Jerry Jones' HOF legacy carved out of anxiety, heavy debt and a father's stern warning about going down as a 'loser'

NFL columnist
Yahoo Sports

OXNARD, Calif. – Jerry Jones has pulled his seat close to a couch in his training camp office and has both hands wrapped around a tall glass. Inside is an innocent summertime concoction of sweet tea – most definitely not a few fingers of what the Dallas Cowboys owner would wink and call “a little bit of antifreeze.”

He illustrates an emotion, clenching the glass so tightly that the last bit of liquid is jumping and vibrating and threatening to splash onto the floor.

If you want to know how this NFL journey began for Jerry Jones – the one that will formally deliver him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday night in Canton – this is how he might show you: By squeezing the hell out of a glass to illustrate how nerve-wracked he was in February of 1989, after buying the Cowboys from H.R. “Bum” Bright for $140 million.

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“If we’d have been having this conversation back then, I couldn’t have held this glass with both hands without spilling it,” Jones said about his leap into the NFL – which was filled with enough anxiety and sleepless nights that he developed a heart arrhythmia. “I was so damn nervous. I just knew I was going to be the guy that my family, kids, friends and everybody was talking about – the guy that had a chance to have a different life and blew it all over a dream.”

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones knows how to make an entrance as he opens up his team’s 2017 training camp in Oxnard, California. (AP)
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones knows how to make an entrance as he opens up his team’s 2017 training camp in Oxnard, California. (AP)

It was just the start of Jones’ Hall of Fame story, which he described to Yahoo Sports in about an hour-long discussion, one he was prone to wandering through without a compass. But he arrived at a blunt point about his NFL beginnings:

“I was scared s—less.”

He says that with a wide smile, of course. It appears Jones likes to tell this tale – the one about the walkin’, talkin’, hustlin’ oil man who got himself into the most wonderfully gratifying business mess of his lifetime. The guy who went maniacally far over his skis just to get into the league, then became filthy rich in the process – simply because he really never saw another option. In Jones’ mind, his entire NFL trek has been carried out with a singular anthem: This was always about going broke, goin’ for broke.

Along the way, he shaped himself into an iconic face and powerbroker who molded the NFL into a projected $14 billion juggernaut. Since 1989, he has been the centerpiece of the league’s promotional revolution. A commissioner behind the commissioner. His role in the league’s television, marketing and sponsorship growth over the last two decades is the stuff of thesis papers and business courses. Decades from now, when Jones is gone and the NFL has receded from the peak of popularity, his place in the league’s fiscal explosion will be worthy of economic study.

Jones will entertain those accolades. He’ll bask in being known as the alpha leader of other billionaires. And he’ll listen to the barks about his mistakes – swapping out coaches early in his career; backing the wrong characters; meddling in play-calling or draft decisions. Wag a finger and tell him he wasn’t patient enough with Jimmy Johnson. Cluck your tongue and ask him why he has been so patient with Jason Garrett. He’ll take it all. He may not agree with the gripes, but he won’t protest too much, so long as you spell his name right.

He’ll readily admit that he has been fallible. But he’ll hope that you agree that he’s also been accessible to the outside world – even touchable. This is all part of the same picture. It’s human and imperfect, still embraceable to the masses despite being acted out on another financial plateau.

But if you really want to talk about Jerry Jones going into the Hall of Fame, he’ll direct you back to the start of his ownership. That’s what makes this special. Jones will give you the CliffsNotes, starting with how he walked into Bum Bright’s office and handed him a notecard that read “$140 million” and told Bright, “That’s what I’m willing to give you for your team.”

To which Bright replied, “You just bought yourself the Dallas Cowboys.”

Jones recalls that moment and beams for two reasons: It completed a long-standing dream of owning an NFL franchise; and it was the last positive memory he would experience for some time.

History has done a good job of chronicling what happened next – how the Cowboys were losing $1 million a month when Jones bought the team; how Jones had borrowed so much money to complete the purchase that he was paying $100,000 a day in interest at one point; and of course, how he fired legendary coach Tom Landry and seemingly pissed off the entire state of Texas. Going 1-15 in his first season didn’t help either.

“I wasn’t the white knight riding into Dallas,” Jones says.

If anything, he was hated. His first few weeks of ownership became a tsunami of broken glass washing over him, to the point that Jones’ own father questioned whether he was going to make it through the Cowboys purchase.

“He asked me one day a couple weeks in, ‘Jerry, are you all right?’ I said ‘Yeah.'” Jones recalled. “Then he said, ‘Son, if you do it by mirrors or smoke or baling wire, whether it’s successful or not, you’ve got to make this look successful. If you don’t, you’ll be known as a loser the rest of your life to everybody in this country.'”

It was a rough start for Jerry Jones (R) and head coach Jimmy Johnson in 1989. (AP)
It was a rough start for Jerry Jones (R) and head coach Jimmy Johnson in 1989. (AP)

Jones stopped and chuckled at the recollection, then stared down at his hands as if he was holding the memory in his lap.

“I just told him, ‘Man – dad, you know how to make my day.'”

It would take Jerry Jones more than two years before he stopped the financial bleeding and then turned the franchise into a profitable tailwind so large that Forbes currently values the Cowboys at $4.2 billion, the most valuable team in sports. The successes can bandage old wounds but never completely quell the tides of anxious memories. No matter how far Jones gets from the beginning and no matter how much his ego or reputation may swell, the risk he took and the motivations behind it are never far from his mind.

This is why when asked what it’s like to go into the Hall of Fame, Jones responded by clutching at that tenuous beginning. He’ll talk about how it nearly broke him in half. Let him go long enough, his cheeks will get high and red and tears will start rolling down his face. And in that moment, he’ll be something far removed from the swashbuckling, hip-shooting NFL owner who has been canonized for his swagger.

“Look, it wasn’t like I was just confident and everything else,” Jones says now. “I actually had a phobia about business heights. But I knew if I didn’t buy the Cowboys right then – there it was – I knew if I didn’t grab that damn caboose that it was going to be gone. And I was going to spend the rest of my life thinking about doing it.

“Having a beer, sitting at a bar, thinking about doing it instead of actually doing it.”

But he’s not in that bar. He’s not crying in his beer about what might have been. Instead, he grabbed that NFL caboose and it damn near broke him. And 29 years later he’s going into the Hall of Fame.

Driving the NFL rather than dragging behind it.

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