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Former Cowboys motivated by fear of failure -- and Landry

10/30/2008 - NFL Dallas Cowboys
Malcolm Emmons/US Presswire

Among the definitions of fear is an uneasy feeling that something might happen contrary to one's desires. Of course, something like that happens to someone every Sunday in the NFL. It also occurs Monday night, the occasional Thursday night and late-season Saturday afternoons.

The subject promotes an obvious question related to the ultramasculine sport of professional football: Fear of what or whom creates an emotion akin to dread among players? Or are they immune to fear in any form?

A random cast of Dallas Cowboys tackled the issue because for some that was their assignment when they played during the 1960s and '70s. Their testimony confirmed that fear assumes many guises and surely exerts as much influence on players today as it did when the old-timers suited up for coach Tom Landry.

"A professional football player fears nothing physical on the field,'' said Charlie Waters. "The fear comes from when all factors are equal and you know you'll lose the battle. If I'm running step by step with [Cardinals receiver] Mel Gray and I've got him man on man, I've got fear.''

Waters spoke from unhappy experience as a misplaced cornerback before moving to strong safety and earning All-Pro status. Fear in his case meant the sense to admit a disadvantage and adapt to it.

"It's not the fear of getting hurt,'' he said. "If you're smart, you'll have fear because then you'll play accordingly. If you plan ahead and recognize fear instead of being bullheaded and saying I'm not afraid of anybody, that's intelligence and experience. I think it's a sign of wisdom to have that fear.''

Fear of failure thus arises as one component of the whole. There are others. There is fear of a coach for a variety of reasons: respect, a desire to please and to avoid his censure. Hall of Fame talent Randy White admitted he was intimidated by Landry, just as 300-plus pound guard Kevin Gogan said he spent his years with the Cowboys terrified of Jimmy Johnson.

"Coach Landry used to coach with fear,'' Waters recalled. "We did not want him to point us out or give us that look of his. He had us on our heels. No one ever bucked coach Landry. He could make you feel two inches tall. He would cut you down in front of your teammates, which was the worst thing you could get.''

There is another category that can be labeled as fear of the unknown, but that never lasts long. Offensive tackle Ralph Neely recalled such an episode during an exhibition against the Los Angeles Rams. More to the point, he was lined up against defensive end Deacon Jones but was unaware that the head-slap era had begun.

"Deacon had a sheath of soft plastic under the tape on his forearm. It was like a board,'' Neely recalled. "When he hit me he broke my helmet at the ear hole and the right side of my face went numb. I wasn't afraid of him, but I damn sure was on guard from then on.''

Neely then noted a different aspect of fear that all his former teammates endorsed. None of them ever knew fear to the point of fright at facing any individual opponent.

"I can't remember being afraid of anybody,'' Neely said. "I never worried about a guy who ran his mouth all the time like Dwight White. I worried about the guy who didn't say a thing, like a Willie Davis. He never said a word. I don't think you could play this game with fear. At least I couldn't.''

A rare situation existed during that bygone era whereby Cowboys at a specific position had reason to feel anxious, even fearful of being injured. They were defensive tackles who lined up against rowdy St. Louis Cardinals guard Conrad Dobler.

Dobler earned nicknames that spun off the way he played. He became known as the Vicar of Vile, Vlad the Impaler and so forth. Dobler would hold, kick, gouge, spit and leg-whip, sometimes on the same play.

"He was more of an irritation,'' recalled John Dutton, "and not worth [much] as an athlete. He was just trying to take your mind off of what you're supposed to do.''

A Dobler leg-whip raised a blood clot on Dutton's leg and kept him idle for the 1981 NFC Championship Game against San Francisco. Waters remembered that Dutton's replacement took the wrong stunt that allowed Joe Montana to escape the pocket and find Dwight Clark for "The Catch" and a 28-27 victory.

"Indirectly, Dobler helped beat us,'' Waters muttered.

Jethro Pugh also faced Dobler and survived to tell about it.

"You kept your head on a swivel around him. Stand around a pile and he'd push you from behind. Once I asked him, 'Why do you play like that?' He told me, 'I've got to stay on the team.'

"Another time he came to the line, got down in his stance and said, 'You know I'm going to hold you, don't you?' After he pulled and threw me to the ground, he said, 'That was chicken, wasn't it?'

"I wasn't afraid of him, not one bit. He'd kick, leg-whip and hold. If he had teeth, he'd bite you,'' Pugh said.

Dutton mentioned yet another fear, that of injury leading to a loss of starting position or worse, the end of a career.

"I didn't want to get hurt and lose my job," he said. "You can only do this so long. So that's in the back of your mind. You think about it more after the game or before the game or during the week, but never during a game. Fear of injury was always a big thing.''

The old Cowboys are left with their memories, and some still haunt. Waters shudders to think of small, fast receivers like Harold Jackson and Gray getting open behind him.

"They instilled fear in me,'' he said. "I don't like to think about it even now. It makes me uncomfortable in the bottom of my gut. I'm afraid I have to do it all again.''

Frank Luksa is a freelance writer based in Plano, Texas. He was a longtime sports columnist for The Dallas Times Herald and Dallas Morning News.