The Cowboys conflict: The cost of rooting for America's Team

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones meeting with players before a 2018 game against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field. Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports

HOURS BEFORE THE Dallas Cowboys host the Chicago Bears on a late October day, you can feel the hope. The sun shines on North Texas, after days of cold and rainy skies. The Cowboys have won five of six, Dak Prescott is back from a thumb injury, and the playoffs feel like a real possibility.

From the parking lot, as the crowd swells, the smell and smoke of meats on the grill is everywhere. People are singing in English and Spanish. Some fans wear costumes. A few are dressed as referees. A few others wear jerseys, shoulder pads and helmets. Hard to tell if they're in costume or if that's just what they wear to games.

"Look at that," they say. They take pictures, constantly. A selfie with the stadium in the background. A picture of the Sky Mirror, the concave disc 35 feet in diameter that reflects everything standing in front of it. Another picture of Tom Landry's statue on the concourse. There's a man walking around dressed as death; a sinister skeleton's mask and hands, blue horns that curl out the top of his Cowboys helmet. People take a picture of him too.

When the stadium doors open, fans rush inside. More pictures to take, and so much money to spend inside the pro shops. A t-shirt specifically for this game costs $36. A jersey for $170. A full-sized replica helmet for $215. An authentic one costs $425. Looking for something cheaper? There's an oversized, blue-colored foam sombrero with the Cowboys star on the side for $24.

Fans make their way from the pro shop to their seats. The first-timers are easy to spot; they all look up, to the giant television screen, 160 feet wide and 72 feet high and 90 feet above the field, drawing attention from the field. Up there is where the reminders of past Cowboy greatness lives. The 22 names in the Ring of Honor. The five Super Bowl banners.

The last of those championships came in 1995. Since then, Dallas has lost games and seasons in absurd, heartbreaking ways. The Tony Romo botched field goal hold and the three breaks to his collarbone during the prime of his career. The loss after the Cabo trip. The referee who didn't see Dez Bryant catch the ball. The Prescott quarterback draw when there wasn't enough time. It's sometimes difficult not to wonder if the foundation of America's Team is broken.

But 20 minutes before the game starts, the fear fades. The giant televisions are celebrating the 30-year anniversary of the 1992 Super Bowl. Fans cheer. Some of them are old enough to remember those days, and those that aren't have heard the stories. They've seen the pictures around the stadium of that Super Bowl, and the ones after, and of those players.

Here, inside AT&T Stadium, or Jerry World, or whatever you want to call this monument to our collective obsession with the game, there are things that get sold and things you just buy. That this team, for the first time in a quarter-century, won't disappoint, that they control their destiny. That we fans, sitting in our $500 seats, are united in the cause.

That everything here -- this brand, the most valuable in sports; this league, the most popular in the nation; this state, the second-richest in America; this country, the most dominant in the world -- is this way for a reason.

"That's the one the Cowboys will wear on Thanksgiving," a worker at the Cowboys pro shop tells a fan. The game is about to start, and he's looking at a white-colored helmet with a blue star. $425. He turns it around, looks inside, then puts it back. He walks away to look at something else to buy. Something else past the rack of gray t-shirts that have the Cowboys Star and "America's Team" written across the chest. A few moments later, someone else picks up the white helmet.

"That's the one the Cowboys will wear on Thanksgiving," the worker says.

WHEN JOAQUIN ZIHUATANEJO was a young boy -- a mocoso, he calls himself, a snot-nosed kid -- his uncle, Silastino, attended Sunday morning service at Cathedral Guadalupe in downtown Dallas. After church, Tino -- which is what everyone called Silastino -- returned home, sat on the couch, drank Budweiser and watched the Cowboys play. Joaquín sat next to him. "I was taught at a very early age to love them," Zihuatanejo remembers. "It was almost like part of our faith."

Together, they watched games on a small black-and-white television that his grandfather found while cleaning yards in Dallas' suburbs. It was on a curb, thrown away and sitting there, though nothing was wrong with it besides a bent antenna that a little aluminum foil and duct tape easily fixed. It was one of the treasures, tesoros, as his grandfather called them, that he brought home.

As they watched, Tino would tell young Joaquín about the past and current Cowboy players. Bob Lilly, that was Mr. Cowboy. "Bullet" Bob Hayes, that was the fastest man in the world. Roger Staubach, that was Captain Comeback. Drew Pearson, that was Mr. Clutch. He'd tell him though the Cowboys were America's Team, they were their team first.

"They belong to us before they belong to everybody else," Tino would tell him. He'd tell Joaquín these stories as often as the Cowboys seasons were long. Telling them so often they became almost mythology.

"When I think about it as an adult, we were so enamored by the team, but we were so distant from it," Zihuatanejo says of the Cowboys and what they represented. "It might as well have been on the other side of the world to a poor skinny kid from the barrio."

Zihuatanejo, now 51, is Dallas' current (and first) poet laureate, lauded for his penetrating use of language. Growing up, his side of the world was East Dallas. He describes it as "surrounded on all sides by gangs, poverty, violence, and by pain and tension and strife." It was a place close to Deep Ellum, the neighborhood where the blues flourished in the years when the Klan's influence on Dallas was at its strongest. Artists such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker, Lead Belly and Robert Johnson performed and recorded not too far from where he lived with his grandparents.

His side of the world was playing football on the field behind Bonham Elementary, the largely Latino school that closed in 2012 because Dallas' school district needed to save money due to state budget cuts. His side of the world was reading out loud to his grandfather from a book or magazine that'd been inside an abandoned box on a curb. That was another treasure.

Zihuatanejo often read from poetry anthologies. His grandfather listened and sometimes wiped a tear from his eye. It was his grandfather who helped name him Joaquín, in honor of the Mexican folk hero -- Joaquín Murrieta -- who, soon after the Mexican land became the United States in 1848, vowed revenge on the Americans who not only took his mining claim but made him watch the violation of his wife and murder of his brother.

You read a poem and make the man who means that much to you cry, and you too would want to grow up to become a poet. Among the many poems he's written, there's one -- "Another Kind of Faith" -- about playing soccer against a team from that other side of Dallas.

"They wanted to break us because we were different," Zihuatanejo writes. "We wanted to break them because they were beautiful." Maybe it was happenstance, or maybe it wasn't, but the team Joaquín and his friends played against were named the Cowboys. It's a poem about violence and the demarcating lines that exist in his home.

"I'm madly in love with Dallas, my city," Zihuatanejo says. When he talks, his voice rises and falls based on the emotion he's trying to convey. His sentences come out as similes. "But that doesn't mean my city can't break my heart. It does sometimes."

There's a duality to Dallas, Zihuatanejo says, and in many ways the Cowboys symbolize it. A team that despite its name hasn't played in Dallas proper since 1971. It's the joy and pain they bring. Cheering for a team while in a place where he feels an existential disconnect.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm one of the many, and I belong," Zihuatanejo explains. "And other times I feel I'm seen as an outsider, an immigrant in my own homeland."

As an adult, he felt that duality when he first watched the Dallas Cowboys play at AT&T Stadium. "Why doesn't a city bus go all the way out to AT&T Stadium?" he wondered. Arlington is the largest city in the country without a public mass transportation system. Zihuatanejo looked around and felt something different from the stadium he grew up watching on his grandfather's black-and-white TV. When it opened in 1971, with its first event a 10-day Billy Graham crusade, the stadium was a key part of the future of Irving, a Dallas suburb. From 1950 to 1960, Irving's population increased a thousandfold. It had been the fastest-growing city in the country.

For Zihuatanejo, Texas Stadium too was one of those places that felt far away; it looked so distant and immense on television. And yet, Texas Stadium also looked like everyday, working-class people could celebrate there.

"There was something rough around the edges about Texas Stadium," Zihuatanejo says. "I remember being at AT&T Stadium and thinking, 'I don't know if this place is for my tíos,'" Zihuatanejo says of visiting the Cowboys' home which opened in 2009, a year after the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression. "I don't know if they would feel comfortable in something so shiny, and so new, and so expensive."

Zihuatanejo has seen the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium twice more, but prefers to watch games at home on his 85-inch smart TV. "It's a far cry from the black-and-white TV my abuelo found on the side of the road in some far-off foreign suburb," Zihuatanejo says. "I only wish he and my tío Tino were still here to sit on our fancy couch with built-in electric recliners and laugh and shout and cheer with me the way we all did for Captain America."

He thinks about them and the place he comes from. Reminded of it all whenever he reads poetry in places so unlike where he grew up that he can't help but feel guilt. "I have every right to be here," Zihuatanejo thinks to himself, trying to regain balance from that emotional sucker punch. "I deserve this," the mocoso who found his own treasure tells himself.

SOON AFTER WORLD War I, the league that became the NFL formed around Midwest factory towns. Akron and Canton in Ohio. Racine in Wisconsin. Decatur in Illinois. Muncie and Hammond in Indiana. College football, first played in 1869, had the tradition, the heroes, the pageantry and the sense of a dignified spectacle. Professional football had none of that.

"It was dismissed by the overwhelming majority, except for people in towns where there were NFL clubs," Michael Oriard says of the league's early years. He's a professor emeritus at Oregon State University. After playing at Notre Dame and a few years with the Kansas City Chiefs, he became a cultural historian of football.

The NFL struggled to survive. And then the country's population started shifting from small towns, where colleges were, and into large cities. Fans with no ties to college teams, who enjoyed watching football too, turned to the professionals. That's how the NFL's popularity rose in the 1930s and into the '40s. In the following decades, that trend continued. With the post-World War II economic expansion in the 1950s and '60s -- the Golden Age of Capitalism -- society changed. The birth rate boomed. The middle class grew. Televisions became part of life. Increased car ownership and highway construction made for yet another population shift.

A significant part of that shift went toward the Sun Belt, the lower third part of the country where it was warmer, relatively less expensive and offered jobs in the oil and defense industries. Locally, the population shifted toward the suburbs. In Dallas, Interstate 30 opened in 1957. It isn't a perfect demarcation because few things are, but in many ways the highway became one of the many dividing lines in North Texas.

Against all this change, professional football, once dismissed for its senseless violence, got celebrated for that very thing at the height of the Cold War. "Being brutal, but in a manner governed by rules, pro football provided an antidote to a civilization grown soft through prosperity and threatened by a Soviet enemy ready to exploit every American weakness," Oriard writes in "Brand NFL: Making & Selling America's Favorite Sport." The Dallas Cowboys were born in 1960. It was the beginning of a tumultuous decade. There were fights for civil rights and a rising counterculture. A decade with riots and violence that, in Dallas, claimed the life of the president.

"Kennedy victim of the violent streak he sought to curb in the nation," a subhead in The New York Times read on Nov. 23, 1963. In the days after John F. Kennedy's assassination, fans in Cleveland booed the team as it went onto the field. Because of Dallas' stature as a hotbed of conspiratorial thinking, a federal judge said it was "the only American city in which the president could have been shot."

In the years that followed, the Cowboys helped transform the city's reputation. They went from playing in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, on the grounds that host the Texas State Fair, to what was then a state-of-the-art Texas Stadium in Irving. Team folklore said there was a hole in the stadium's roof so God could watch his favorite team play. And as the Cowboys won in the 1970s, becoming as much a part of Thanksgiving as turkey and mashed potatoes, Dallas went from the "City of Hate" to the home of America's Team, as the Cowboys were first dubbed in an NFL Films highlight video from 1978.

"They appear on television so often that their faces are as familiar to the public as presidents and movie stars," said narrator John Facenda. "They are the Dallas Cowboys: America's Team."

That's how the Cowboys brand started in the 1970s, in a league full of labor disputes. Nationally, that decade had a recession, an oil crisis, rising unemployment and inflation. There was a stock market crash, the Vietnam War and a political scandal that forced a presidential resignation.

The 1980s were just as chaotic, at least for some. With Ronald Reagan as president unrestrained capitalism, government social program cuts and rising religious conservatism all served to widen class and cultural gaps. For a time during that decade, the country had 13 billionaires, and five of them lived in Dallas.

In 1984, Dallas hosted the Republican National Convention. Tom Landry and Roger Staubach presented Reagan with a Dallas Cowboys jersey. The next day Reagan accepted his party's presidential nomination and talked of "a national crusade to make America great again." That same year Clint Murchison Jr., the Cowboys' owner, had an estimated worth of $250 million. The following year, with the collapse of real estate and oil prices, he filed for bankruptcy. With creditors closing in, Murchison, suffering from a nerve disease that left him in a wheelchair and communicating through a synthesizer, sold his beloved team.

He was far from the only one who lost everything. Dallas, just like Texas, just like the country, went into a recession. When oil went bust, real estate and banking in Dallas did too. The city and region had overbuilt. Houses and office space were empty. The downtown skyscrapers that made up the city's distinctive skyline were abandoned and sometimes covered with plywood as if they were slums. Rows of Rolexes filled Texas pawn shops.

Even Southfork Ranch -- the real home of the fictional Ewing family of the "Dallas" television series -- struggled before a 1991 foreclosure. The show about feuding multimillionaires epitomized the era, broadcast in over 100 countries and 30 languages. The show's opening included an overhead view of Texas Stadium, which in 1986 saw the Cowboys endure their first losing season in over two decades.

By the end of the '80s, 425 banks failed throughout Texas, including nine out of the 10 with the state's largest holdings. Bum Bright owned one of those failed banks. After Murchison lost a fortune, Bright bought the Cowboys from him. He paid $80 million, at the time the most ever for a sports franchise. Bright owned the team until, for the second time in five years, financial disaster forced its sale. Except for his family, he said, everything he owned was for sale.

In his final year as coach, 1988, Tom Landry won just three games. It was the Cowboys' worst season in decades. When an oil and gas businessman named Jerry Jones bought the team for $140 million -- at the time, the most ever for a sports franchise -- they were the worst team in the league.

IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO ignore those giant television screens inside AT&T Stadium. During the two-minute warning before halftime of the late-October matchup against the Bears, Emmitt Smith appears on those screens. The team is celebrating him, 20 years after he became the league's all-time leading rusher. As the world changes fast and football does too, Smith's record looks like one of the few things that'll last forever.

"He was my first jersey," fan Miguel Castellanos says during a late-winter phone call. His parents couldn't afford to buy things like that, so, in high school, Castellanos bought that white 22 jersey for himself. He still has it, among the many other pieces of Cowboy memorabilia he keeps, including a replica of the brick paver with his family's name etched on it. The real one is on the sidewalk outside AT&T Stadium. "He's my favorite player," Castellanos continues, talking about Smith.

Because he watches every game dressed as his alter ego, SuperCowboy, he wears shoulder pads beneath his number 78 jersey. He wore that number in high school, back when playing professional football was his dream. Semi-pro is the closest he got. Today, along with those shoulder pads, he wears football pants complete with knee and thigh pads. Cowboy boots instead of cleats. And instead of a helmet, he wears the mask of Blue Demon, the legendary Mexican luchador who embodied the good and bad of the human condition.

When Castellanos became SuperCowboy, around 2014, he vowed to keep his identity secret. He's a proud Cowboys fan so it wasn't out of shame; the team had helped him connect with others when he was an 8-year-old living in a new country. No, Castellanos kept his identity secret because he'd grown up in Tijuana, around luchadores. He'd seen how they always hid their face and some even got buried while wearing their mask.

"I'm going to do it the right way," he thought. Most people he watches Cowboy games with -- at AT&T Stadium or at a restaurant hosting a viewing party -- have never seen his face. Together, they cheer and commiserate. In recent years, it's been more of the latter. Last season, Castellanos thought the Cowboys might have had something special. He then watched them lose their first playoff game against the 49ers as tears stained his Blue Demon mask. At 40 years old, he has lived through the glory days of the Super Bowls, back when he was young and took it for granted.

In the 1990s the Cowboys epitomized the NFL in that decade's culture. The overall economy boomed, in part from the dot-com bubble. Job creation grew and the stock market soared. All of it gave some credence to the previous decade's ethos that said maybe greed is, if not good, then certainly OK. The league had labor peace and free agency. And, led by Jerry Jones, individual stadium naming rights and sponsorships would ultimately help turn owners from multimillionaires to multibillionaires. With increased marketing and revenue, it was the decade when the NFL's competition wasn't other sports so much as popular entertainment.

In all of that, the Cowboys were, again, Super Bowl champions. And, again, Texas boomed. In parts of North Texas, homes that'd sell for less than $1 million would instead get destroyed, rebuilt, then sold for much more. Texas diversified its economy. The roughnecks working on oil patches were still there, but so too were the venture capitalists working in the Silicon Prairie. Soon the technology sector became Texas' largest employer. And then, again, at least on the football field, the good times went bust.

Castellanos was around 16 when it began to fall apart. When the career of Michael Irvin -- the heart of the 1990s dynasty -- ended in October 1999. The top of his head hit the cold, unyielding floor of Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium. Irvin lay temporarily paralyzed because of a spinal contusion, and he never played again. The year after, Troy Aikman's career ended on a rollout to his right that left him on the floor. He sat there, confused, with both hands reaching for his head, desperate to soothe the 10th concussion of his career.

Two years later, and a few weeks after becoming the NFL's all-time leading rusher, Emmitt Smith played his last game as a Cowboy. The last member of The Triplets gained 13 yards on 18 rushes. The year after that, as a member of the Arizona Cardinals, Smith played against the Cowboys. Early in the second quarter, he got hit so hard his shoulder broke. "You always thought they'll be back," Castellanos says. He's talking about his favorite players. He's talking about his favorite team.

"They'll get new players, and they'll do it again. But we're sitting here -- years later -- still trying." Still trying to recapture the thing that has escaped them since the 1995 season. So long ago; it's when Yahoo incorporated and DVDs were invented. When Bill Clinton gave a State of the Union speech and bragged that his administration aggressively secured the border from "illegal aliens." They were taking jobs and public services, he explained. A little over a year from that speech, Clinton welcomed the Cowboys to the White House. Inside the East Room, they celebrated their third Super Bowl win in four years. Since then, they've won an average of 8½ games per season.


You can feel them in the country's identity. There, in the myth-making of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood or the Lone Ranger or the other pretend Cowboys who became stand-ins for American masculinity. Symbols for love of freedom and a righteous sense of frontier law.

You can see them in the culture. They're in the Western expansion unrestrained by the ocean's border.

You can sense them in the void. Their muted presence in the self-appointed exceptionalism that ignores the country's first cowboys were Spanish-speaking vaqueros. In silence, Native American and Black cowboys ride there, too.

In space and in spirit, cowboys have made the country what it is. The main actors in the country's folklore.

The country's essence is the cowboy. And in Dallas' surrounding areas, the Cowboys are everywhere, too.

The Cowboys are in Arlington -- not just physically, but metaphorically, too. They're in the white vans and small buses used by bars around the stadium for shuttle service. They're in the contrast between what's there now and what once was. The billion-dollar stadium that replaced the small community of mostly low-income, modest homes and apartments. Nearly half of those who lived there were Latino.

In November 2004, when Arlington voters said they'd help fund a new stadium for Jerry Jones, the city began acquiring land. Those with money, time and an understanding of how the system worked filed a lawsuit against the city that was offering them little for their plots. Those without that just found a new home.

"There's a lot of hidden stuff underneath the surface that we don't want to talk about," says Hannah Lebovits, an assistant professor of urban affairs and public administration at the University of Texas at Arlington "That we don't want to deal with. That we want to argue is not a priority because we've just shut our eyes and we don't want to see it."

About a mile and a half southwest of AT&T Stadium -- past run-down motels and used-car lots; past churches and convenience stores; past used-tire spots and pawn shops advertising they sell guns on windows reinforced by wrought iron bars; past three homeless shelters; past the brewery and art studio that makes the area look like it's transitioning -- there's Lebovits' school. Here she researches and studies homelessness.

More than just a lack of affordable housing, Lebovits says homelessness is a structural problem. "I don't think you can untie it," Lebovits says of how it's all intertwined. The way we see ourselves and others. The way society rests on that. "It's why structural problems are so sticky. Because if they didn't go back to our core -- our fundamental perspectives in this country -- then it would be easy to fix them."

Those things that aren't easy to fix are getting worse. Recently, one of those shelters near AT&T Stadium added 13,000 square feet to help accommodate the growing problem. The Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area is growing so fast that in the next decade it is expected to pass Chicago to become the third largest in the country. Only New York and Los Angeles will be bigger. In the meantime, North Texas rents keep rising, and, just as officials say they're out of relief funds, evictions are up, too.

"So many people are one paycheck away from being homeless," says Stephanie R. Melchert, executive director of Arlington Life Shelter. "They just don't realize it." She says the pandemic made everything worse and, in Texas, the winter storm that followed in February 2021 added to that. According to a study from the University of Houston, as the winter storm overwhelmed the state's power grid, almost 70% of Texans lost power, on average, for 42 hours. The cold disproportionately impacted Black and Latino communities where houses tend to be older. Those houses aren't as well insulated. With the unprecedented cold, their older pipes burst.

As Texans fought to stay warm, some even burned their wooden bed frames for heat and melted snow for water. Hundreds died. The price of natural gas surged in the state's deregulated market. Oil- and gas-producing companies benefited. The president and chief financial officer of one of those companies, Comstock Resources Inc., likened it to hitting a jackpot.

Most of that company's shares are owned by Jerry Jones. But because it's how it increasingly happens -- charities relying on the kindness of billionaires -- Jones, through the Cowboys, also has a partnership with the Salvation Army. And because non-profit organizations help one another, Melchert says that also benefits them.

So, in a way, the Cowboys are in the area's homeless shelters, too.

"I've lived in a lot of cities that have severe inequality my whole life." Lebovits says. She grew up in the Rust Belt, a place where jobs began to disappear in the 1950s with the country's manufacturing decline. "The thing that struck me about Dallas is that it literally glistens because of the sun and the buildings and the design. It's just very over-the-top materialism. There's this significant divide in who has access to that materialism and, honestly, to that aesthetic beauty. It's not just that there's a lot of inequality and segregation in the city, it's that it's baked into the built environment in a way that's just incredibly stark."

IF YOU LOOK at a map of Dallas and its surrounding areas, you'll see Interstate 30 cut across the middle.

"It's literally a tale of two cities," Michael Sorrell says of that divide. He's the president of Paul Quinn College, the oldest HBCU west of the Mississippi. When Sorrell took over in 2007, the South Dallas college was in such bad shape it was 18 months from closing. Everything, from finance to staff size to buildings, needed improvement.

A few days into the job, Sorrell cut the football program. Before he got there, that decision had already been made by the board of trustees. But since killing football in Texas is tantamount to sacrilege, Paul Quinn's outgoing president wouldn't do it. Sorrell did. He saved the college $600,000 a year but earned the outcry of the community.

"We're in Texas, people think football's the birthright of every boy," Sorrell says. "We're an institution charged with educating economically under-resourced African Americans. We're in a country where people would have you believe the only way out of poverty for Black boys is through their bodies. Football represented that."

There are parts of North Dallas, where, compared to other places just a couple of inches south on the map, life expectancy for males is longer by almost 25 years. "If you look at the northern part of our city, it is clear where the priority for resource allocation has been," Sorrell says. "It is clear where the resource allocation for education has been."

Schools are better funded in the north. Buildings are bigger, textbooks are newer. Students and teachers have better resources in less crowded classrooms. And, because this is Texas, better funding also means, out there, the football fields are newer, bigger and better.

Out there is where the once wide-open spaces between those football stadiums, water towers and churches are getting filled. In comparison, the south side is old. It's where, in the 1950s, as Black middle-class families moved in, their homes got bombed.

Where, in the 1970s, thousands of white residents asked real estate agents about selling their homes soon after a judge forced school integration. It's where there's a historic cemetery with the bodies of those who helped shape the city and region. Names on graves matching those on parks, schools and streets.

Santos Rodriguez rests there, too. He was the 12-year-old Mexican American boy killed in 1973 by Darrell Cain, a Dallas police officer. Cain wrongfully accused Rodriguez and his brother of taking $8 from a soda machine. Cain handcuffed Rodriguez, put him in a squad car and tried to force a confession. Cain put a .357 Magnum to the young boy's ear. Cain pulled the trigger once, and nothing happened. Cain pulled the trigger again, the gun fired. It took more than 40 years before the city offered a public apology for what Cain did; a murder for which he served just 2½ years in prison.

In Pike Park, there's a sculpture of Santos Rodriguez and a recreation center named after him. It's near downtown Dallas, about a mile from Trinity River, in a neighborhood once known as Little Mexico. The Mexican barrio's end began in 1966, the first year the Cowboys made the playoffs. The Dallas North Tollway got built on top of it.

"Take a pin, and put it right in the Trinity River," says Chris Dowdy, Paul Quinn College's urban research fellow and former VP of academic affairs, when talking about the North Texas landscape. "Take a thread," Dowdy continues, "run it up to SMU and then you snip it." SMU is Southern Methodist University, the former football powerhouse that never recovered after the NCAA gave it the death penalty in 1987. The school paid players and got caught multiple times. SMU is north of I-30, where Dowdy earned his doctorate.

"You swing down to our side of the Trinity River and you hit Paul Quinn," Dowdy says.

SMU and Paul Quinn are equal distance from the middle of the city but on opposite sides. Paul Quinn is in an isolated farmland, not from where there was a mountain made of 260 tons of old shingles. On windy days, the mountain -- an illegal dump site -- looked like it was smoking as toxic grit darkened the sky. SMU is surrounded by wide boulevards; lush, green grass; and trees so big and thick their leaves block out the sun.

"You've got the prison one exit down," Dowdy says of Paul Quinn's campus. "And pawn shops and liquor stores and that's sort of the assets in the neighborhood."

When the pandemic hit, neighborhoods near Paul Quinn took the brunt of the government's ineptitude. Places where people couldn't work from the homes they shared with multiple generations of family. Where any doctor's visit comes with the prerequisite questions: How much will this cost? Can I afford it? The same places that face the greatest barriers to vote in a state that's already among the most difficult to cast a ballot in. It's in a place that's a food desert. "We've got to drive 20 minutes to get a bruised banana," Dowdy says.

Since Sorrell became president, the college has tried to get a grocery store in its part of South Dallas. When it applied for a loan, a bank said it didn't qualify because its 140 acres of land wasn't worth much. When it offered free land to a grocery chain, the company passed.

"[They] said our neighborhood just doesn't look like their customers," Dowdy explains. "Whatever they thought they meant, we all can hear that. And so, you couldn't give the land away." With few other options, the college turned to its empty football field. With the help of donors, in the spring of 2010, Paul Quinn turned it into a farm.

About 10% of what's grown on the farm -- things like radishes, sweet potatoes and collards -- goes to the community. Until the pandemic put an end to it, Paul Quinn also hosted farmers markets. Legends Hospitality buys the rest. That's the company that, among other things, handles concessions at venues and stadiums around the world. Jerry Jones co-founded it in 2008.

About 35 miles north of there, past the highway's horizontal divide, almost a straight drive up the other highway, there are three high school football stadiums within a 7-mile radius of one another. Combined, they cost $182 million dollars to build.

The money came through bond elections. Soon after construction finished, inspectors found cracks in the concrete of two of those stadiums. Because there was a will to fix it, the problem got solved. The third stadium was fine. The school district sold the naming rights to a Dallas children's medical center for millions of dollars.

FEW PLACES ARE as optimistic as AT&T Stadium is after the Cowboys win. Like you'd want to live in the apartments across the street from the stadium, painted Cowboys silver and blue. Like you could afford the ones being built near there, just past Johnson Creek, a five-story luxury, resort-style building with studios starting at $1,350 per month. Like, on your way back to the cheapest parking you could find, about a mile away on the other side of I-30 -- here, called Tom Landry Highway -- you'd want to take a selfie with the mural of Micah Parsons in the background, the words "How 'Bout Them Cowboys!" written in cursive beside him. Like everything feels so good today after the Cowboys beat the Bears by 20, somewhere around AT&T Stadium the man dressed as death might even be dancing.

The team's success during the second half of the season has erased the early thoughts of this being another lost campaign. Dak Prescott missed five games because of a fractured thumb, and the team didn't break, competing for the division title all the way through Week 18. Its mix of veterans and young players, some among the best at their respective positions -- Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard, DeMarcus Lawrence and Micah Parsons, CeeDee Lamb and Trevon Diggs -- have made them Super Bowl contenders. Though they enter the playoffs with lots of questions -- chief among them Prescott's escalating turnover rate -- a title run remains on the table.

When the Cowboys are good, North Texas feels vibrant. The yells of "How 'bout them Cowboys!" aren't as annoying. Monday and the upcoming work week feel more tolerable. Callers to local sports talk radio stations sound optimistic. They're a sharp contrast from the callers to political talk shows a few spots down the dial.

In the months after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, the Dallas suburbs were home to among the highest number of the country's residents charged in the insurrection. Elmer Stewart Rhodes, founder of Oath Keepers, the far-right militia, was one of them. Authorities arrested him in his home in Little Elm, a tiny town next to Frisco, where the Cowboys have their headquarters. Six weeks ago, a jury found the Yale-educated Rhodes guilty of seditious conspiracy. About a week after the 2022 midterm elections, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who got a $500,000 campaign donation from Jerry Jones, invoked invasion clauses in the state and federal constitutions.

In December, the Texas National Guard used boats to patrol the Rio Grande. It was part of Abbott's plan to secure the border, saying the state and country were being invaded from Mexico. Abbott also said more walls will be built along the state's southern border. That he'll deploy more National Guard members on gunboats to patrol the river, even though sections of the Rio Grande have gone dry.

I asked Dowdy if Dallas and its surrounding areas has ever dealt with its history and the problems traced to it. "I wouldn't say any city has reckoned well with the depth of this reality," he says. "We underestimate the conflict and violence as a part of our current reality and the history that's delivered us to it."

None of this makes the Dallas area any different, of course. In a country with towns and cities full of demarcating lines separating the different Americas, there are countless other places where one can feel and see the spiderwebs of cracked concrete. The only difference between every other place in the country and here is that this is where America's Team lives.

Despite everything, we watch, the game's debilitating violence just one of the many things we've seemingly accepted. We watch, some to see the Cowboys win and others to see them lose. Either way, we can't look away. They're the brand Jerry Jones described as more than just a football team, soon after he risked everything he had to buy it.

"The Cowboys are America," Jones said.