If there is one reason Joe Nick Patoski's books -- biographies of Selena, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Willie Nelson -- are so good, it is his ability as a storyteller. Any decent reporter can sift news clippings and videos or interview the participants, but Patoski's style and organization turn what could have been dry, pedantic history into a page-turner. You can actually picture him whittling on a piece of pecan while, with a knowing huckster twinkle in his eye, he wheedles you into something you didn't bargain for. It's the Texas way.
It doesn't hurt that his subject matter in the thorough-to-a-fault 816-page tome Dallas Cowboys: The Outrageous History of the Biggest, Loudest, Most Hated, Best Loved Football Team in America is the self-proclaimed America's Team, that garish, gauche agglomeration of rich nut jobs, rigid Christian automatons, true-believer underpaid players like Lee Roy Jordan, Bob Lilly, Dave Manders and Don Perkins, and too-highly-paid thugs like Pac-Man Jones and Michael Irvin known as the Dallas Cowboys.
Ever since the ultra-kooky Dallas zillionaire Clint Murchison founded the franchise with his twisted brain trust of carnival barker Tex Schramm and rigid Jesus-nut coach Tom Landry, the Cowboys have been a three-ring larger-than-life circus.
Federico Fellini couldn't make this shit up.
For people of a certain age -- those of us who still remember the team in its infancy, when NFL football was changing Sunday viewing habits forever, and who have been sucked in by the Cowboys media juggernaut for the past 50 years -- the book is the key to forgotten personalities and events, a history closely paralleling our own lives.
"If there is a goal to this book, it's to trigger memories in readers," Patoski told me recently. We were discussing short-term head coach Chan Gailey, whom I had completely forgotten. "Chan the Man was not that bad a coach, he just had a very tough act to follow, the Cowboys still being in thrall of Jimmy Johnson's aura."
While Patoski has gathered a smattering of information firsthand via interviews -- mostly from innocent bystanders like center Dave Manders's wife Betty who add color and validity -- he did not interview any of the major principals in the story, although he did request an interview with current owner Jerry Jones three times.
According to Patoski, seeking an interview with Jones was something any good journalist would do, but Jones ignoring his requests didn't really alter the book in any way.
"The security guy told me he wouldn't respond, there wasn't anything he'd gain from that," says Patoski. "Listen, the written record on this subject is so huge, I didn't need to talk to him or anyone, really. My goal was figuring out the bigger story." And figure out the bigger story he did. Not only does Patoski leave no stone unturned in relation to the Cowboys' on- and off-the-field actions, he also masterfully ties in the history, politics, business environment and culture of Dallas and the DFW area. He even draws a subtle comparison with Houston, using Molly Ivins's insightful line, "Houston is degenerate, Dallas is perverse."
The overarching highlight is Patoski's cinematic Technicolor evocation of the circus the Cowboys are and have always been. Sex, drugs, rock and roll have never looked so salacious, except in Pete Gent's great fictionalization of the Cowboys, North Dallas Forty.
"That's the outrageous part," Patoski explains. "It wasn't anything I said; it's what the written record said."
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the book is how well the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders come off. In spite of their hyper sexed-up public image, up beside all the macho crazoid stuff going down with the team and its management, the cheerleaders come off as one of the few true positives, mainly due to the careful management and civic foresight of the various managers of the organization over its history. Few realize the economic impact the cheerleaders have made; they frequently add more than $1,000,000 in profits to the Cowboys' bottom line annually.
Patoski paints dynamic, carefully researched portraits of all the main players in the drama, neither diminishing the accomplishments nor exaggerating the freak-show events. But it is his timely, unblinking portrait of current owner Jerry Jones that stands out.
A megalomaniac of epic proportions, Jones is rightfully portrayed as a marketing genius who took both the Cowboys and the NFL to almost unimaginable financial heights, yet for all his financial success and a brief return to glory during the Jimmy Johnson regime, Jones's football club has been barely above mediocre on the field over the long haul. Patoski lays the blame for Dallas's .500 record over the past decade squarely at Jones's feet.
Patoski makes the case -- as have others -- that the problem is Jones's insistence on functioning not only as owner but as general manager, the only owner in the league to do so. For every stroke of genius comes another incident where Jones comes off like a spoiled, redneck brat who puts his celebrity above winning by continually meddling with coaches and football decisions.
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Patoski labels the fact that Jones and the Cowboys continue to be thought of by the public -- and by ticket buyers -- as a great football team in spite of their lackluster record over the past decade as "Jerry's con." Never in the history of the NFL has such a mediocre team demanded so much rabid loyalty or had such astronomical television ratings.
The author also makes plain that in spite of all the smoke and mirrors, Jones and his revolving cast of head coaches haven't come close to matching the success of the original owner and coach. Patoski does offer hope to the faithful that the Cowboys may right themselves when Jones steps down in favor of his son, Steve Jones, who has been in the family business since day one and is apparently less of an egomaniac than his flamboyant father.
Don't be intimidated by this five-pound monster. Because of Patoski's feel for Texanspeak and Texanthink plus his highly trained reporter's instincts, the book can be cruised through in a week. Well written, informative and entertaining, it stands every chance of being a true blockbuster, just like its subject.