Zero Club: Cowboys’ Larry Cole wanted no publicity, but his talent refused to cooperate

Todd Brock
·13 min read

Start ranking the most popular and best-known Cowboys players of all time, and it will take a while to get to him. His name isn’t hanging in the team’s Ring of Honor. He’s not instantly recognizable as a go-to media-darling representative of his era’s contributions to the sport. On his own thoroughly dominant teams, he was usually overshadowed by bigger stars with flashier nicknames. In the most famous photograph he appears in, his face isn’t even visible, the lens focused instead on a guy who wasn’t supposed to be there. For thirteen seasons, five Super Bowl appearances, and two world championships, he was practically anonymous.

That’s exactly how Larry Cole wanted it.

He and two of his defensive teammates formed the “Zero Club,” as in: zero attention. During the height of the Doomsday Defense of the 1970s, the Zero Club prided itself on wrecking games on Sundays, but staying decidedly out of the spotlight off the field. Their first commandment? “Thou Shalt Not Seek Publicity.”

But the story of Cole’s remarkable playing career transcended any attempt to stay under the radar.

The original Rainbow Warrior

Texas E. Schramm, president and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, gives defensive end Larry Cole a hearty embrace for this defensive play against the Detroit Lions in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Dec. 27, 1970. Cole was among the first of the Cowboys Doomsday Defense to trap Detroit quarterback Greg Landry in the end zone for a safety, in the NFC playoff game, won by Dallas, 5-0. (AP Photo)

Larry Rudolph Cole grew up in rural Minnesota, closer to the South Dakota border than the Twin Cities. He attended the Air Force Academy on a football scholarship, where he was a starter at defensive end by his sophomore season. But in 1964, Cole left the Academy in an episode that perhaps foretold his strong and silent team-first mentality and undoubtedly altered his life's trajectory. A cheating scandal hit the Academy, involving test answers that were stolen and then sold among the cadets. Rather than implicate any of his classmates in the scheme, Cole resigned from the Academy instead, along with over 100 of his fellow cadets. After a short stint at the University of Houston, Cole transferred to the University of Hawaii, where several of his Air Force teammates had landed. He was named a starting defensive tackle and team co-captain for his senior year. Cole became the first Rainbow Warriors player ever drafted by an NFL team when the Cowboys selected him as a 16th rounder. (The draft consisted of 17 rounds in those days.) As the 428th player taken out of 462, the 6-foot-5, 252-pound Cole was no lock to make Coach Tom Landry's team. https://twitter.com/CowboysOld/status/1328547006600589314

"The draft was held in February and they flew me to Dallas in March," Cole told the team website back in 2013. "We did a general workout, and I really wasn't in shape. But in those days, you didn't really train year-round like they do now. And so they didn't really have a lot of high expectations.

"But I went back home and just got into a mental frame of mind. I'd learned a lot of discipline when I went to the Air Force Academy, and I just zeroed in for about thirty days. I would do drills and got myself physically and mentally ready, and I went out there and kind of had the attitude of, 'Show me that I can't do this.'"

'Nothing spectacular...'

Jan 16, 1972; New Orleans, LA, USA; FILE PHOTO; Dallas Cowboys defensive end (63) Larry Cole recovers a fumbled snap in the 4th quarter by Miami Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese (not pictured) during Super Bowl VI at Tulane Stadium. The Cowboys defeated the Dolphins 24-3. Mandatory Credit: Tony Tomsic-USA TODAY Sports

Cole was originally slated by the team to play along the offensive line. But within the first week of training camp, he was moved to the other side of the ball.

"I got off to a pretty good start, nothing spectacular," Cole recalled, "but I recovered a fumble in the first preseason game against Chicago, and then I got a couple of traps against Green Bay [three games later]. The trick as a rookie is to just get noticed.

"And it didn't hurt in those days to be a big blond guy and look a little bit like Bob Lilly. We are built similar, but different. From his knees down, he's got bird legs, but that made him really quick on the feet. I was quick on the eye and hands, but not on the feet." The rookie played in each of the Cowboys' 14 games in 1968, starting in ten of them. Dallas allowed an average of just 85 rushing yards per contest that season, giving up just two touchdowns on the ground all year. The Cowboys finished with a 12-2 record, the franchise's best ever to that point. And Cole finished his first season with a nickname. Linebacker Dave Edwards christened him "Bubber Frank," for reasons that aren't exactly clear. Even that got shortened to "Bubba," but it never really took off as a defining moniker. Throughout his career, Cole's defensive line teammates inevitably garnered far more attention. It's hard to break out as a superstar when you're lining up next to the likes of Bob Lilly, Jethro Pugh, Randy White, Harvey Martin, and Ed "Too Tall" Jones. https://twitter.com/joelcanu57/status/792168661951799296 Cole's 13 seasons were closely intertwined with his defensive linemates, as he was able to play all four positions along the front. He subbed in wherever and whenever he was needed. And he did so often. He played left defensive end in his rookie campaign. He moved to right defensive tackle in 1975 when Lilly retired. In 1979, Cole was set to move to left defensive tackle to take over for the retired Pugh, but had to suddenly switch back to left end when Jones unexpectedly opted to pursue a boxing career. He was back at left tackle before the season's end. Cole never got a Pro Bowl bid for his multitasking efforts, but No. 63 is remembered as the key contributor in one of the biggest moments in Cowboys history.

Washington's recurring nightmare

Dec 30, 1978; Irving, TX, USA; FILE PHOTO; Dallas Cowboys defensive end Larry Cole (63) pursues Atlanta Falcons quarterback Steve Bartkowski (10) during the 1978 NFC Divisional Playoff Game at Texas Stadium. The Cowboys won 27-20. Mandatory Credit: Manny Rubio-USA TODAY Sports

Of all the teams Cole terrorized, none incurred his wrath quite like the Cowboys' biggest rival. In 1979, the NFC East came down to the season finale. Dallas and Washington met at Texas Stadium with matching 10-5 records. The winner would claim the division, with the Cowboys hoping to eventually reach their third consecutive Super Bowl. Down 34-21 with under four minutes to play, a Randy White fumble recovery led to a quick Cowboys touchdown drive engineered by Roger Staubach. Washington took their next possession with a six-point lead and time running out. On a critical third-down play, Washington running back John Riggins needed just one yard to move the sticks. He'd gained 151 yards on the day; three more feet, and the offense would be able to effectively run out the clock. It was Cole who blasted through the line of scrimmage and dropped Riggins for a two-yard loss, forcing a Washington punt and giving Dallas one final series. Captain Comeback took over and led a surgical seven-play, 75-yard march that ended with an eight-yard scoring lob to wide receiver Tony Hill with 39 seconds remaining. The Cowboys won the East, but were upset in the playoffs by the Los Angeles Rams. Staubach would retire in the offseason. The win over Washington was Staubach's last. It was also the last of his signature comeback wins. And it was made possible only by Larry Cole's brilliant tackle-for-loss when the defense absolutely needed a stop. In a 1995 special, NFL Films ranked it the 18th greatest tackle in NFL history. https://twitter.com/steelcitystar/status/1207124718454751232 Fact is, the under-the-radar Cole had a knack for big plays when it came to facing Washington. He scored four touchdowns in his thirteen-year career; every single one came against the division rivals from D.C. Each came with a victory. George Allen, the legendary ex-Washington coach, claimed that he feared Cole more than he did Don Meredith, Craig Morton, or even Staubach. As a rookie in 1968, Cole returned a Washington fumble 21 yards to paydirt for his first pro score. Eleven days later, the two teams met again on Thanksgiving Day in the Cotton Bowl, and Cole snatched his first interception and returned it five yards for another touchdown. The following year, Cole brought another interception back 41 yards against Washington. But Cole would have to wait a long time to find the end zone a fourth time. He finally did 4,025 days later... toward the end of the 1980 season. Against Washington, of course. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cKnveMXTz8w The lumbering 43-yard return in the fourth quarter proved to be the game-winning touchdown. When asked afterward why there had been such a long wait between the third and fourth touchdowns of his career, the Zero Club's Cole- perhaps uncharacteristically- delivered a memorable gem of a quote. "Anyone can have an off decade," he famously joked.

'The best we've ever had...'

Oct 28, 1979; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; FILE PHOTO; Dallas Cowboys defensive end Larry Cole (63) tackles Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris (32) at Three Rivers Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Manny Rubio-USA TODAY Sports

Cole retired in March of 1981, the last member of the original Doomsday Defense to hang up his cleats. On the occasion, Landry offered a telling summation of Cole's career, one that put the veteran's underappreciated abilities in surprising perspective. "He's probably the best we've ever had in passing situations," the coach said, an astonishing appraisal, considering the Hall of Fame-caliber defenders who played under Landry during his extraordinary tenure. "If I had 45 players like Larry Cole, I'd never retire." For Cole's part, he jokingly blamed former teammates Blaine Nye and Pat Toomay for his retirement. "We had a meeting of the Zero Club last December [shortly after his fourth touchdown]," Cole said. "And the guys gave me an ultimatum. They said I had to quit getting all this attention by April or I would have to retire." Quarterback sacks were not recognized as an official stat until 1982, after Cole had already joined the private sector as a real estate developer. But according to team records, Cole tallied 60 sacks over 176 games in his Cowboys career. Cole never had a losing season in Dallas, and only once during his time there did the team fail to earn a postseason berth. He finished with 26 playoff appearances, an NFL record at the time. And when he retired, Cole was tied for the most Super Bowl appearances- five- by any player in league history. Despite ending in a loss, Super Bowl X provided a rather noteworthy moment when Cole dealt a wicked blow to Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw, the kind of hit that would unquestionably draw a penalty, a hefty fine, and likely an ejection in today's game. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PklL1x2Cv6I Pittsburgh wideout Lynn Swann made the catch and scored a 64-yard touchdown on the fourth-quarter play, but Cole's helmet-to-jaw strike on Bradshaw knocked him out of the game with a concussion. Ironically, Cole was later one of several Cowboys players- along with White, Lilly, and others- who filed a lawsuit against the NFL in 2012 accusing the league of ignoring a link between concussions and permanent brain injuries. Cole has called the team's Super Bowl VI win over Miami one of his best memories of Coach Landry, citing the scene when he and receiver Rayfield Wright hoisted Landry atop their shoulders as the team claimed the championship. But it was a similar moment in early 1978, after Super Bowl XII, that perhaps encapsulates Cole's Cowboys career the best.

The faceless player and the mystery man

Dallas Head coach Tom Landry is carried off the field after the Cowboys beat the Denver Broncos by a score of 27-10 at Super Bowl XII in New Orleans, La., Jan. 15, 1978. Players are Larry Cole (63) and Butch Johnson (86). (AP Photo)

Dallas had just beaten Denver 27-10 to claim their second world title. The Cowboys defense had put up a suffocating performance, allowing just 156 total yards and forcing an incredible eight turnovers; Randy White and Harvey Martin were named co-MVPs. As the game ended, Cole went to give Landry another ride off the field. But he had help. A man named Dion Rich had managed to get onto the Louisiana Superdome field that afternoon. A San Diego nightclub owner and ticket broker, Rich claimed to have snuck into 35 Super Bowls and has been featured in Rolling Stone for his ability to crash celebrity events ranging from the Academy Awards to parties at the Playboy Mansion to the Olympics. The full-color version of the photograph from Super Bowl XII shows a smiling and waving Landry in his moment of glory. In the foreground, receiver Butch Johnson holds a exclamatory finger aloft. Rich is prominently holding Landry's right leg, with the coach perched on his left shoulder. Landry is looking down, seemingly wondering with amusement who the blue-suited stranger is. Cradling Landry's left leg is Cole. He's identifiable only by the jersey number written on his hand padding, his face completely obscured as he celebrates a second championship win with his longtime coach. It should be the quintessential snapshot of Larry Cole. Instead, he's a faceless member of the crowd who doesn't even make the caption. https://twitter.com/BrendanPrunty/status/560879898244710401 The photo went on to become Rich's most prized souvenir. Amazingly, he never spoke to Cole about the moment, even after the photograph was run worldwide by the Associated Press following the game. For over 35 years, Cole had no idea who the other man carrying Coach Landry was. As part of a newspaper story in 2015, Rich finally reached out to Cole and offered to send the Cowboys great an autographed copy of the photo, along with a book chronicling his life's all-access exploits. Cole asked Rich to give his copy a personalized inscription: "Larry, you pushed the limit of the Zero Club." He may not have wanted the publicity, but five decades after first donning the star, Larry Cole remains a beloved fixture in the hearts of an entire generation of Cowboys fans. This offseason, Cowboys Wire will reach back into the archives in a series called Stars of the Cowboys' Past. We'll re-acquaint readers with some of the franchise's players who may not be household names, the lesser-known stars who have still shone brightly during the 60-year history of America's Team. You can suggest future Stars of the Cowboys' Past by following Todd on Twitter at @ToddBrock24f7.