“They are the Dallas Cowboys, ‘America’s Team.’” Those were the opening words to a 1978 highlight film. From that point on the Cowboys were ‘America’s Team’ and became embedded in the minds of football fans across America, as the team you loved, or the team you loved to hate. They even said the whole in the roof at Texas Stadium was there so God could watch the game too.
Tom Landry reportedly hated the trademark (interestingly the Pittsburg Steelers were initially offered the moniker of ‘America’s Team’ but they turned it down). He complained that it gave teams an incentive to play that little bit harder against his team. Legendary QB Roger Staubach said, “Everybody wanted to beat the Cowboys.” You could also argue that every team wants to ‘Be’ the Cowboys. They are currently the richest sports team in the world, and no matter the situation, when the Cowboys are on the field it means big ratings and a lot of money.
There will be football fans who will say that anyone who puts on the Cowboys jersey becomes an automatic jerk. And the Cowboys have had more than their fair share of colorful personalities in the locker room. The Cowboys organization never seem to be far away from their next controversial episode, whether it’s drug busts, in-fighting amongst players, or domestic abuse. But the Cowboys have also produced some of the true icons of the game, men who wore the famous star with pride, played the game right, and were worthy of playing for the team that represents America.
There’s no denying that the Cowboys have produced some of the greatest players to ever play the game, but what you do off the field ultimately defines your legacy (just look at Terrell Owens STILL not in the Hall of Fame). Here is a list of the top 10 jerks and sweethearts to play for the Cowboys through history.
20 Jerk: Tony Romo
Outside of Dallas, Tony Romo has few fans. He was listed in the 2013’s Nielsen Sports Top Ten Least Likeable Athletes List, a list which included Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong! Any white guy who wears a cap backwards and isn’t in the Beastie Boys is just asking to be labelled a D-bag, but perhaps it’s harsh to label Romo a jerk. By all accounts he is a pretty decent guy and good leader. But still, few tears were shed outside of DFW during Romo’s emotional press conference when he conceded the quarterback position to Dak Prescott. Romo just wouldn’t let people forget just how much it sucked to get paid millions of dollars to look miserable on the sideline holding a clipboard. And while Prescott has praised Romo’s help, Mark Sanchez apparently played a far more significant mentor role to the sensational rookie.
Also, back in 2009, Romo reportedly dumped his girlfriend Jessica Simpson on her 29th birthday when he kicked her out his car and abandoning her in an IHOP parking lot in the middle of Texas. Some may argue that this is totally understandable behavior. But Romo did this after Simpson had just bought Romo a $100,00 speedboat. Not cool, Antonio. Not cool.
19 Sweetheart: Sean Lee
Sean Lee’s Little League Baseball coach in Pittsburg described Lee as “A very nice and polite kid with off-the-charts intensity.” Lee grew up in a blue-collar, hard-working family, in football mad Pittsburg, so it’s no surprise he found a home in North Texas. Jason Garrett has commended Lee, saying “His preparation is off-the-chart. He’s here early. He stays late. He’s always asking questions and you see him in meetings."
Sean is the ultimate team player. In January 2016 Lee decided not to play in week 17 match-up (Where the Cowboys were already out of the payoff picture), which meant he turned down a $2 million dollar playing bonus, because he didn’t feel it was fair to his teammate to risk injury just for the money, “I’m not going to disrespect my teammates and my coaches and be out there not playing the right way.”
On the turf Lee is everything you want in a professional athlete, but away from football he has been a shining example to young Cowboy fans. He works very closely with 2 DFW charities, The Boys & Girls Clubs and PMR Charities. And when he married his wife Megan in 2014, instead of having a wedding registry, Sean and Megan asked if guests donated to a young girl who was struggling to pay medical bills to battle a rare disease.
18 Jerk: Terrell Owens
In terms of ability and talent Terrell Owens is one of the great wide receivers of all time. Only Jerry Rice and Randy Moss have more career touchdowns and only Rice has more career receiving yards. Why is it then, that all five professional teams T.O. played for could not wait to get rid of him? The reason is because Owens is the definition of a sports diva. He was a disruptive presence in every locker room he ever set foot in.
In his first season for Dallas he was fined $35k for spitting at Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall.
Throughout his time at Dallas he also had what he called a “fractured” relationship with Tony Romo and Jason Witten.
In 2015 at the age of 41 Terrell Owens tried to convince the Cowboys to bring him back. It appears Jerry Jones didn’t return his calls.
The Hall of Fame selection committee are supposedly not to consider off-field issues when deciding who to induct, yet it is purely off-field antics that explain why Owens is not in the Hall of Fame. Those celebrations in particular can get certain people riled up.
He should still be in the H.O.F. though.
17 Sweetheart: Dat Nguyen
In 1975 a pregnant Tammy Nguyen was on a boat along with hundreds of other Vietnamese refugees fleeing the recently fallen Saigon on their way to the US. She was carrying future Cowboys linebacker Dat Nguyen. US military vets also pouring back into the country. Dat was born in a refugee center in Arkansas before the family settled in Rockport, Texas. Rockport, like many towns in America, did not like the Vietnamese.
Despite showing early promise in sports, Nguyen wasn’t accepted by his peers, facing racial slurs on a constant basis. But while the town grew irate about the Vietnamese “taking over the town”, high school soccer coach called Jimmy Hattenbach won a regional championship with a team almost completely made of Vietnamese, with Nguyen the stand-out star. In high school he switched to football got a scholarship with Texas A&M, and while most teams worried he was too small, the Cowboys took him in the third round, and was Cowboys starting linebacker until a neck injury forced an early retirement.
Nguyen’s story is uniquely American. Despite being ethnically 100% Vietnamese, Dat describes himself as ‘Part Asian-Part Caucasian.’ ‘I’m proud of my heritage. I believe that I’m also an American. We came to this country to get freedom and have opportunities. America has given me a life that I can never explain to anyone and allowed me to make a difference in others.” Nguyen has always remained humble and grateful for the success he has achieved, and his story has been an inspiration to all Americans. Texas is one of the most richly diverse States (Irving, TX boats the most diverse zip code in all of America), it is fitting that Nguyen has found success and a home in the Lone Star State.
It’s safe to say these days Nguyen is pretty popular in Rockport, Texas.
16 Jerk: Ezekiel Elliott
The running-back phenom who terrorized the NFL last season is increasingly becoming a cause for concern. Before the 2016 before the season had started the Cowboys organization raised concerns about Elliott’s “pattern of behavior.” Jerry Jones was not happy when Elliott was seen visiting a pot store in Seattle. While that is hardly a serious charge, you would hope that a rookie with the attention Elliott was getting would have a little more sense.
He was lacking a little in grace when he left Ohio State to turn pro, ripping the coaches play-calling after 17-14 loss to Michigan State, and then bluntly announced he was going pro and it was his last game for the Buc-eyes anyway.
He is currently being investigated for domestic abuse from an ex-gf, but as the investigation is being ongoing it is unfair to comment on it (but let’s be honest, news that an NFL running back is involved in domestic abuse is hardly shocking).
And then, after the Cowboys heartbreaking loss to the Packers in the playoffs, it seemed it took Elliott less than a week to get over it, where he was seen fist-bumping shirtless at a Vegas club. Then again, no-one can doubt Elliott’s commitment on the football field, so you can hardly blame him for hitting it hard in Vegas during his down-time. Also his touchdown celebration against Tampa where he jumped into a giant kettle cause a spike in over $180,000 to the Salvation Army. Zeke is young and lacking a little in maturity, but maybe he’s a Cowboys Sweetheart of the future.
15 Sweetheart: Jason Witten
According to a new ESPN.com poll the Cowboys are no longer the most hated team in the NFL, with the Patriots taking the number one spot. Jealously of the Patriots huge success is a factor, but the Cowboys could also be seen as more likeable thanks to people like Jason Witten. No one has more respect from the fans, or those in the locker room, than the Cowboys stellar tight end.
“Witten is the ultimate warrior,” describes Sean Lee, “He’s the ultimate teammate. He’s the ultimate tight end. He’s the ultimate leader.” Tony Romo called him “the best teammate. He really is, for everybody.”
In 2012 Witten became the third Cowboy to be named Walter Payton Man of the Year, for his work off-the-field. He is involved with many non-profit organization and his SCORE Foundation helps people deal with domestic violence. If there was an NFL Woman of the Year, Witten’s wife Michelle would be a candidate every year. Despite being married to a multi-millionaire sports star Michelle Witten has one of the toughest jobs there is as an Emergency Room nurse at the Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas.
14 Jerk: Deion Sanders
“They don’t pay nobody to be humble,” Sanders was quoted when he joined the Atlanta Falcons in 1989, and he has stuck resolutely to that philosophy throughout his weird career.
Sanders was obviously one of the most gifted athletes in sports history. He won back Super Bowl’s with different teams (the 49ers in ’94, the Cowboys in ’95), and played in the 1992 World Series with the Braves, while also claiming that basketball was actually his favorite sport (he claimed he could have signed with the Lakers, despite not even playing high school basketball). Maybe it’s sheer jealousy that causes Sanders to just rub people the wrong way. He’s good and he knows it. As a pundit he has gained a reputation for being a blowhard, attention seeking, and just basically kind of a jerk. More seriously there has been verbal and physical abuse chargers from two turbulent divorces.
Despite a hugely successful career and going down as one of the best cornerbacks in history, apparently a “long talk” was needed by the Hall of Fame committee before they confirmed his place.
In defense of Sanders, since retiring from the game he has been an effective mentor to a number players including Devon Hester and Dez Bryant. He also issued a challenge in 2005 to all professional athletes to donate $1000 to help victims of Hurricane Katrina which helped raise over a million dollars in aid.
13 Sweetheart: Charles Haley
The linebacker who has five Super Bowl rings, and helped Dallas win three championships, was infamous during his playing career for his volatile temper. He was traded to Dallas from the 49ers after huge fight with coach George Siefert. While on the field Haley was awesome, there are countless stories of Haley falling out with players, and playing disturbing pranks on his teammates.
In 2002 Haley was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. “I walked into the league a 22-year-old man with a 16-year-old inside of me screaming for help,” Haley said of his condition. But he would never ask for help. It explains why numerous times he considered taking his own life during his playing career. Haley believes had he known he a disorder during his playing days, the relationship with his teammates and his coaches would have been much different. It certainly would have helped explain his erratic behavior. Luckily on the field Haley said, “I learned to adapt my behavior to be able to focus and be able to help inspire my teammates to strive to something greater than the individual.”
Haley is now an advocate for mental health awareness. He has also been a special adviser to rookies for the Cowboy. Haley has dedicated his life after football to charity, working closely with the Jubilee Center and the Salvation Army, where he has often been seen in the public as a “Salvation Army Bell Ringer” raising money.
12 Jerk: Dez Bryant
Dez Bryant’s story could have gone a lot differently. With a tough upbringing in South Texas, where he saw his mother arrested for dealing crack cocaine. Despite being one of the most talented wide receivers in the NFL, controversy just seems to follow him.
First was his suspension for nearly his entire final year with Oklahoma State for not disclosing an interaction with Deion Sanders (although the NCAA were way out of line with the severity of that suspension). Then his first years in Dallas were dogged with domestic violence charges. More recently he was sued by Texas state senator Royce West for the damage done to a house Bryant had rented from him, which reported “irreparable damage to carpeting, flooring, windows, shutters, and blinds…and the presence of animal feces” which cost Wells over $60k to fix.
What perhaps is most grating to football fans is his refusal to take responsibility when things aren’t going right for him. Bryant has gained a reputation for being petulant. Of course most of this stems from Bryant’s huge competitive streak, and his teammates often comment on how personally Bryant takes every win or loss. And, heading into 2017, Cowboy fans will more than forgive Bryant’s off-the-field attitude if he can help them finally bring a Championship back to Texas.
11 Sweetheart: Dak Prescott
Dak Prescott’s 2016, from being selected 135th in the draft to a record-breaking rookie season is the stuff movies are made of (Aaron Rodgers had to go ruin the Hollywood ending). After being handed the starting QB spot after Tony Romo’s pre-season injury Prescott showed all season exactly how a rookie football star is supposed to act on and off the field.
Prescott, who grew up a Cowboys fan, was praised all season by Cowboys organization for his work-rate, maturity, and commitment to the team. Wade Wilson the Cowboys QB coach said he had never seen a rookie learn a playbook as quickly as Prescott. In late August he turned down free tickets from one of the companies he endorsed to see Kanye West at the American Airlines Arena aware, saying it wasn’t fair to the fans to see him our partying during the week before a game. And the social media went crazy after a video was shared showing Prescott on the sideline against the Ravens finishing off a drink, before tossing it into a trash can behind him. After he missed, he got up pick up the cup and put it in the trashcan. The video was retweeted over 25,000 in a day. For many it seemed to prove what nice guy Prescott was.
Many credit Prescott’s personality and work ethic from his mother Peggy, who tragically passed away after a battle with cancer. Prescott had a strong relationship with his mother, who worked multiple jobs to support Prescott and his two brothers as a single mother, and her work ethic was instilled in Prescott at an early age.
Prescott writes a text message before every game to his mother, as he did when she was still alive. The Cowboys postseason mantra “Finish This Fight,” was inspired by Prescott’s mother, who left her three sons a message at her memorial service: Fight, Finish, Faith. One word for each son. Prescott has said of his mother, “With every struggle, within my life or on the field, I get back up because it’s a step closer to what she wanted me to be.”
10 Jerk: Nate Newton
Nate Newton was given the nickname “The Kitchen” because he was bigger than William “The Refrigerator” Perry and he was a dominant figure in the devastating O-line of the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990’s bringing the team.
While the Cowboy organization loved to see the protection Newton would give to Emmet Smith and Troy Aikman, no protection was given to Newton’s wife Dorothy. No-one knew (or wanted to know) the depth of verbal and physical abuse that Dorothy suffered at the hands of her husband, as well as years of partying, substance abuse, and DUI’s (Newton was sentenced to 30 months for drug trafficking in2001 after being caught with over 200 pounds of marijuana in his van).
Dorothy revealed all her book “Silent Cry: The True Story of Abuse and Betrayal of an NFL Wife.” Interestingly Newton was interviewed by Dorothy’s ghost-writer in an addendum to the book where Nate Newton, who is now a member of the North Dallas Community of God, and spends his time speaking to children about his past, admitted to the years of abuse, expressing deep regret. There’s no doubting that Newton was jerk when he played, but he has gone to great lengths to redeem himself, and admirably, he has never shied away from talking about his dark past.
9 Sweetheart: Tony Dorsett
The scout reports worried about Tony Dorsett during the 1977 Draft, where the general concern was Dorsett was too small for the NFL. The Cowboys took a chance taking Dorsett with their second overall pick, and Dorsett re-payed their faith in him with a brilliant career, helping the team win Super Bowl XII, and breaking a number of rushing records.
Since retiring Dorsett has spoken out about his battles with Chronic Traumatic Ecephalopathy (CTE). While he can vividly remember playing against the Bronco’s in the 1977 Super Bowl, he has a very hard-time with short-term memory, and knew he had a problem when he couldn’t remember how to drive to familiar places, and was often short-tempered with his family.
In his day Dorsett said, “Nobody talked about concussions. And if they did, it’s like, ‘shake it off and get back out there.’” Dorsett has been candid about his battle to “conquer this.” While Dorsett said the game of football was good to him, he has made it his goal to help players be successful without going through the issues he has had after the game. Dorsett has also helped hundreds of NFL players with sleep apnea issues. Dorsett has travelled the country to hold public awareness events to help combat the disease.
8 Jerk: Michael Irvin
Michael Irvin, the heart and soul of the iconic Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s, grew up one of 17 children in Fort Lauderdale where he literally fought his siblings for food, beds, cool air and attention. And as his life became blessed with success and riches, he never stopped wanting more and more. And he has always been willing to fight to get it.
Irvin’s career is filled with notorious stories, from private jet orgies, to heated contractual disputes, such as one in 1993 which resulted in a stream of obscenities from Irvin before he dropped his pants and mooned the NFL union chief Gene Upshaw. Irvin has been the victim of false sexual assault charges, and has been wrongly vilified by the media on many occasions. But you can’t help but think if Irvin was a little smarter he wouldn’t get himself into these situations. The infamous “motel” episode in 1996 before a game against the Panthers where Irvin was later indicted on second-degree felony charges of cocaine and marijuana possession, resulted in four year’s probation. He then almost violated that probation when he was involved in a ‘street fight’, where Irvin sliced a cut in teammate Everett McIver’s neck with a pair of scissors! Had Jerry Jones not intervened Irvin could have been looking at 20 years in prison. He also once gave his teammates a copy of his autobiography, before telling his teammates “I aint signing S**t,” when asked if he could sign copies.
7 Sweetheart: Larry Allen
Larry Allen’s defied the odds to make it the NFL Hall of Fame. At three months old he was given 24 hours to live after contracting meningitis. Growing up in California, his mother took him in and out of five middle schools and four high schools to make sure Allen never got involved in gangs (he was stabbed age 11). Allen lived in a world where turf wars and drive-by shootings. He didn’t start playing football until the 11th grade, which meant he was off the radar for recruiters. While he was struggling to get a job at McDonald’s he eventually got taken by Division II school Sonoma State before being taken 46th overall by the Cowboys. The rest is history.
It soon became clear Allen was a special player. He was 300lb yet athletic enough to dunk a basketball. He was known as “Quiet Larry.” He had a shy demeanor, that was out of place among the big personalities of the mid-90’s Cowboys. Yet no-one had more respect. The first time Allen went to a Cowboys football practice Charles Haley decided to give him hell, throwing all kinds of the abuse he could. Allen barely acknowledged Haley, and when the ball was snapped Allen literally manhandled him, leaving him a crumpled mess on the floor. Haley never uttered another word at Larry. “He was one of the best football players. No one worked harder.” Haley said of Allen.
Allen gained a reputation for quietly striving for perfection, the first and last on the practice field; the first and last in the weight room. You can compare Allen’s story with the Michael Lewis book “The Blindside.” Had football not saved Allen, life could have been very different for him and his family. Allen was the model professional, a man to show young kids growing up how to perform on and off the field.
6 Jerk: Rafael Septién
Born in Mexico City, Rafael Septién was one of the best kickers of the '80s, leading the league with 27 field goals in 1981. He was the leading field scorer in Dallas Cowboys history with 182 total in his career, until Dan Baley broke the record last year. The Cowboys will likely be happy to see Septién overtaken by Bailey, because Septién is remembered more for what he did off the field.
On January 22, 1987, a grand jury at Dallas County charged Septién for mishandling a minor. Septién declared guilty, although he later maintained he was “totally innocent.” There was not quite the public outcry for child molestation in the late ‘80’s it seems, as Septién was somehow only sentenced to ten-years of probation and a $2000 fine. Needless to say he never played in the NFL again and moved to Mexico.
5 Sweetheart: Don Meredith
Don Meredith was the ‘First Cowboy.’ In fact, he signed for the team before they had even decided on the name ‘Cowboys.’ It’s amazing to think now, but there was a time when people seriously questioned whether Dallas really wanted a football team. Meredith’s first game as a rookie back-up QB was played in front of a mostly empty stadium, where the boos echoed over the few cheers. It would be Meredith, however, who would lead the Cowboys to become a recognizable force in the NFL, paving the way for Tom Landry’s dominance of the next decade.
Meredith absorbed all the boos, and the tough hits, of those early years, while keeping his famous easy-going smile on his face. He was famous for whistling country tunes during huddles. His teammates looked up to him for his guts, and knew that he would never bail on them, nor blame them when mistakes were made. Twice the Packers denied him glory in NFL Championship games including the infamous “Ice Bowl” game of 1967.
After his sudden retirement in 1969 Meredith became a key part of ABC’s Monday Night Football revolution as color commentator, and became loved, as he was in Dallas, across the whole of America.
4 Jerk: Greg Hardy
Passion, is a key buzz word when it comes to football. Both Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett defended the Cowboys controversial decision to sign Greg Hardy in 2015 despite being dished a four-game suspension for a brutal domestic violence charge, by citing that his “passion” just needed to be harnessed. There comes a point when it’s not passion you’re witnessing, but actually a bona-fide nutcase. Throughout his football career Hardy has existed in a figurative cage along with his inexplicable demons and rage, of which he is seemingly unable to escape. His mental condition is likely to be exacerbated by substance abuse (in September 2016 Hardy was arrested for cocaine possession).
However, while you can argue whether Greg Hardy should have never have signed for the Cowboys, at the end of the day the domestic violence charges were dropped. But Hardy never appreciated the second chance Jerry Jones had given him to redeem himself. Throughout the 2015 Hardy was constant distraction to his teammates, regularly being involved in altercations. He partied hard, and was continuously late for meetings, and was regularly giving Garrett headaches from his Twitter posts, including a tasteless 9/11 joke. Huge jerk.
3 Sweetheart: Emmitt Smith
Emmitt Smith got his start playing football at age eight through the Salvation Army, and when he hit the big time, becoming the league’s all-time rushing leader and winning three rings, he never forgot to give back to the community that helped him. The Pat & Emmitt Smith Charities, which Emmitt and his wife started in the early 1990s has raised millions, raising money to help organizations that help children in the Dallas and Fort Worth areas. The have also given out countless college scholarships to kids who otherwise would not have been able to go through college.
The Cowboys number 22 can legitimately be called the greatest running back the game has seen. He thrilled fans with his spins, the hurdles, the jukes. He was the whole package. He shared a locker room with some notorious characters in the mid-90s, but Smith was always liked by the media, approachable to fans, and despite his almost superhuman ability, he never let himself be bigger than the team.
2 Jerk: Lance Rentzel
Lance Rentzel had it all. College superstar at OU, handsome playboy, came from a good (and wealthy) family. Dallas became his home in 1967, where he became a an All Pro in 1968. In 1969 he married TV star and sex symbol Joey Heatherton in a very public relationship. Then in 1970, inexplicably, Rentzel left practice drove to a random suburb and exposed himself to a ten-year-old girl. Rentzel’s perfect life was destroyed, and so was his marriage, where Heatherton apparently never recovered from the public embarrassment of the what Rentzel did.
As the story broke it became clear this wasn’t the first time Rentzel had done something like this. The family of the victim refused to settle for any money, and demanded Rentzel receive psychiatric treatment.
Rentzel had a spell playing for the Rams where he received constant abuse from opposing fans. A bumper sticker became distributed reading “Keep It In Your Pants, Lance.” He was also suspended for 10 months for marijuana possession.
Amazingly two years after the infamous event Rentzel released a book titled “When All The Laughter Died in Sorrow.” In the book it becomes clear that Rentzel has issues with depression and anxiety (apparently it was a crushing 38-0 defeat to St. Louis followed by a viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey that drove Rentzel into a bout of depression that preceded his fateful act). In the book he explains that whenever he felt he had let himself or anyone else down, the only way he could measure himself that he wasn’t a total loser was by “exposing his masculinity.” It’s very sad that it was this act that ultimately turned Rentzel into one of the biggest losers in Cowboys history.
In a weird twist, in 1971 there was one Cowboys fan-girl who refused to give up on the disgraced Rentzel, and when she was 17 she fell pregnant and named her son Lance, after her favorite player. She later married a man named Terry Armstrong, and her son, Lance Armstrong, would go onto have a spectacular cycling career before the biggest fall from grace in all of sports.
1 Sweetheart: Roger Staubach
Football was a different game 40 years ago. When Roger Staubach joined the league he earned $25,000 dollars a year. He worked as a real estate broker during the offseason which eventually grew into a $640 million dollar empire. “I was 27 and we had three children. If I got hurt, I knew I had a family to provide for.” Maybe it’s the insane levels of money that’s corrupts many players today, but there’s a reason why the Jerk-section of this article is heavy on players from the last 20 years. Money, particularly when given to those at a young age, can make you a HUGE jerk.
Staubach, a true Dallas legend, has always had a reputation for being a “helluva guy.” He won the NFL Man of the Year Award in 1978. Staubach also has a foundation that has given millions back into the community. He runs it very differently to most pro athletes and celebrities. Staubach doesn’t throw glamorous fundraisers or seek publicity, and nearly all the money donated comes from his own pocket, rather than from donors. “It’s like some of these big fundraisers you go to. You’ve got to wonder, ‘How much of the money is really going to the cause?’” What a guy.