down in the Rio Grande Valley.
It was Landry’s senior year, 1941. He played both sides of the ball. He played quarterback and defensive back. Landry led the Mission Eagles to a perfect 12-0 season. They went all the way to the regional championship, which was as far as they could go that year (there was no state championship in those days).
The Mission Eagles won every game they played, holding every team scoreless, except for one. In 12 games they gave up only one score. Donna High School managed to squeeze out one touchdown against them.
Many years later, in his autobiography, Landry wrote, “That autumn of glory, shared with my boyhood friends… remains perhaps my most meaningful season in my fifty years of football. The game was never more fun, the victories never sweeter, the achievement never more satisfying.”
Landry’s near flawless season, and his impressive professional life thereafter, was honored in 1975 when the Mission School District named their football stadium the Tom Landry Stadium. And when he died in 2000, I-30 between Dallas and Fort Worth was named the Tom Landry Highway.
To me, one of the trivial truths about Landry that speaks to his greatness, is that his Cowboys never gave him a Gatorade bath, never dumped the ice bucket down his back.
After his coaching days were over, he developed a sterling reputation as an inspirational speaker. He always advised young players to keep their lives ordered in this simple way: faith, family, and football. He was also fond of saying, ¨As of today, you have 100 percent of your life left.¨
He took his own words to heart. After he was fired, while the rest of us were using our energy being mad about the disrespectful way our icon was sacked, Landry was already moving on with his life.
He didn’t waste time being angry or bitter. With characteristic optimism, he saw the silver lining. He said, “As a boy growing up in Mission, Texas, I always dreamed of being a cowboy. For 29 wonderful years, I was one.”
W.F. Strong is a Fulbright Scholar and professor of Culture and Communication at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. At Public Radio 88 FM in Harlingen, Texas, he’s the resident expert on Texas literature, Texas legends, Blue Bell ice cream, Whataburger (with cheese) and mesquite smoked brisket.