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The life of Landry

A new book explores the life of the famous Cowboys coach.

Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry is shown in 1979. (AP Photo)
Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry is shown in 1979. (AP Photo)Read more

TOM LANDRY wore a hat on the sideline. Nothing like the houndstooth-check sporty lid Bear Bryant wore. This was a genuinely serious Sunday-go-to-church fedora.

The Dallas players, black, white, indifferent, wondered about the cat in the hat. That's because Landry hid his feelings so deep inside his chest, it seemed as if he didn't have any feelings at all. Stone-faced under that fedora. Tossed compliments around like anvils. Motivated by fear.

Duane Thomas, who was two kumquats shy of a fruitcake, called him "plastic man." Which is the problem with the beefy new biography of Landry written by Mark Ribowsky. It is 632 pages thick and it relies mainly on the testimony of Landry's widow, his son, a handful of sportswriters, dozens of former players, each with a sharp axe to grind. Some tarnish the image, some polish it.

The book is called The Last Cowboy and the subtitle is A Life of Tom Landry. A life? Why not The life? How many lives did the guy have? What do we learn about Landry we didn't know before, and what do we learn about the world around him when he was coaching "America's Team" for 29 years?

We learn that Landry didn't like that nickname at first, thought it gave the opposition added incentive. Nobody really cared in Philadelphia. Call 'em anything you want to, as long as you don't call 'em winners on certain Sundays.

The Cowboys hated the Redskins, the Eagles hated the Cowboys, with good reason. Dallas was a conservative, anti-union town and half the roster caved in and crossed the picket line in '87 when the players struck. The Cowboys, with seven regulars, beat the makeshift-Eagles, 41-22. The Dallas fans cheered when Kevin Sweeney threw a touchdown pass and jeered when Tony Dorsett ran one in from 10 yards out.

Buddy Ryan grumbled, calling Landry a "hypocrite" and a "phony." Dallas at Eagles was the first post-strike game. The real Eagles led, 30-20, with time running out. Randall Cunningham knelt twice, then threw a long pass that drew an interference penalty in the end zone as time ran out.

Ryan had Cunningham hand off to Keith Byars, who scored the rub-it-in touchdown. Landry seethed, promised to remember it, one more episode in the bitter rivalry, one more clue to what was going on under that hat.

Pete Gent wrote North Dallas 40 as a thinly disguised novel about the craziness inside the Cowboys clubhouse. After he retired, Gent polished lines such as, "The only way I kept up with Landry, I read a lot of psychology . . . abnormal psychology."

Meanwhile, Landry turned a blind eye to substance abuse, and dealt with mavericks such as Thomas and Hollywood Henderson in his own stoic way, enduring them as long as they played well, dumping them when they became unproductive or too disruptive.

Thomas, after a week of silence leading up to Super Bowl VI, gained 95 yards on 19 carries, which should have earned him the car that went to the MVP. The handful of voters gave the honor to Roger Staubach instead, white, bright, polite.

Jim Brown coaxed Thomas into the equipment closet that was the set for the postgame show. Tom Brookshier was stunned to see him and got tangled in a long question about whether Thomas was that fast? Thomas squelched him, muttering, "Evidently."

When the painful interview was over, Thomas had to squeeze past this humble columnist. "Duane," I said, "you had a great day but you don't look happy. Are you happy?"

And Thomas replied, thumping his chest with his fist, "Happiness is in here." While it wasn't "I have been to the mountaintop," it was the only non-televised quote Thomas gave that day and I shared it with no one but our readers.

Back to Landry and whether he had a double standard for his African-American players or whether he was a racist hiding in colorblind clothing? You don't get a definitive answer in the book.

Why so bloodless, so aloof? Probably inherited those traits from his mother.

There isn't much cause for sympathy until Jerry Jones buys the team and fires Landry 2 seconds later. Actually, Jones got the team on condition he'd fire Landry, because that's what owner Bum Bright wanted, but lacked the courage to wield the ax himself.

A year later, Landry was inducted into the Hall of Fame. In his acceptance speech, he said that if he didn't look emotional, "the emotion is all within." Which sounded a lot like what Thomas said after the Super Bowl.

At Landry's funeral, Don Perkins called him "an enigma." The answers to the riddle were buried with him. Along with a blue fedora.