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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,245

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This is the grave of Tom Landry.

Born in 1924 in Mission, Texas, just across the border from Reynosa, Landry was a child of the border. His family moved there because his father was tubercular and was escaping the cold of Illinois. He was a star high school football player and went to the University of Texas for college ball. That was quickly interrupted by World War II and Landry left college to join the Army Air Corps. He chose that specifically because his older brother was in the same branch and was killed early in the war. He eventually became a pilot and was on 30 bombing missions in Europe in 1944 and 1945, surviving a crash landing in Belgium once.

In 1946, Landry came back to Texas and went back to football. He was a two-way player, as were many in these years. He played fullback on offense and defensive back on defense. The New York Giants selected him in the 20th round, so they weren’t that high on him, but they gave him a chance. First though he played for the New York Yankees of the upstart All-American Football Conference for a year, but then came to the Giants in 1950. His career wasn’t long but he had a very strong one, at both defensive back and punter. He was a defensive ball hawk with 32 interceptions in 80 games and was named an All-Pro in 1954. He also led the NFL in punting average in both 1952 and 1955.

From the very beginning, everyone knew Landry had a better football mind than anyone else in the room. Almost from the moment he came to the Giants, he was a de facto coach, often explaining the concepts to his teammates in language they could easily understand. By 1954, he was playing and was also the team’s defensive coordinator. Vince Lombardi was the offensive coordinator on those teams. Between then and 1959, when Landry moved on, the team went to three title games and won the 1956 title over Chicago.

In 1960, the NFL created a new team–the Dallas Cowboys. They hired Tom Landry as their coach. He would coach there for the first 28 years of the franchise. Probably no team has ever been more associated with their head coach than the Cowboys and Landry. I suppose one can make cases for Parcells and the Giants or Belichick and the Patriots, but I don’t think they reach the iconic level of Landry. Wearing his famous suit and hat, he stalked the sidelines and won football games for a long, long time.

Naturally, the Cowboys were terrible at first, going winless in their first season. It wasn’t until 1965 that the team went .500, with a 7-7 season. But ownership was patient, realizing that there wasn’t anyone better suited to building this team than Landry. Landry had developed the 4-3 defense, which seems almost timeless, but was something he came up while in New York and he brought it to Dallas. The idea behind it was to not swarm to the ball but rather for each defender to cover a section of the field and then get the runner down. He adjusted this specifically to stop the Green Bay Packers dominant rushing attack.

Over the years, Landry took the Cowboys to five Super Bowls, winning two, in 1971 over the Dolphins and 1977 over the Broncos. Through the early 80s, the team was good. They won two division titles between 1980 and 1982. But over time, the Landry magic began to slip and the mid 80s were not great for the team. Landry was still running things that had worked in the 1960s but like a lot of great innovative coaches, he had one or two innovations in him and just couldn’t adjust as other teams started to match the new ideas with better ideas of their own.

After the disastrous 1988 season, when the Cowboys went 3-13, their worst record since that first season of 1960, the owner of the team, who got creamed in the savings and loan crisis, had to put the team up for a sale. A racist scumbag from Arkansas named Jerry Jones bought the team. The first thing he did was fire Tom Landry, literally one day later. Did he have a meeting with Landry? No. Did he pay the old man even the basic modicum of respect? No. Was Jones just a generally terrible person? Yes.

In about 2008 or 2009, I was driving north on I-35 from Austin to Denton. As I approached the Metroplex, I threw on some sports talk radio as the crappy car I drove at the time did not have anything but a radio. This was in April or May. The Rangers weren’t bad. The Mavericks were pretty good. So were the Stars. What was the topic of this sports radio day? Whether Jerry Jones should have fired Tom Landry nearly twenty years earlier. This is the ridiculousness of Cowboys fans and how they are just dominant over every other team, no matter how nationally irrelevant they are to actual winning or how good the other teams are in the region. Of course, it was hard to blame Jones for making the move, given that he then hired Jimmy Johnson, they drafted Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin, and went on to be the best team in the 90s. Which, I should say, made me sick as I really really really hate the goddamn Cowboys. Luckily, ever since Jones fired Johnson, the team has been the King of Disappointment. I await a playoff loss this year as hilarious as the loss to the Niners in last year’s playoffs.

Landry remained a legend in Dallas. He stayed away from the franchise for a couple years, being a bit bitter and angry about how it all went down. Jones handled it with the lack of class he’s handled everything else in his miserable horrible life. But relations eventually approved. It didn’t hurt that everyone in the city loved Landry.

Landry died in 2000, with leukemia knocking him out. He was 75 years old.

Tom Landry is buried in Sparkman-Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery, Dallas, Texas.

Tom Landry was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990. If you would like this series to visit other people inducted into the Hall of Fame around this time, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. In fact, this is not the first member of the 1990 class covered in this series, with the legendary defensive tackle Buck Buchanan coming up last year. But everyone else from that class lives. Stan Jones, inducted in 1991, is in Fraser, Colorado, and Tex Schramm, also inducted in 1991 and who was Landry’s running partner for all those years with the Cowboys, is also in Dallas, but at a different cemetery that I didn’t have time to get to. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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