This article from a couple of years ago made me remember how fricking nuts that team was led by Michael Irvin.
The Observer, Saturday 28 February 2009
Though more than 10 years have passed, it still seems surreal; almost as if the entire episode never actually happened.
Oh, there have been some amazingly grisly moments in the history of American professional sport. In 1977, Kermit Washington, a forward for the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers punched Houston's Rudy Tomjanovich in the face, leaving the Rockets forward unconscious in a pool of blood. Why, just two years ago, a minor league baseball coach named Mike Coolbaugh was killed when a foul ball struck him in the head.
Yet nothing - absolutely nothing - matches the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s.
Matches the scissors to the neck.
The date was 29 July 1998 - a seemingly normal afternoon in room 212 of the Cowboys' training camp dormitory at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas. As was customary, that morning a Dallas-based barber named Vinny had driven the two and a half hours to camp. It was one of many luxuries afforded Cowboy players - free trims. Vinny would set up a chair, break out the scissors and buzzers and chop away, one refrigerator-sized head after another.
On this day, a handful of Cowboys lingered, passing the time by talking about the upcoming season and the local bars and the "hoochies" hanging around camp. The Cowboys, after all, were known as "America's Team" - the darlings of the NFL, who walked and played with uncommon swagger and arrogance.
After defensive back Charlie Williams finished receiving his cut, Everett McIver, an offensive lineman, jumped into the chair. It was his time. "Let me say this - Everett did nothing wrong," says Kevin Smith, the veteran cornerback. "He was a dude in need of a haircut who waited his turn properly." Vinny wrapped a plastic bib around McIver's neck and picked up his buzzers.
Then Michael Irvin entered the room. A superstar wide receiver known as the heart and soul of the three-time Super Bowl champions, Irvin was equally famous for his crazed antics.
The man known as "The Playmaker" had made a hobby of breaking rules and laws. In 1991, Irvin allegedly shattered the dental plate and split the lower lip of a referee in a charity basketball game.
When Gene Upshaw visited Dallas training camp in May 1993 to explain an unpopular contractual agreement, Irvin greeted the NFL union chief first by screaming obscenities, then by pulling down his pants and flashing his exposed derrière toward Upshaw.
So here Irvin was, moody, agitated and wanting an immediate trim.
"Seniority!" he screamed.
McIver, sitting in the chair, didn't budge.
"Seniority!" Irvin screamed again. "Seniority! Seniority! Punk, get the fuck out of my chair!"
It was on.
"Man," said McIver, "I'm almost done. Just gimme another few minutes."
Was Everett McIver talking to Irvin? Was he really talking to Irvin? Like... that
"Vinny, get this motherfucker out of the chair," Irvin barked at the barber. "Tell his pathetic ass to wait his fuckin' turn. Either I get cut right now, or nobody does."
Standing nearby was Erik Williams, McIver's fellow lineman. "Yo E," he said to McIver, "don't you dare get out of that chair. You're no fuckin' rookie! He can't tell you what to do!"
Sensing trouble, the barber backed away from McIver's head. McIver stood and shoved Irvin in the chest. Irvin shoved back. McIver shoved even harder, then grabbed Irvin and tossed him towards a wall. "I'm the littlest guy in the room," says Kevin Smith, "so I just yell, 'Leon, do something!'"
Leon Lett, the enormous defensive lineman, tried separating the combatants to no avail. "It was crazy," says Smith. "I couldn't believe what I was seeing. We were on the same team."
In a final blow to any hopes of diplomacy, McIver cocked his right fist and popped Irvin in the mouth. This was not wise. "I just lost it," said Irvin. He grabbed a pair of scissors, whipped back his right arm and slashed McIver across the neck.
The motion was neither smooth nor slick, but jagged, like a saw cutting felt. The tip of the scissors ripped into McIver's skin, just above his collarbone and inches from the carotid artery. McIver let loose a horrified scream.
"Blood immediately shoots all over the room," says Smith. "And we're all thinking the same thing - 'Oh, shit.'"
For a moment - as brief as a cough - there was silence. What had just happened? Had Michael Irvin - king of the Cowboys - stabbed a man in the neck? Was this who the Dallas Cowboys had become? Who Michael Irvin had become?
Then - mayhem. The Cowboys' medical staffers stormed the room, past a dumbstruck Irvin, and immediately attended to McIver. An ambulance arrived, and McIver was whisked away. None of the lingering Cowboys knew the extent of the damage. Was McIver OK? Was he in critical condition? Would he live?
Truth be told, this was more than just a fight. More than just a messy incident. The great Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s - the organisation of pride and honour and success; the organisation where one team-mate would never dare hurt another; the organisation that took over American sport - was officially dead and buried. In its charmed remains, one was forced to ask a singular question: how in the world had it come to this?
The Dallas Cowboys are The Team when it comes to merchandising; when it comes to cheerleaders; when it comes to glamour. A kid who dreams of playing in the NBA might aspire to the Lakers or Knicks or Celtics. A kid who dreams of playing major-league baseball could want to be a Yankee or a Met or a Cub or a Mariner. A kid who dreams of playing football, however, has one goal: to be a Dallas Cowboy.
The team officially entered the NFL in January 1960, when the league voted Texas's third largest city an expansion franchise. In their debut season, the mighty Cowboys avoided defeat only once, losing their first 10 games before salvaging a 31-31 draw against the New York Giants. Yet the bad times didn't last for long.
Under their great coach Tom Landry, from 1966 through to 1985, Dallas won two Super Bowls, five NFC titles and 12 divisional titles. Landry and co were innovators; leaders in the fields of marketing and self-promotion. A gaggle of male and female high school students initially known as the CowBelles & Beaux morphed into the high-kicking, scantily dressed Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.
When the Cowboys left the Cotton Bowl for the Texas Stadium in 1971, 96 luxury suites - the NFL's first "business-class" seating - were incorporated into the ground. (Their $650m new, as yet unnamed stadium, will open in June.)
By the late 1970s, the Cowboys were the Manchester United of the NFL. "The America's Team concept had swept the country," said Thomas Henderson, a Cowboy outside linebacker from 1975-79. "It was mostly because of Tom Landry that the masses identified with the organisation. That was the catalyst."
In other words, the Dallas Cowboys possessed football magic.
And then, with one losing season after another, that magic vanished. The 1988 season that began with the slogan "Blueprint for Victory" ended with Dallas last in the NFC East with three wins and 13 losses. There was palpable anger throughout the city. Landry may well have still been a god, but he was no longer a god with a team worth watching. In a telephone poll conducted by the Dallas Times Herald, 61% of respondents wanted Landry to resign.
Though the proud coach would never do such a thing, he was soon forced out by the team's new owner, Arkansas oilman Jerry Jones. As soon as he had bought the Cowboys for $150m, Jones fired Landry and replaced him with Jimmy Johnson, whose arrogance and swagger matched the new owner's.
Johnson came to Dallas convinced the team would win immediately - then suffered through a brutal debut season in 1989, winning just one game and notching up 15 defeats. The humiliation, however, didn't last.
By 1991, the Cowboys were back in the play-offs, and in 1993 - behind a reshaped roster of stars like quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith, defensive end Charles Haley and the audacious Irvin - Dallas were back in the Super Bowl, walloping the Buffalo Bills, 52-17, beating them again the following year, 30-13, then, two years later, downing the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-17.
How did they win with such regularity? Simply put, talent. In Aikman, the country boy from Oklahoma, Dallas had one of the league's two or three best quarterbacks.
In Smith, they had a nuclear weapon lined up in the backfield. And Irvin, well, he was simply the strongest, toughest receiver the NFL had seen since the late 1960s. "Mike was just gifted," says Jones, the owner. "Someone said, 'Let's make a football player,' and they wound up with Michael Irvin."
Yet under Jones and Johnson, the Cowboys were no mere football powerhouse. They were an insane asylum; a place where anything went and all deviant behaviour was tolerated, if not embraced.
The outlandishness truly took shape in the lead-up to the 1992 season, when Jones orchestrated a trade with the San Francisco 49ers to bring Haley to Dallas. Haley was famous among his peers for being, in layman's terms, nuts. Certainly he was socially awkward and unflinchingly vicious. Though prescribed medication to treat manic depression, he took the pills one day, then skipped them for the next two or three.
It started with his penis. On his first day as a Cowboy, Haley arrived in the conference room for a film session dressed only in a towel. "The next thing you know, Charles is lying naked on the floor in front of the screen, entertaining himself," says Tony Casillas, a team-mate. "Hand on his penis, back and forth."
When Butch Davis, a defensive coach, saw what was happening, he stopped the projector. "Haley!" he yelled. "Get your fuckin' clothes on and don't come back in until you're dressed."
"Charles liked to push buttons and test the waters," says Kenny Gant, the Dallas safety. "He would kiss you on the mouth and say, 'Man, I love you.' He'd just put a big ol' kiss on your face, waiting to see your response."
Though Haley brought a new level of madness to the Cowboys, he was an undeniable winner. In his six seasons with the 49ers, Haley had earned two Super Bowl championships and, in the shadows of stars such as Joe Montana, Steve Young and Jerry Rice, was overlooked as a vital cornerstone. "He knew the game better than any of us," says Antonio Goss, a former 49er linebacker. "He could pick up little patterns and cues that nobody else would see. That's the thing people never understood - Charles might have been odd, but he was very intelligent and incisive."
Haley was weird, and Irvin was, well, devilish. Blessed with an uncommonly engaging personality and the ability to last days without sleep, The Playmaker drank hard, snorted cocaine, smoked pot, bedded three, four, five women at a time - and sucked in as many team-mates as possible. Perhaps Irvin's greatest conquests took place during the offseason.
As captain of the Hoopsters, the Cowboys' basketball team, Irvin was responsible for booking games and landing women. While the Cowboys were a big deal in Dallas, they were huge in smaller towns across the state and country, where a visit from the Super Bowl champions was akin to a return of Elvis.
Women came out in droves, typically in miniskirts and fishnet stockings, low-cut blouses and low-riding leather pants. "It didn't matter if you were a dope dealer, a Channel 5 TV reporter or a judge on the US District Court," says Nate Newton, a Cowboy lineman. "You weren't getting the women the Cowboys were."
And yet, as the Cowboys partied and partied and partied some more, things began to slowly fall apart. While Haley and Irvin were athletically gifted enough to live life at 100,000mph, many team-mates tried to follow along - and failed. Cornerback Clayton Holmes was suspended for failing multiple drug tests, as did running back Sherman Williams and defensive lineman Shante Carver.
Many Cowboys struggled with alcoholism, and offensive lineman Erik Williams nearly died in a drink-driving accident that cut short his career. "We lived too fast," says Holmes, "because we didn't particularly care about tomorrow."
Nothing exemplifies this better than the so-called White House, a large-yet-unremarkable two-story brick home with a faux Georgian facade on a suburban cul-de-sac next to the Valley Ranch facility where the Cowboys trained.
The house at 115 Dorsett Drive was rented under the name of receiver Alvin Harper, and the new neighbours in an exclusively white, low-key community were 6ft 5in, 300-pound African-American men escorting an endless conveyor belt of large-breasted blondes.
Nate Newton insists the White House was a haven for neither prostitution ("What did we need a prostitute for? Women laid down for us") nor drugs ("Never saw 'em"), yet his take is disputed by myriad team-mates and people in the know.
To visualise the inside of the White House, picture a relatively nice suburban home, then double the size of the televisions, throw in a pool table, wet bar and some prostitutes. Oh, don't forget the handful of hidden video cameras throughout the 15 rooms.
That, hands down, was the most unique feature - allegedly installed by Dennis Pedini, a close friend of Irvin. "Everything that happened in the White House I'm assuming Pedini had on camera," says Kevin Smith. "He didn't tell the guys they were being filmed at the time, but - surprise! - they were."
The White House governor was Irvin, who - to nobody's surprise - considered the facility a home from home. Women were escorted through the front door, brought to the rear bedroom, enjoyed and discarded with dazzling rapidity.
Supposedly happily married to Karen, his wife of nearly 10 years, Haley would regularly bring his away-from-home fling to the House. "Charles was banging this girl who lived in the apartment under me," says Joe Fishback, a defensive back. "You could literally hear them doing it."
And yet, just as dramatically as the Cowboys rose to the peak of the NFL, they fell. As the excesses mounted, the commitment to winning declined. In the lead-up to Super Bowl XXX in 1996,roughly a dozen members of the team rented limos in Dallas in order to have their mistresses driven to Arizona.
Those same vehicles were then used to transport players to the pre-game practices - perhaps the first time in Super Bowl history that participants travelled in such luxury to and from a practice field. "It was silly, and sort of pathetic," says Darren Woodson, the team's star safety. "We were losing our priorities very quickly."
The downfall was officially consummated a month after the Super Bowl - in which the Cowboys beat the Steelers, the last time they reached the pinnacle of American football - when Irvin and a former team-mate named Alfredo Roberts were found by police with two strippers, 10.3 grams of cocaine, more than an ounce of marijuana, assorted drug paraphernalia and sex toys. Irvin - who greeted one of the on-scene officers with "Do you know who I am?" - pleaded no contest to a felony drug charge and received a five-game suspension, 800 hours of community service and four years probation. He turned up to court in a floor-length mink coat.
"That was the tipping point for the Cowboys," says Clayton Holmes. "The moment when it was clear we went too far."
The years have passed. The muscles have eroded. Aikman, Smith and Woodson work as broadcasters. Holmes was recently jailed for failing to pay child support. Three minor members of the 1990s Cowboys are dead - a shooting, a heart attack, drugs.
Everett McIver, the gargantuan defensive lineman, didn't die, and the 18-stitch gash on his neck gradually healed. The Cowboys engaged in a full-scale cover-up - McIver was offered a high-six-figure pay off to keep the story under wraps (he accepted); team bosses publicly dismissed the brawl as "horseplay".
The following season, 1999, Irvin was tackled head-first into the turf in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles. He suffered temporary paralysis before being diagnosed with a cervical spinal cord injury. He would never play football again. However, he continued to womanise and use drugs and a year after his retirement, Irvin was again arrested on drug possession charges. It looked as if he would never turn his life around.
Then, something happened. Irvin credits God. Others credit rehab. Whatever the case, Irvin has supposedly been clean for more than half a decade. He speaks out about his past misdeeds, attends church regularly and hosts a local radio programme in Dallas-Fort Worth. His greatest triumph came on 4 August 2007, when he went to Canton, Ohio to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the greatest honour that can be bestowed on a professional football player. With his family in attendance, Irvin gave one of the all-time great sports speeches, baring his soul after too many years of hard living.
Mostly, he spoke about a man who committed one too many errors in judgment; of a man who thought the only way to live was large. He looked at Sandi, his wife, and apologised for violating her trust, and looked towards his mother and thanked her for creating a man.
Then he asked his sons, Michael, 10, and Elijah, eight, to rise. The tears streamed from Irvin's eyes and onto his cheeks.
"I sat right here where you are last year and I watched the Class of 2006: Troy Aikman, Warren Moon, Harry Carson, Rayfield Wright, John Madden, and the late, great Reggie White represented by his wife, Sara White. And I said, 'Wow. That's what a Hall of Famer is.'
"Certainly, I am not that. I doubted I would ever have the chance to stand before you today. So when I returned home I spoke with Michael and Elijah. I said: 'That's how you do it, son. You do it like they did it.'"
By the time Irvin took a step back, finishing with "Thank you, and may God bless you," he was overwhelmed by the roar of human thunder. An explosion that lasted and lasted and lasted and lasted and lasted
For the first time in his life, Michael Irvin was on top of the world. He was whole.