Once upon a time – in an era that feels impossibly long, long ago – the Dallas Cowboys and newspapers were both wildly successful. I know, right?
It was that seemingly unlikely convergence of importance – with a spice of England – that led to one of the most maddening, embarrassing and hilarious moments of my 28-year career in DFW media. With the Cowboys back in London to play the Jaguars this Sunday, seems a jolly ol’ time to revisit the prolific prank that was orchestrated by a rascal named Jimmy Johnson.
Yes, that one.
It was August 1993 and I was a 29-year-old Cowboys beat writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram alongside Mike Fisher. The Cowboys had just birthed their ‘90s dynasty, having beaten the Bills in Super Bowl 27 seven months earlier en route to three championships in four years. They were the most dynamic team in sports, elbowing Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls for the spotlight. It was Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin and Jerry Jones and, yes, it was Jimmy.
In ’93 the Internet was taking its first, clumsy mainstream steps. There were still times when – in a pinch – we had to dictate our stories over a wired device called a telephone. Nonetheless, information on the resurgence of America’s Team was at a premium, even rivaling what it is today. Fisher and I had just written a book on the Cowboys – The ‘Boys Are Back – and every Aikman hangnail or Irvin nightclub rumor was front-page, top-of-the-fold news.
In those days Cowboys fans still anxiously awaited their morning newspapers, as sports-talk radio stations such as The Ticket had yet to be launched. And, as you can imagine, the competition for morsels of Cowboys’-related scoop was fierce. Since the Dallas Times Herald (whose main beat writer was Mickey Spagnola) had folded in ’91, the battle was Dallas vs. Fort Worth – as in the Star-Telegram’s Whitt and Fisher vs. the Morning News and its beat writers, Tim Cowlishaw and Ed Werder.
Tensions were high as America’s Team headed across the pond. Smith was in the midst of a contract holdout. Aikman was recovering from back surgery. A Monday Night Football season-opener at the Redskins was looming. And Jimmy and Jerry were already beginning their private tug-of-war for credit.
As they will this week in London, the Cowboys held a couple of practices and then a light, casual day consisting of merely a walk-through. No pads. No hitting. No news.
Or least Fisher and I thought.
We were tired from tracking the Cowboys’ moves in England and Smith’s holdout news back in Dallas. And on our first visit to London we were tempted by the Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace and, of course, Big Ben.
“It’s only a walk-through,” we reasoned, as we planned to play hookie for a half-day and turn into dorky American sightseers. “What could possibly happen?”
While we noshed on fish ‘n chips and gawked at Westminster Abbey, Johnson took note of our rare absence. He first called over public relations guru Rich Dalrymple to hatch his scheme, then consulted Jerry.
We never saw it coming.
As Fisher and I returned from our tourist trek, we made calls to our sources to make sure we didn’t miss anything. Wait, what the what?!
According to separate calls and hotel visits, we indeed missed something. Something huge. Something that – if true, and if we didn’t have the details – would get us reprimanded and then some.
Apparently while we tried to get the Queen’s guards to smile, Jimmy and Jerry had an on-field argument about Smith’s contract that spilled into the team’s hotel and almost became a physical confrontation. Imagine: The Cowboys’ owner and coach fight over the star running back’s contract in England and all us beat writers had to show for it was a photograph of me wearing a New Order concert T-shirt and Oakley sunglasses in front of the world’s most famous clock.
London fog, indeed.
Given the six-hour time difference, we still had time to rally and save our reputations (and jobs). Frantically, we began piecing the story together.
Radio voice Brad Sham provided details. So did Channel 8's Dale Hansen. Aikman confirmed the spat. Jones gave us a rare "No comment," which screamed volumes to the fight's veracity and validity. Irvin swore to us that it was so intense that he called Smith back in Dallas to relay the episode. And a TV cameraman from CBS Channel 4 – Fox had yet to be invented as well – even had the chilling video.
There was Jimmy, fuming into the camera and then shoving it away as he stormed off the field.
“I’m sick of this sh*t!” Johnson yelled. “If I can’t have my best players, then his ass can start coaching this team!!”
It was real. It was dramatic. It was scary. It was … 100-percent fake.
The whole production was a lavish London playlet, directed by the sinister Johnson. The media was in on it. The players were in on it. Even the owner.
Just as we thought we had the story nailed down and were dotting the i’s on our “breaking news” story, we got a call from Sham.
“I shouldn’t be making this call,” he said. “But be sure you double-check your info on the so-called fight. Everything is not as it appears.”
A call to Dalyrmple confirmed the hoax.
“I was about to call you two knuckleheads,” he laughed. “Get over here. Someone wants to talk to you.”
Befuddled yet still urgent, we went to the team’s hotel to be greeted by Johnson.
“How was your vacation, ladies?!” he boasted. “Gotcha!”
Somewhere Alan Funt was taking pride, and Ashton Kucher was taking notes. We’d been Punk’d, Candid Camera-style.
As Fisher and I balanced the embarrassment of being pantsed with the relief of the whole episode only being a trick, Johnson poked us one more time.
“Bet you won’t miss any more of my walk-throughs.”
In the end we were flattered to be the subject of such an elaborate prank by the entire Cowboys’ organization. And we were awakened to just how manipulative and theatrical Johnson could be, on demand.
After the Cowboys started 0-2, Smith signed and they went on to win their second consecutive Super Bowl before Jimmy and Jerry got into an authentic fight and shockingly parted ways. And here Fisher and I are, still scribbling and yacking about the Cowboys some 21 years later.
Moral to the story: Skip nothing. Trust no one. And, believe me, Big Ben ain't worth it.
A native Texan who was born in Duncanville and graduated from UT-Arlington, Richie Whitt has been a mainstay in the Metroplex media since 1986. He’s held prominent roles on all media platforms including newspaper (Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Dallas Observer), radio (105.3 The Fan) and TV (co-host on TXA 21 and numerous guest appearances, including NBC 5). He currently lives in McKinney with his wife, Sybil, and two very spoiled dogs.