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Thursday, March 14, 2002
A rivalry for a song ... and chicken feed

By Pat Toomay
Special to Page 2

Editor's Note: Former NFL defensive end Pat Toomay played in the league for 10 years (1970-79) with the Cowboys, Bills, Bucs and Raiders. As part of Page 2's series on sports in Washington D.C., he reflects on the Redskins-Cowboys rivalry.

When the Air Force moved my family to Northern Virginia in the early sixties, schoolboy basketball was king. At DeMatha Catholic, players were practicing with tennis rackets to simulate the reach of Lew Alcindor before taking on Alcindor's Power Memorial out of New York City. At Washington & Lee in Arlington, the Hummer brothers were dominating. At GW High, Skeeter Swift was more than a force. At Thomas Edison, where I enrolled, Carl Hensley and Bob Carson were putting together a program that would reign for a decade.

Emmitt Smith
When the 'Skins and Cowboys tangle today, you'd never know that their mutual dislike started with a dispute over a fight song.
Part of the reason basketball was so popular in the area might have been the absence of a compelling pro football team. Meanwhile, the Bullets featured Walt "Big Bell" Bellamy, Kevin Loughery and the player who captured everyone's imagination, Gus Johnson. At 6-foot-5, with a gold star lighting up his grin, Johnson was capable of the sublime. One memory is indelible. I was at a Bullets game with other players from school when Johnson intercepted a pass at midcourt and broke uncontested for the hoop. Afterward, you could see the mark on the foul line where he'd dragged his toe before launching himself into the stratosphere. Hanging in the air, arm outstretched behind him, the ball palmed like a pea, Johnson, windmilling, slammed the ball through the hole, in the process shattering the backboard, which rained down in a thousand glittering pieces.

From that moment on, I wanted nothing more than to be like Gus. If you'd told me then that five years later I would be jogging onto the pitch at RFK as a starting rookie defensive end for the Super Bowl-bound Dallas Cowboys to participate in one of the fiercest rivalries ever in pro football, I would have asked what you were smoking.

It was the 10th game of the 1970 season, and our starting left defensive end, Larry Cole, was out with a cracked forearm -- so my first NFL start came in one of the great stadiums, RFK. Even more exciting than being introduced in front of the home folks was the opportunity to play against the 'Skins two quarterbacks, Sonny Jurgensen and Frank Ryan. Both men were favorites of my father: Jurgy because he was Jurgy, already a legend; Ryan because he was "Doctor" Frank Ryan, a Ph.D. mathematician out of Rice, whose studious machismo appealed to my father, because he was himself an electrical engineer. I got to Jurgy early, as we built a commanding lead. When the game got out of hand, Jurgy was pulled, and Ryan, passing on every down, became a sitting duck. Sacking them both in the same game was about as good as it gets.

Most fans assume that the real Cowboys-Redskins rivalry began the following season, with the arrival in Washington of George "The Future is Now" Allen. True, Allen, by exceeding his unlimited budget and trading off draft choices for seasoned veterans, transformed the 'Skins into a contender almost overnight. But, in fact, the rivalry was in full bloom before the Cowboys even existed.

As the story goes, in 1958 Texas oilman Clint Murchison thought he was finally closing in on his dream of bringing pro football to Dallas. Two previous attempts to purchase teams had failed, but now word reached Murchison that Redskins owner George Preston Marshall was eager to sell his club because the team was doing poorly and Marshall needed money. Imagine! The 'Skins in Dallas! But that blasphemy was not to be. For just as the sale was about to be announced, Marshall demanded a change in terms. Murchison told him to go to hell and canceled the deal.

Redskins marching band
The Redskin band was the pride and joy of former owner George Preston Marshall.
Coincidently, around this time, Marshall also had a falling out with Barnee Breeskin, the Redskin band director who had written the music to the Redskins fight song. Breeskin, smelling an opportunity for revenge in the strained negotiations, approached Murchison lawyer Tom Webb and asked if he'd like to buy the rights to "Hail to the Redskins." Webb agreed, paying $2,500. He figured this would at least be good for an occasional joke on Marshall.

Meanwhile, feeling abused by Marshall, Murchison decided that his best chance of owning a team was to start one himself. In that endeavor he got support from the chairman of the NFL expansion committee, George Halas. Halas agreed to put the proposition of a Dallas franchise before the NFL owners. Unanimous approval would be required for the proposition to pass.

As the meeting approached, every owner but one was in favor of the proposal. The holdout? George Preston Marshall. Marshall knew that he had strong fan loyalty in the South and was afraid of losing it to Dallas. So he told the other owners he would not vote for a Dallas franchise. Besides, he told them, Murchison was "obnoxious."

But then Marshall found out that Murchison owned the rights to his song. Oh, how Marshall loved that song. Although Breeskin had written the music, Marshall's wife had written the lyrics, so Marshall had made the song the centerpiece of his elaborate pregame and halftime shows. Back then, the Redskin band was a small army in buckskins and headdresses, snappy and well-drilled, featuring a chorus line of prancing Indian princesses. Many fans thought the band, the princesses and Marshall's halftime pageants were more entertaining than the team itself.

When word of Murchison's "dirty trick" leaked out, one Washington columnist wrote that "Taking 'Hail to the Redskins' away from George Marshall would be like denying 'Dixie' to the South, 'Anchors Aweigh' to the Navy, or 'Blue Suede Shoes' to Elvis." So a deal was struck. For Marshall's approval of the Dallas franchise, Murchison returned the song. Thus, Murchison's Cowboys were free to be born.

But that wasn't the end of it. Two years later, three Murchison cronies who lived in Washington, plus Bob Thompson, a Texan who was also well-known in the capital, decided to have a little fun with Marshall for being such a jerk when Clint was trying to buy his team. Their target was Marshall's annual Christmas extravaganza staged at halftime during the Redskins' final home game which that year would be played against the Cowboys. So, the night before the game, operatives snuck into D.C. Stadium and spread chicken feed all over the field. The next day, when a team of Alaskan sled dogs would pull Santa Claus onto the field at halftime, a bunch of hungry chickens would be released to gobble the feed. CBS would be televising the festivities live. The thought of those chickens wandering around as the dogs showed up made Murchison's buddies howl.

The day of the game, two crates of chickens were smuggled into the stadium, stashed in a dugout and covered with a tarp. All told, there were seventy-six chickens, seventy-five white, one black. At the time Marshall was the only NFL owner who hadn't hired an African-American player. All went well until just before halftime when a Redskins official wandered by and heard the chickens. He queried the guard, who tried to buy his silence with a C-note. The official called the police. Both the guard and the chickens were arrested.

Predictably, Marshall was furious when he heard about the prank. He filed a complaint with commissioner Pete Rozelle. He named Thompson as a conspirator. He made ominous threats. But Marshall's pique only heightened the pranksters' resolve. The following year, as the Cowboy game drew near, one member of the group vowed, "There will be chickens in D.C. Stadium."

I wish I'd been there. As Dallas News columnist Sam Blair reported: "A few minutes before kickoff it happened. The Indian princesses pranced onto the field, followed by the Redskin band playing 'Hail to the Redskins.' As they reached midfield, four banners were unfurled from the upper deck of the stadium. The banners said: CHICKENS. One was at each 50-yard line and in the center of each end zone."

The banners were the cue for the acrobats, reported Blair. "Dressed in chicken costumes, they rushed down through the stands, tumbled over the rail and dashed onto the field. Each man carried a bag, from which he tossed colored eggs as he ran. One guy was grabbed by stadium guards and gave up easily but the other was dedicated to his task."

By now the band was playing the National Anthem so no one could stop the man in the chicken suit as he zigzagged through the formation. According to Blair's account, "He pulled one real chicken out of his bag and released it. Then he wriggled away from some stadium guards, jigged up and down, shook his feathers. The real chicken was captured and carried out, but the man was elusive. As stadium guards pursued, he ran out to the middle of the field, turned a cartwheel, fell and sprawled on the 30-yard line. Then, as the teams began to run on the field, the man leaped up, climbed into the stands, and dashed up the steps. The Cowboy Chicken Club had succeeded!"

In the game itself, the 'Skins, 4-2-2 coming in, disintegrated before a standing-room-only crowd, as Snead completed only 11 of 27 passes in a 38-10 Cowboys' rout. The next morning, the game story in the Dallas News detailed the Redskins' demise. The scoring summary, in agate type, was the usual breakdown of stats. Only the last line was different:

"Attendance -- 49,888 (and one chicken)."

Them were the days.

Pat Toomay is the author of two books, The Crunch and the novel On Any Given Sunday. You can e-mail him at pat_toomay@hotmail.com.