The first weekend in August means one thing in the NFL — Hall of Fame weekend. It’s an event I look forward to every year. During my pro football career, I took the field with many Hall of Fame players, played for some Hall of Fame coaches, and built relationships with others throughout my time in the league.
This year is different. This year is personal. The Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2019 includes the man who is most central to my entry into the NFL — and my media career that ensued.
This weekend in Canton, Ohio, there will be an endless roll call of people whose lives have been impacted by Gil. His influence is sprinkled all over the Dallas Cowboys‘ history, as Gil was an instrumental member of the trio — alongside Tex Schramm and Tom Landry — that guided the team in the franchise’s first 29 years in the National Football League. Gil, as the vice president of player personnel, helped the Cowboys to 20 winning seasons and five Super Bowl appearances, including two titles. His first and last first-round draft picks (Bob Lilly in 1961, Troy Aikman in 1989) ended up in the Hall of Fame, along with seven others in between.
Gil took unconventional routes to sign a basketball player in Cornell Green and a Navy Midshipman and Heisman winner named Roger Staubach. Gil raided the folding USFL to find another Heisman winner named Herschel Walker. He revolutionized scouting through the use of computers and psychological testing to find the right type of player, and was part of the group that initiated what is now the NFL Scouting Combine. Gil made blockbuster trades that landed Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Randy White and Tony Dorsett, and signed free agents Everson Walls, Mark Tuinei, Bill Bates, Drew Pearson and others who reside in the Cowboys Ring of Honor.
All of these stories will be told throughout the weekend, whether in passing or during Saturday’s enshrinement ceremony, and I’ll sit back and enjoy all of them. But this article is about my humble beginnings in the NFL — thanks to Gil.
The 1982 NFL Draft came and went with nary a blip. Far from the widely viewed spectacle we see today, that draft wasn’t televised nor could it be found on the radio. In fact, I didn’t find out who was drafted until I opened the Durham Morning Sun the next morning to read the 12-round recap. As a senior at Duke University, I thought I could get some late-round attention from one of the then-28 NFL teams. I stayed close to the phone throughout the draft, waiting for it to ring. But it stayed silent, except for one call — a late-night shout from my brother, Richard, who told me that he’d been drafted in the 10th round by the New York Giants. (You can imagine how this made me feel.)
My phone rang a day later with a Dallas Cowboys representative on the other end. It was the voice of Buck Buchanan saying he was in the area and would like to sign me to a free-agent contract. My emotions soared when I heard the news. Could this really be the Hall of Famer from the world champion Kansas City Chiefs? The dreams of meeting the legend were put to rest when Buck, the Cowboys equipment manager, knocked on my door hours later. The reason the team dispatched its equipment manager to sign me was there weren’t enough scouts to sign all of Dallas’ desired free agents that offseason. (They even sent out secretaries and trainers to sign guys.) He was feeble and balding, much different than the Buck who I thought was coming to see me. He was friendly with a warm and inviting smile, and I liked him rather immediately. That is, until he made his initial contract offer: a three-year deal worth $102,000 with a $500 signing bonus. I had to consider what my counter offer would be — well that, and take a German exam that I needed to pass in order to graduate — so I asked Buck if he could return after a while.
We eventually agreed on the numbers, and after a few collect phone calls to the Cowboys, Buck raised my signing bonus to $1,250 — enough to get my breaks fixed on my 1974 Plymouth Fury. Man, the Cowboys really wanted me!
The following weekend, I was invited to Cowboys minicamp to meet 124(!) other rookies. Yes, Gil had drafted 15 players that year and signed 110 free agents like myself. It was the Cowboys Way. Gil had written me a letter welcoming me to the Dallas Cowboys and ended it with: “When opportunity knocks, will you be ready?” It was fitting considering Gil and the Cowboys just gave me, a 22-year-old undrafted free agent, the opportunity I had always dreamed of.
On July 13, 1982, I flew first class on Pan Am Airlines from JFK to LAX — my first flight in first class. All 125 rookies and a few select veterans started our own personal game of “Survivor” the following day on the Cal Lutheran College practice fields in Thousand Oaks, California. We battled for three hours in the morning and three more in the afternoon for 11 straight days with conditioning after each session. Then the veterans showed up. Fortunately, my position was left guard, which meant that I was the scout team guard and practiced against All-Pro Randy White on every drill. I loved it. After all, if you wanted to be the best, why not compete against the best?
The rookies participated in 40-to-60-play scrimmages after each practice that were evaluated by Gil, his scouts and the coaching staff. I must have done something right because I was the first offensive rookie to enter a preseason game (the team’s second) at left guard, replacing our Pro Bowler, Herb Scott. It was an inauspicious debut; however, I had caught the attention of coaches and players alike.
After our final preseason game against the Houston Oilers, a lot of rookies stayed in the 6060 Hotel next to the team facilities in North Dallas. Time stood still waiting to see if I made the team — a dream that seemed pure fantasy when I began practice seven long weeks prior. Then, on the last Sunday in August, Gil called my hotel room phone. In his acquired Texas drawl, he asked me if I had dinner plans for tomorrow evening.
“Ummm … What do you mean?” I responded.
Gil continued, “I wouldn’t be asking you to dinner if you didn’t make the team.”
It was Gil’s backhanded way of telling me that I had earned a spot on the 1982 Dallas Cowboys, but also that the work — the hard work — had just begun.
Thirty-seven years ago, Gil Brandt gave me an opportunity that was nothing more than a kid’s dream. I never forgot that moment nor others that changed my life. To answer Gil’s question, I was ready when opportunity knocked and ended up playing six years for the Cowboys and six more for the Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles.
When my football career ended following the 1993 season, I transitioned into a career in media in an assortment of roles. And Gil was always there to encourage me, congratulate me and continue to talk with me about this incredible sport we both love.
Gil has absolutely earned the right to be feted in Canton, the final stop on the road to football immortality. When he is standing at the podium on Saturday evening, I’ll be watching and thinking long and hard about how Gil changed my life in ways that are truly make-believe.
Thank you, Gil. You have paved the way for so many others, giving them their opportunities on the way to the Hall of Fame. Now, it’s your turn to join them.
Follow Brian Baldinger on Twitter @BaldyNFL.