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Thursday, June 23, 2016

DEAD 'N GONE: VALLEY RANCH

Home, Sweet ... Gone
   You know how you know when you're old? When your sports playgrounds are deemed archaic and impractical.
   Yeah, ouch.
   For me, hitting the big Five-Oh wasn't a big deal. The real punch to the ever-softening gut is losing the venues that shaped most of my sports memories and a good chunk of my media career.
   Arlington Stadium. Reunion Arena. Texas Stadium. All kaput in the name of capitalistic growth. Next on the chopping block: Valley Ranch. Which for four years in the glorious early '90s was my office and, on a couple of occasions, my bed.
   The Cowboys opened the practice facility north of 635 on MacArthur Road in 1985. For on-field football purposes, it's closed for business. When the team returns from training camp in Oxnard this summer it'll move into the new Star in Frisco, with a grand christening slated for Aug. 27.
   And just like that, Valley Ranch will be tossed onto DFW's pile of discarded iconic venues alongside Bronco Bowl, Baby Doe's, Starck Club and Sanger-Harris. As part of my 18-year run at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram I covered the Cowboys from 1989-94. I wrote there. I lived there. I made friends there. I sometimes slept there.
   I loved there.
   Progress can take my buildings, but it can't delete my memories ...
   10. Good Ol' Day Syndrome - The football and the freedom were drastically better around Valley Ranch in the '90s. In an era only at the dawn of the mainstream Internet and way before social media, there was no need for media IDs. No "Players Only" parking lot. No restricted areas. Regularly during my time as a beat writer I borrowed shorts and a T-shirt from equipment man Mike McCord to play racquetball, waltzed back into the coaches area to watch tape with then-kicking coach Steve Hoffman and, on a couple of occasions after being over-served at nearby Cowboys Cafe, slept in the FWS-T cubicle adjacent to the locker room. How laid back was the vibe? One day FWS-T partner Mike Fisher and I went out onto the practice field for an impromptu Punt, Pass & Kick Contest with our friends/rivals Ed Werder and Tim Cowlishaw of the Dallas Morning News. Try that today and you'll be a headline rather than merely a punchline.
   9. The Hot Seat - In our tiny broom closet of an "office" we had enough room for a table and three chairs. One for me. One for Fisher. And one for guests. Players - Hall of Famers, turns out - would regularly come sit down on their way out the door. Just for casual conversation. To bullshit. "I'm not coming in here to be grilled on the hot seat," Troy Aikman once pronounced. Right then and there, we dubbed the empty chair "The Hot Seat." Michael Irvin. Emmitt Smith. Jay Novacek. Tony Casillas. Larry Brown. Even Jimmy Johnson, Jerry Jones, Brad Sham and Dale Hansen. Name a member of the Cowboys' '90s dynasty and chances are they sat a spell in our Hot Seat. I cherish those times. Because it wasn't notebooks and recorders and formality and on-the-record, but more so just a chance to blow off steam. To talk. Irvin was probably the most frequent visitor. One day he sat down, grabbed our land-line telephone, propped up his feet and spent at least an hour talking to ... who knows? Kevin Gogan popped his head in, saw Irvin making himself at home and yelled "Damn, I need to call ahead for a Hot Seat reservation?" In the week after a loss I handed Irvin the latest NFL statistics in which he was near the top of the league leaders in receptions and yards. "We just lost!" he said, getting up from the Hot Seat while crumpling the paper into a ball and firing it at our trash can. He left. And, of course, soon came back. "Psst," he said, pretending to be covert, "where's that paper?" His exit was punctuated by the trademark Irvin guffaw.
   8. Center Stage - I always kidded long-snapper Dale Hellestrae that he wasn't really a football player. "Snapping is an art form," he'd retort. So one day he bet us that he could snap a ball into the window of a speeding car. "You're on," we said collectively. But I'll be damned if Hellestrae didn't bend over and between his legs launch a perfect spiral through the passenger window of the Lincoln Town Car driven at 35 mph through the Valley Ranch parking lot by Mark Stepnoski.
   7. Merry, um, Christmas - In the early '90s "breaking news" was whatever appeared in tomorrow's newspaper. But the competition to "win" the day's paper was fierce. That's the reason I spent most of Christmas Eve, 1991 at Valley Ranch. Through sources, Fisher and I had obtained every NFL player's salary. But, of course, it was given to us as raw material, printed on a thick stack of paper. Today we'd simply upload the file onto a website and, voila, news. But back then we had to manually type in every name, every salary, every signing bonus. It started around Noon on Christmas Eve and ended ... just in time for Santa.
   6. Mutual Vomit - I witnessed Alexander Wright run a 4.14 40-yard dash on Valley Ranch's outside track and stood beside a freaked out Smith after he watched magician David Blaine seemingly levitate, but the most amazing performance came in '94 when Jones and Johnson held that infamous charade of a press conference to announce their divorce. During that 30-minute debacle I don't think one honest word was uttered. At the time the two men had zero respect for each other and their parting was anything was mutual or amicable. It was a tug-of-war, fueled by jealousy and targeted at credit. And, yes, it was down right disgusting.
   5. Identical Intensity - In '97 Irvin went ballistic on the media for reporting that he and teammate Erik Williams had sexually assaulted a woman. Claiming his innocence, he hurled a huge rubber trash can through the locker room and implored the media to use the "same intensity" when eventually reporting the clearing of his name. In fact the woman's claim was false. The trash can, however, suffered irreparable damage.
   4. Jimmy Genuine - Once a week Johnson would invite the print media - sans notebooks or recorders - into his office for a casual visit. The "fireside chat" it became known as. In it we could bring up topics, offer our opinions, engage in back and forth, touch on personal stuff, whatever. We just couldn't publish anything from the chat. One time Johnson started the chat by chastising me for documenting the play-by-play of his team's 2-minute drill at the end of practice. An opponent, he reasoned, could use that information and be prepared defensively come crunch-time. "I won't ask you to help row this boat," he said to me sternly, "but I demand that you don't punch holes in it." Message, received.
   3. Richie Shit - Charles Haley was one of the best players and baddest people I ever covered at Valley Ranch. Years later we'd hug it out and Haley apologized for tormenting me, blaming his erratic behavior on being diagnosed as bipolar. But in '93 being serenaded as "Richie Shiiiiiiit" and used for target practice was wholly un-fun. As I interviewed Aikman at his locker, a roll of athletic tape whizzed between our heads. Like a menacing bazooka with bad intentions, I mean, it's just tape. But it's a thick roll. Getting konked by it would be about like getting dinged with a battery. And Haley was firing the rolls at me from 100 feet across the locker room. "Stop writing about me, motherfucker!" Haley cackled. "Don't you even write my name!" Me (ducking): "You have any control over him?" Aikman (leaving): "Yeah, right. Good luck,"
   2. Spit Happens - One day Aikman is in the Hot Seat, flipping through the cheerleaders' calendar and bitchin' about how "Hail Mary" passes count as legit interceptions. "I think I'll just start taking a sack and maybe we'll stop calling that stupid play," he joked. As I pretend to listen while feverishly writing on deadline, I reach over and take a swig of my Sprite. Uh-oh. At the time the quarterback was huge into dipping tobacco. Always carried a paper Gatorade cup lined with a napkin in which to spit. On this day - lucky me - apparently he upgraded to an empty Sprite can. Guess who was too busy working to realize he'd picked up the wrong cup? Immediately, um, I knew. And realized I had two unfathomably nauseating choices: 1. Swallow Aikman's coagulated funk of saliva and tobacco and attempt not to vomit; 2. Violently spit and reveal my grotesque gaffe, and forever be the punchline that once had Aikman's bodily fluid in his mouth. Spit or swallow? I chose the latter, accepting one horrendous experience over a lifetime of ridicule. Until now, I guess.
   1. Goodbye, God's Coach - My first time at Valley Ranch forged the most lasting memory. In '89 I made my virginal voyage to the complex to help FWS-T writers chronicle the final days of Tom Landry. He'd been fired by Jones and any day now would clean out his office and leave for good. Today was that day. As a lifelong Cowboys' fan, I grew up worshiping St. Landry. And now I was helping fan the flames of his funeral. I watched him meander through the weight room exchanging handshakes and hugs. Late in the day I turned a corner inside the building and almost bumped into - yep - Tom Friggin' Landry. "Excuse me, young man," he said, as I froze, speechless in awe. Along with up-close encounters with Prince and Anna Kournikova, it's as star-struck as I've been in 30 years in media.

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