Ten-Gallon War: The NFL's Cowboys, the AFL's Texans, and the Feud for Dallas's Pro Football Futureby John Eisenberg
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In the 1960s, on the heels of the “Greatest Game Ever Played,” professional football began to flourish across the country—except in Texas, where college football was still the only game in town. But in an unlikely series of events, two young oil tycoons started their own professional football franchises in Dallas the very same year: the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, and, as part of a new upstart league designed to thwart the NFL’s hold on the game, the Dallas Texans of the AFL. Almost overnight, a bitter feud was born.
The team owners, Lamar Hunt and Clint Murchison, became Mad Men of the gridiron, locked in a battle for the hearts and minds of the Texas pigskin faithful. Their teams took each other to court, fought over players, undermined each other’s promotions, and rooted like hell for the other guys to fail. A true visionary, Hunt of the Texans focused on the fans, putting together a team of local legends and hiring attractive women to drive around town in red convertibles selling tickets. Meanwhile, Murchison and his Cowboys focused on the game, hiring a young star, Tom Landry, in what would be his first-ever year as a head coach, and concentrating on holding their own against the more established teams in the NFL. Ultimately, both teams won the battle, but only one got to stay in Dallas and go on to become one of sports’ most quintessential franchises—“America's Team.”
In this highly entertaining narrative, rich in colorful characters and unforgettable stunts, Eisenberg recounts the story of the birth of pro football in Dallas—back when the game began to be part of this country’s DNA.
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Read an Excerpt
The sellout crowd crammed into Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri, on October 11, 2009, was taken aback when the Dallas Cowboys and Kansas City Chiefs took the field wearing “throwback” uniforms from a half-century earlier, when they represented the same city, played in rival leagues, and fought bitterly for the hearts and minds of the same fans.
What was this? Putting aside their famous metallic-blue colors for a day, the Cowboys wore dark blue jerseys with white numerals, white pants, and white helmets with dark blue stars on the sides—their uniform from the early sixties, when they were a pitiful expansion team rather than one of the most popular sports franchises on the planet. The Chiefs wore white pants, bright red jerseys, and bright red helmets with the state of Texas outlined on either side—their attire from when they were known as the Dallas Texans of the American Football League.
Their surprising apparel was part of the National Football League’s yearlong celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the AFL’s birth—an ironic commemoration in a way, considering the AFL had been the NFL’s fierce adversary at first, an upstart seeking to muscle in on the established league’s turf. The two had stabbed each other in the back, told lies, fought over players, gone to court, and practically pushed each other to bankruptcy before agreeing to merge. But all that was ancient history now. They had long ago joined hands to become America’s preeminent sports league.
A half-century later, the NFL readily admitted that the AFL had contributed enthusiasm, bright ideas, and some damn good football teams to the merger and willingly commemorated its birth. During the 2009 season, former AFL teams such as the Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, and Buffalo Bills were donning replicas of their old uniforms to play each other in what were being called “AFL Legacy Games.” The Cowboys, now an iconic franchise known as “America’s Team,” were the only pre-merger NFL team playing in such a game, the league having decided it simply couldn’t pass up an opportunity to pit the franchises that had once fought over Dallas.
The Cowboys and Texans had shared a home stadium for three years in the early sixties, playing on alternate Sundays at the Cotton Bowl, the concrete colossus then known as one of college football’s grandest stages. Both teams drew meager crowds, sometimes giving away as many tickets as they sold. They never faced each other on the field, but they battled in every other way, resorting to trickery and lawsuits to try to gain an edge, fighting over players, and stealing each other’s ideas as they sought to elbow the other out of town. Both franchises were owned by young men from oil-rich families unaccustomed to failure.
Spotting the AFL Legacy Game on their 2009 schedule, the Chiefs had run with the idea, selling it as “The Game That Never Was,” a reprise of the Cowboys-Texans battle. Sadly, most of the frontline warriors from those rollicking days were gone. Lamar Hunt, the sports pioneer who founded the AFL and owned the Texans, had died, as had Clint Murchison Jr., the Cowboys’ original owner. Both coaches, the Cowboys’ Tom Landry and the Texans’ Hank Stram, were gone. So was Tex Schramm, the Cowboys’ general manager, who had battled as fiercely as anyone.
Much of the bitterness from those days was gone too. The franchises had operated in different cities for more than four decades, dulling the distrust and dislike that boiled over back in the day. When Lamar Hunt was alive, he lived near Cowboys owner Jerry Jones on Preston Road in Dallas, and when their teams played, they lightheartedly competed for the “Preston Road Trophy.” Their teams had played a handful of regular-season games against each other over the years as part of the NFL’s regular schedule rotation.
But while games between the Cowboys and Chiefs had become routine to most people, there were exceptions—old lions from the early sixties who, like southerners who still pledged allegiance to Dixie, swore they would “never forget.”
Sitting in his den in Dallas on that October afternoon in 2009, a seventy-two-year-old car salesman named Jack Spikes watched on television as his former team took on the Cowboys in the uniform he had worn when he was a hard-hitting fullback for the Texans in the early sixties. He worked at a BMW dealership now, occasionally selling expensive cars to Cowboy players, some of whom he liked. But his dislike for their high-and-mighty franchise, which dated to when he played for the other team in town, had never abated. He didn’t like the Cowboys one bit.
I hope to hell the Chiefs beat the crap out of them, Spikes thought, just like we would have back then.
The sight of the teams in their old uniforms startled Mike Rhyner, a well-known sports radio talk-show host in Dallas, who was ten years old when the Cowboys and Texans started up a half-century earlier. Rhyner had sided with the Texans at first, mostly because his father demanded it, but later switched to the Cowboys. Having lived through those days, he knew this wasn’t just any game from a historical standpoint.
Wow. Too bad they never played like this, in those uniforms, all those years ago, he thought. That would have been some war.
Watching the game in person, from a private box at Arrowhead, Chris Burford had the same thought. Like Spikes, he had played for the Texans and continued with the franchise when it moved to Kansas City. He had been a pass-catching fiend in those days, a wily receiver whose meticulous routes and sure hands befuddled opponents. Now seventy, a spry and sharp Bay Area lawyer, he had put football behind him, but he enjoyed coming back and mingling with other former Chiefs at the franchise’s annual alumni weekend. That occasion had brought him to Arrowhead on this Sunday.
To most of the other former Kansas City players in the box, a game against the Cowboys carried no extra significance. But Burford felt a tingling in his stomach. The smug preeminence of the Cowboys and their fans irritated him, as it did Spikes and the other former Texans who had fought the Cowboys long ago.
The game that never was? Sheee-it.
This one, in 2009, wasn’t a fair fight, Burford thought. The struggling Chiefs were 0-4. The Cowboys were perennial playoff contenders.
But that wasn’t the case when they shared Dallas in the early sixties and everyone had wanted them to settle their differences on the field.
“‘The game that never was’ . . . what a bunch of horse crap,” Burford snorted later when asked about sitting at Arrowhead that day. “We would have kicked the shit out of the Cowboys back then. I would have loved to have played them every week. We were the better team. No one thought so, but we would have whipped them.”
Hell, yeah, he remembered those days.
“Would you be interested in starting up a new league?”
LAMAR HUNT WAS AT 30,000 feet, his head literally in the clouds, when the idea of starting a new professional football league came to him. “The lightbulb just came on,” he would say later. That it did so in the sky, on an American Airlines flight, seemed entirely appropriate, for the idea was, if anything, a flight of fancy.
As Hunt flew from Miami to his hometown of Dallas on a February evening in 1959, the National Football League had never been more popular. After grinding along for almost four decades in the shadow of Major League Baseball, the NFL was suddenly taking off like a Russian rocket. Six weeks earlier, a television audience of 40 million had watched NBC’s broadcast of the league’s championship game, a thriller between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants decided in sudden-death overtime.
Even though Hunt, as the son of one of the world’s wealthiest men, oilman Haroldson Lafayette “H.L.” Hunt, had been brought up to think Texas big, he understood it was a long-odds proposition to take on the NFL and survive. Three leagues had tried and failed over the years, most recently the All-American Football Conference, a late-forties start-up that folded after spewing red ink for four years. The NFL’s feisty old guard, led by the Chicago Bears’ George Halas, had fended off that challenge and celebrated by annexing the dying league’s best teams.
Less than a decade later, as Lamar sat in his seat in the plane’s first-class cabin and contemplated what he thought was a bright idea, he quickly concocted a list of major questions a new league would face. Why would anyone buy in as the owner of a franchise knowing that he would probably lose millions in the early years? Why would any decent players bypass the NFL to play in the league? Why would any fans care about teams with no history or tradition?
Lamar was just twenty-six, barely removed from his callow days as a fun-loving Kappa Sigma fraternity brother at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. His idea was easily dismissed as a fantasy, the idle stirring of a young man with more money than sense. In the coming years, many people in the NFL would view his new league as just that, a folly.
But they would discover that it was a mistake to underestimate Lamar Hunt.
Yes, he was young, but he had a realistic vision for his new league from the moment he conceived it. His enthusiasm for football, and sports in general, was unmatched. And oh, he was determined. His goal—his sole motivation, at least at the outset—was to bring pro football to Dallas, his oil-rich hometown, of which he was so proud. But as he had learned very quickly, the NFL was not inclined to help.
A year earlier, Hunt had called the NFL’s commissioner, Bert Bell, to see about buying his way into the established league, which had been in operation since shortly after World War I. It had seen dozens of teams come and go over the years—the Canton (Ohio) Bulldogs, the Pottstown (Pennsylvania) Maroons—but it had been stable for almost a decade with an even dozen franchises: the Chicago Bears, Baltimore Colts, New York Giants, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles, Chicago Cardinals, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Rams, and San Francisco 49ers.
Bell told Lamar to call Walter and Violet Wolfner, who owned the lamentable Cardinals, a losing team perpetually overshadowed in the Windy City by Halas’s more successful Bears. Representatives from a half-dozen cities without NFL teams, including Minneapolis, Atlanta, Seattle, and New Orleans, had already approached the Wolfners about buying and relocating the franchise. The Wolfners had turned them all down.
Lamar met with the Wolfners in Chicago. The older couple enjoyed his company. He listened intently, spoke deliberately, and kept notes. With his black-frame glasses, neatly parted chestnut hair, business attire, and southern manners, he seemed older than he was.
When the Wolfners turned him down, he offered to take a minority stake, believing he would eventually gain control and move the Cardinals to Dallas. The Wolfners were intrigued by his persistence and especially his money, but ultimately offered him just a 20 percent stake in the team, with no hope of a move to Dallas.
Around the same time, Lamar also joined a group from Dallas and Fort Worth seeking a baseball franchise in a proposed third major league being organized by Branch Rickey, the legendary executive who had integrated the major leagues with Jackie Robinson a decade earlier. Lamar traveled to New York for a meeting led by Rickey. Insightful and forward-thinking at age seventy, Rickey explained that a new league could work because baseball hadn’t added a franchise in more than fifty years, stubbornly sticking with two eight-team circuits because the owners distrusted change and didn’t want to cut up their revenues any more. Numerous large cities had been frozen out, and yet they were more than capable of supporting teams, Rickey said. He cited Milwaukee, where attendance records had been set since the Braves moved there from Boston in the early fifties.
Lamar was impressed with Rickey, but he preferred football. On the last Sunday of 1958, he sat at home in Dallas and watched the NFL championship game between the Colts and Giants. The Colts, led by a brilliant young quarterback, Johnny Unitas, jumped out to a 14–3 lead and appeared to have the game wrapped up, but the Giants rallied in the fourth quarter to take a three-point lead as a sellout crowd cheered so loudly that Yankee Stadium seemed to vibrate. But Unitas, exhibiting remarkable poise, led a drive that resulted in a last-second field goal, forcing the game into overtime—a first for the NFL. Unitas then led another long drive, which ended with Colts fullback Alan Ameche diving into the end zone for the winning touchdown. On the drives, Unitas connected repeatedly with Raymond Berry, a star receiver with whom Lamar had played college ball at SMU.
As he shut off his television, Lamar was exhilarated. What a sporting event! The game had featured brilliant performances, dramatic momentum swings, breathtaking moments, last-second heroics, and larger-than-life figures—Unitas was as cocksure as any western gunslinger. And NBC had effectively captured it all, bringing the drama right into his den.
Watching the game had a profound effect on Lamar. He saw that pro football, long overshadowed by the college version of the sport as well as by baseball, was becoming quite a spectacle and that television, though barely a decade old as a popular medium, could deliver it magnificently to massive audiences. Pro football just might be the sport of the future, he thought. When he read that millions had watched the game, drawn to their black-and-white sets by the drama, he was convinced the nation’s appetite for pro football was growing.
Redoubling his efforts to buy into the NFL, Lamar flew to Miami for another meeting with the Wolfners, this time at their winter home. But the trip was fruitless. The Wolfners simply weren’t selling.
As they parted, Walter Wolfner mentioned offhandedly that another young Texan from an oil family had come to Miami to discuss purchasing the Cardinals. Kenneth S. “Bud” Adams, the son of the chairman of Phillips Petroleum, had wanted to move the franchise to Houston. Like Hunt, he had been turned down.
Digesting this news, Lamar took a taxi to the airport, boarded his American Airlines flight to Dallas, and took stock. He had been trying to secure an NFL team for a year, but the Wolfners weren’t selling, and Bert Bell had told him the league wouldn’t expand anytime soon, at least not until the Cardinals relocated. Yet a whole group of wealthy people from major cities wanted teams, starting with himself and Bud Adams.
Branch Rickey had said a new baseball major league could work because there was a hunger for the game in so many cities without teams. Was the same not true for professional football?
Lamar asked a stewardess for stationery, took out a pen, and jotted down some ideas for a new league under the heading “Original 6: First Years Operations.” There would be six teams. Each would play three exhibitions and fifteen regular-season games and own territorial draft picks, enabling them to add popular local college players. The home team at every game would receive 60 percent of the “gate”—the proceeds from ticket sales—with the visitors receiving 40 percent or $35,000, whichever was higher. Lamar knew about the game’s finances because the Wolfners had let him see their books.
When he finished, Lamar sat back and appraised the in-flight stationery with his writing on it. He smiled. This really could work, he thought. Maybe the idea of a new pro football league wasn’t a flight of fancy after all.
Meet the Author
JOHN EISENBERG was an award-winning sports columnist for the Baltimore Sun for two decades and is the author of Ten-Gallon War,That First Season,My Guy Barbaro (cowritten with jockey Edgar Prado), and The Great Match Race. He has written for Smithsonian,Sports Illustrated, and Details, among other publications, and currently contributes columns to BaltimoreRavens.com.
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Professional sports teams do not represent cities and fans as they actually are, they represent the image the fans would like to project to the outside world. This insightful and entertaining book proves this statement. The National Football League does not celebrate the past as baseball does. It trots out the old-timers from time to time. Yet this book shows that the past is a real part of the fan’s experience. The story related by players and fans will captivate the reader. The story revolves around the three years in the 1960’s that the Dallas Cowboys, an NFL expansion team, and the Dallas Texans, of the new born American Football League, fought over the professional football fans of Dallas, Texas. In it is a Texas size clash of millionaires, who look to claim the city for their respective teams. Using meticulous research, the author is able to shed new light on an often-told story. Most interesting are the stories of the fans and players: the little girl with the crush on Chris Burford, the little boy begging his dad to take him to a Cowboys game. Fred Arbanas compares Len Dawson’s arrival at training camp to that of a Hollywood star. Most of this entire book brings attention to some of the men that built these two teams. Don Meredith, who would probably, been a record setting quarterback had he not signed with the Cowboys. Sherrill Headrick was an undersized player with an almost unerring sense of how to play linebacker. He would vomit before every game and then self-medicates afterward. His is a case that is probably for another book. Most of all there is Abner Haynes, he starred for the Texans for all their years in Dallas. Within a few years of the move to Kansas City, Haynes and Headrick would no longer be with the team. Best of all, the book is no hagiography of the Murchisons or the Hunts. Numerous citations do not reflect well on either man. Numerous books have been written on the Murchison family and their relationship to the Cowboys. A serious look into Lamar Hunt is still waiting. This is a book for the serious student of the era and the general reader looking for a good and interesting story.
Cowboys,staubach,and the front line shift to set...just great
WORST TEAM ASIDE FROM OAKLAND AND CHIEFS
Cowboys are the WORST team ever
If they r te worst team then why dovthy have the second kost super bowls of all time. They had the best runnin back of the hidtory and one of te bet qbs with staubaugh ad aikman. They ao have romo who was 25 yards away from 5000. They also hav dez bryand and sea lee amd demarcus ware and jay ratliff d jason witten and morris claiborne