OXNARD, Calif. – When Jason Garrett said last Friday he felt the overwhelming strength of the Dallas Cowboys was their culture, many eyes probably rolled.
The Cowboys have the most players facing suspension to start the season of any team in the NFL. DeMarcus Lawrence will miss the first four games. Rolando McClain will miss the first 10. Randy Gregory will miss at least the first four. And over the years the Cowboys have taken many character risks and not seen them pay off. They were one of two teams willing to give Greg Hardy a chance last year, and that ended so poorly the Cowboys have not tried to re-sign Hardy despite the need for pass-rushing help.
But then something like Saturday happens and it makes you rethink everything.
Three groups of Cowboys players, coaches and staff walked silently onto the practice field in Oxnard, arm in arm with family members of Dallas police officers killed in the line of duty in early July. Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings was there. So was Dallas Police Chief David Brown.
It was a lump-in-the-throat moment.
The genesis of the sign of unity came from the players, specifically Jason Witten, who then ran it by other leaders on the team.
“Our players are really pretty special,” Garrett said. “You've heard me talk a lot the last couple of days about the character of our football team. We have some rare guys in our locker room and they're the guys that make up the culture of our team. We're very deliberate in trying to bring those kinds of guys to our team. I think there are so many great examples for us as coaches every day as to why we think it's such a privilege to coach these guys. But I don't know if there is a better example of what happened [than Saturday]. To have Jason Witten and the other leaders of our team initiate this and be so thoughtful in trying to carry it out and make sure these families know that we support them during this very difficult time, I thought it was special. I think everybody responded well to it.”
As he walked off the field Saturday, Jerry Jones said, “I’ve never been so proud of the players in my life.”
It’s a reminder of how the actions of a few can affect the many. The suspensions of Lawrence, McClain and Gregory do not indicate the Cowboys are a team that will take chance after chance after chance all in the name of having a good football team.
It is a sign that they will take chance, to be sure, but nearly half the teams in the NFL have players facing suspension. That is not to excuse the actions of the Cowboys’ players or the franchise for continually taking chances on risky players. It’s just a fact.
“There is no exact science when it comes to human beings, and we’ll continue to make ourselves better,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “We will obviously always look at it to see how we can improve and do better. We’ll continue to work at this.”
A lot of times the headlines do not cover the good that is done. We don’t know about Morris Claiborne opening a facility back in Shreveport, La., to give kids a place to go after school. We don’t know much about Brandon Carr’s work to bring clean drinking water to Flint, Mich. We don’t know a lot about the football camp Cedric Thornton put on in Arkansas.
But we do know about Gregory’s issues, Lawrence’s issues and McClain’s issues.
“We have a platform,” Witten said. “We're difference-makers. We understand that. I think I speak on behalf of all of our teammates: They do a lot of good. They understand that. I think it's in the spirit of understanding what you want to do.”
In late June, Garrett and his wife, Brill, attended a James Taylor and Jackson Browne concert at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Toward the end of his set, Taylor stopped and sang the first verse of “America the Beautiful.” Garrett called it one of the most incredible renditions he has heard, singing along with 40,000 other people in the stands.
Taylor followed that with his own “Shed a Little Light,” which talks about Martin Luther King and the bonds that ties us.
“We’re bound together and we have a road before us and I think that’s a really important thing,” Garrett said. “I was there that night with probably 40,000 other people enjoying the show, but it was really one of those moments that we all kind of looked at each other and felt like we are bound together, and in a lot of ways James Taylor was prophetic because of the things that happened in our city happened a week later. He probably was referencing some of the things that happened in our country and around our world prior to that, but I think that concept of unity and uniting and team and being bound together is really, really important.
“And when you’re trying to build a football team, when you’re trying to build a community, build a country and a world, those are magic words and it’s a magic concept and they’re hard to achieve, but I think we all have to try to achieve them and I think we took a step in that direction [Saturday] with what the people in our organization and the city officials and the families did here out here in Oxnard.”