It has become de rigueur for writers to write essays about what their parents have done to them–those vivid, haunting moments when everything changed and a young life was damaged forever. Few people, though, tell the opposing stories, the unforgivable things that we’ve done to our parents: mom’s wedding ring dropped in the toilet and flushed; dad’s convertible wrapped around a traffic light; and worse, the disowning, that time-honored tradition of deciding in our twenties that our parents are too backassward to deserve our respect.
We make amends. We grow out of our snobbery. But what I did to my father on December 28th, 1975 was more unforgivable than any of the usual offenses.
It happened on a Sunday. We had long since returned from church services, where my mother and father proudly inhabited the front row at the 9:30 A.M. mass with their five, soon to be six, children wriggling impatiently beside them. We had gone to Lone Star Doughnuts, just off the Frontage Rd from State Hwy 183, where we greedily ordered our favorite doughnuts: chocolate with sprinkles, lemon-filled, éclair.
It was cold that day. In the thirties and cloudy, which meant—and even at six I was a smart kid who knew such things—that it would be even colder up north where it mattered. We sat at our giant dining room table and ravaged the doughnut box. My mother, holding baby number five in one arm, while newly pregnant with number six, was already in the kitchen, preparing today’s gastronomical orgy, dumping foot-long bricks of Velveeta Cheese into the Crock Pot alongside also-dumped cans of Rotel chilies.
My father sat in front of us, the living room an extension of our dining room, the whole space grand with its cathedral ceilings. He was reclining in his brown and orange-striped recliner, his back to us, hands behind his head, silent, exhibiting proper reverence for what was going to take place today. In front of him, in its proper place at the head of all family affairs, the television was on.
Johnny Unitas faced us, speaking into an orange snow cone of a microphone that said CBS, “Welcome to Metropolitan Stadium in beautiful Bloomington, Minnesota, where the Dallas Cowboys visit the Minnesota Vikings in the Divisional Playoffs. Wind chill seventeen degrees. Relative humidity seventy-eight. A slight chance of flurries.”
As game time approached, we children wiped our glazed doughnut hands on our navy-blue church pants, stripped off our button-down shirts for Cowboy jerseys (I was a big fan of wide receiver Drew Pearson, who bore, in duplicate, my favorite number 8), and made our way to the L-shaped couch that matched my father’s recliner. We bounced on it, Cowboy fans but also kids. My mother brought out tortilla chips and the Velveeta dip. Crumbs fell out our mouths, tumbled onto the rust-colored shag carpet, slipped into cracks on the couch.
The game began.
There are several things you must know about the Dallas Cowboys in the 70s to fully understand the way this went down. This was pre-Jerry Jones, pre-Tony Romo, pre-Cowboys as pop culture brand. The Cowboys were already considered America’s Team, and the cheerleaders were already wearing tight white short shorts with five-pointed blue stars around isthmus-shaped waists, but the Cowboys were something in the 70s that they aren’t anymore. The Cowboys were serious.
The Texas Stadium we grew up with was just two miles down the aforementioned state highway 183 from where we lived. Its most notable feature was the hole in its dome. The idea behind the hole was that the fans would be sheltered from the elements while the players played under “natural” conditions. This wasn’t what Texans told you when you asked why the stadium had a hole in the roof, though. What they told you, only half joking, was that the hole had been left at the request of God himself.
Texas Stadium in the 70s was a dry stadium. You couldn’t drink in it. Tom Landry, the coach, was a stoic man of few words, who wore a fedora and a gray tweed suit to every game. Tex Schramm, the general manager, was a pudgy, affable, balding man who exuded equal parts humility and success. And finally, at its center, the quarterback, Roger Staubach, another man of few words, a devout Catholic, and the precursor to Tim Tebow—a player who didn’t shy away from attributing his success to a higher power.
The Cowboys of the 70s—as well as its fans—were good. While every other football team was evil. The Cowboys’ rivals in the East, the Redskins, the Eagles, the Giants—they were sneaks and cheats, they’re fans boorish. The Steelers, last year’s Super Bowl Champions, with their black uniforms and preponderance of penalty flags, were even worse. Tonight’s opponent, the Vikings, weren’t quite as bad, but their defense was anchored by a bunch of showboats, a group that called themselves The Purple People Eaters, and their fans were notoriously negative.
In short, the Cowboys represented everything my father believed in: calm, seriousness of purpose, and faith that God would win the day.
The game was boring. The Purple People Eaters were prevailing. At halftime the score was Minnesota 7, Dallas 0.
Boredom has a negative effect on children’s behavior. One of the things we did, when football games got boring, was mock the cheers. Da, ta, da, ta, da, ta, da, ta, da, ta, da, ta, da, ta, da, ta, duuuuh, CHARGE! There were other annoying things we did too, when they showed the cheerleaders, we got off the sofa, twirled around, danced, and sang, “Shake your booty! Shake your booty!” Also, when a referee penalized the Cowboys, we screamed, “That’s a bull ship!” because it was OK in our household to almost swear but it wasn’t OK to swear.
My father was silent through all this, eyes glued to the screen. Dad, Landry, Staubach, they were one and the same.
Minnesota 14, Dallas, 10. Fourth quarter. Still a defensive game.
Meanwhile, my mother fed us: carmelcorn; flat Dr. Pepper poured out of two liter bottle into plastic cups; snickerdoodles.
You can see where this his headed.
Most of what I’ve written thus far is research, probability, and family pattern, but as the Cowboys got the ball, just a minute left on the clock, a final drive sputtering against the Purple People Eaters, memory, true memory returns. We were silent then, off the couch and sitting cross-legged on the shag carpet, inching our way closer to the screen, chewing our fingernails to the quick. Even at six, I understood what was at stake.
The Cowboys were at mid-field with seconds left. Staubach was in the shotgun formation, the formation famously coined by America’s team. The starting center injured, a rookie snapped the ball. Staubach drew back, the Vikings rushed him, just a four man line but still closing fast, and then the ball went up in the air, way too high, fluttering.
This is when it happened. The unforgivable crime I perpetrated against my father.
I stood in front of the TV.
“CHARGE! CHARGE! CHARGE! CHARGE!”
From behind me, I could hear the creak of his recliner. My father screaming in rage, “Get out of the way! Get out of the way!”
But I didn’t move. Sugar-shocked? Afraid to miss the play? I don’t know. Something yellow flew across the screen in front of me. Number 88, Drew Pearson, God’s wide receiver, my man!, circled back. A Viking defender fell to the ground. Another defender in the vicinity looked confused. The ball descended like a shot mallard.
Behind me, my father continued to shout, all that pent-up tension, trying, and failing, to get out of his recliner. “What’s wrong with you! Move!”
And then Pearson, his back to the end zone started falling back. The ball, where was the ball?
It was on his hip! Pearson caught the ball on his hip! And then turning back around, running forward, he waltzed into the end zone. All of us were standing now, jumping up and down. The whole family. Victory! Good had won.
My father was up now, his enraged, stubbly face in mine. “What happened? What happened?” he yelled at me.
“I don’t know,” I said quietly. Although I did know, I’d seen everything.
We turned back to the screen. The referees were looking around. The Cowboys were looking around. The Vikings were looking around. What was the yellow thing flying across the screen? Was it a flag? Had Pearson knocked the defender down? Was there interference?
My father couldn’t take it. He left the room.
But it wasn’t a penalty flag; it was an orange. A drunk Vikings fan had thrown an orange to try to disrupt the play. The Vikings were evil. The Cowboys were good. Good had won!
The Cowboys were celebrating in the end zone. Players toppling over one another. More oranges hurdling out of the stands. The camera flashed to a referee, blood streaming from a gash from his head, beaned by a whisky bottle from the Viking boors.
It was good, right, we had won? Where was Dad?
My mother was standing next to us but not watching the TV. She was glancing toward the doorway that my father had walked through. “Your father is very upset,” she said.
She grabbed the bowl that had held the carmel corn, nothing left in it but unpopped kernels. She glanced at the crumbs on the shag carpet. She went back to the kitchen.
My two brothers, age 5, age 2; my sister, age 3; their heads slightly cowed, retreated to the bedrooms.
I stayed in front of the TV alone.
Johnny Unitas put a microphone in front of Roger Staubach for the post-game interview. It was then that he delivered his now famous line, “I couldn’t see a thing,” Staubach said, “I just tossed the ball up and said a Hail Mary.”
And so it was that I’d blocked my father’s view of the television while Roger Staubach delivered the original Hail Mary pass.
We had dinner later that night, beef stroganoff. My father didn’t say anything about what had happened. Neither did my mother. He’s mentioned it since then, shaking his head, a Texan’s lying grin on his face, never letting me know that it bothered him. But secretly, we both know the score. For a Catholic, for a Texan, for a Dallas Cowboys fan, missing the Hail Mary pass was like a hippie losing his ticket and missing Woodstock.
But there was still another secret between us. Something that I only knew after it became clear I wasn’t Landry, stoic and insensitive. Something that I only knew after it became clear I wasn’t Staubach, tossing the ball up and expecting it to land in the right hands. Something I knew after I abandoned my parent’s Catholic faith and broke their hearts.
My dad hadn’t left the room because he’d been upset with me. He’d left because he knew the right team hadn’t won. Number 88, God’s receiver, his son’s favorite player, had hooked the cornerback.
There’d been interference.
The Cowboys were cheats. It couldn’t be ignored.