At the start of camp, I was one of one hundred and twenty top athletes attempting to secure five, possibly six, spots on the roster to scrounge like a beggar for momentary playing time. The odds were stacked against me since the Cowboys picked up a first- and third-round draft pick to fill out their 1981 offensive line.
Given these high selections, an underweight, undrafted rookie out of Northern Iowa was an unlikely pick. But I clung to one sliver of hope during my solitary confinement: the Cowboys were known for finding players passed over by other teams. Could I be their diamond in the rough? I wasn’t even all-conference in college, so my diamond was far from flawless, but anything was possible.
While at camp, I shared a modest dorm room with five other rookies from all walks of life: three beefy farm boys, a street-smart city kid, and a squeaky-clean Bible-thumper. It was an interesting psychological experiment to observe how each player handled the intensity. One of the rookies snuck out for a quick reefer break each night while another read his Bible in his tighty-whities until lights out. As for me, those training camp nights were among a handful in my life when I cried under my pillow as exhaustion and fear collided. It was a tiresome mental exercise to keep the concerns at bay. In the quiet of the night, with my mind as my sole companion, I wondered if I was enough of a warrior to make the team.
I learned to fear the prankster who summoned players to see Head Coach Tom Landry in addition to providing daily wake-up calls. If he asked me to see Coach and bring my playbook, I would be done and released from the facility by the top of the hour. I had the misfortune of watching this nightmare-inducing scene up close five times as each of my roommates met this fate by the fourth week. Then, as the last rookie on my block, the grim reaper began messing with me. He would bang on my door, bust it open, and shout, “Get up, get your playbook, and get over to . . . practice right now,” slamming the door and laughing his way down the hall to shake up the last few hopefuls.
With the first adrenaline rush of the day behind me, I moved on to the dreaded mandatory weigh-ins. I loathed that all-too-honest scale. I was a meager 258 pounds and couldn’t afford to give up an ounce. But most days, I lost eight pounds despite holding off on bathroom stops and loading my short pockets with all the spare change I could find. It was a Weight Watchers wet dream but my daily nightmare.
A good four of those fleeting pounds were rung out of my towel after each practice. The rest was a consequence of insanely high caloric burn. To regain some ground each night, I relied on double supreme pizzas from a truck wisely parked outside our dorms like clockwork just before curfew. Those pizza boxes served as my last sight before bed and first discernable image each morning with empty cardboard teetering on my chest. It was a vicious cycle as the daily conditioning test of ten forty-yard dash sprints worked through my reserves before nine o’clock in the morning. But I still enjoyed these assessments because this is where I excelled with the lowest accumulated time among the offensive linemen. Lucky for me, I was born to run . . . just a bit faster than a dump truck full of pizza boxes.
While the weigh-ins were concerning, the chart next to the scale induced panic. I could break out in a cold sweat just thinking about it, but I couldn’t afford to lose more water weight. The posted printout held the names of all the rookies vying for a spot on the roster. As the weeks wore on, it resembled a heavily redacted government document with thick Sharpie lines through players’ names. Even though they were my competition, most were warriors who departed far too soon. I suppose they were now back in their hometowns, wondering what could’ve been. There was a good chance that I was about to join them.
All the time to overanalyze was frustrating as I nearly bore a trench pacing the length of my hotel room. It was two straight days of only outgoing calls reaching out to family and friends for emotional strength. Finally, in the forty-sixth hour, I received one inbound ring that pierced the air like a three-alarm fire. I didn’t have time to panic. I just grabbed it and pulled in a shallow breath.
More on this story and others in my forthcoming memoir, Aggressively Human, to be released on all platforms in November 2023.