ARLINGTON, Texas —
How’s this for a homecoming story:
A boy grows up in a small town in Georgia. One of the local teens who coaches him in Little League baseball ends up playing for the Dallas Cowboys. The younger boy grows up to make a living in football, too, only as a coach. He even coordinates the offense on a team that plays in the Super Bowl, against the Cowboys, no less.
A few years later, this guy becomes an NFL head coach — of the Cowboys. He guides them to the playoffs in each of his first two years. He’s fired before the third year. The owner later calls it one of his biggest mistakes.
On Sunday, 12 years after being dumped, Chan Gailey returns. He will face Dallas for the first time as the head coach of another team when his Buffalo Bills (5-3) take on a Cowboys team that is 4-4 and now coached by Jason Garrett, who was the backup quarterback when Gailey was in charge.
Pretty good story, right, including the local teen being Dan Reeves?
Well, here’s a better tale:
Another boy grows up in a Dallas suburb, not the one where the Cowboys play, but close. The players are his heroes; he’s a running back, so Emmitt Smith is his favorite. Only this kid isn’t good enough to start on his high school team. He tells all the guys playing ahead of him that he’s going to make it in pro football anyway.
A junior high coach who’d become like a second father steers him to the Division III college in Iowa that he’d attended. Our protagonist graduates without having caught the NFL’s attention, so he plays two seasons of indoor football, a season in NFL Europe and takes a job as a youth counselor. Then that second father calls a coach from his own college days — and Marv Levy, then the general manager of the Bills, offers a tryout.
Our guy is 25 when he makes his NFL debut. He wears jersey No. 22, a tribute to his childhood hero, Smith. About the same time, the Cowboys decide they are moving to the suburb where this guy grew up. They build their $1.3 billion stadium on the same land where his childhood home used to be.
On Sunday, Fred Jackson — who’s run for the third-most yards in the NFL this season — will play in his hometown for the first time in his pro career, and on the patch of land where he once ate, slept and dreamed of becoming an NFL star. His mom and dad still live within walking distance of Cowboys Stadium, and they will be there. So will his twin brother, incredulous former high school teammates and dozens more family and friends.
Sure, there’s a game to be played Sunday, too, and one with crucial midseason ramifications for both teams. The Bills are part of a three-way tie in the AFC East and need to bounce back from a loss to the Jets, one of their co-division leaders, while the Cowboys will be looking for a second straight win and trying to clear what looks like the only stumbling block in what many expect to be a 5-0 stretch. If Dallas pulls it off, it would vault into mid-December as the possible front-runner in the NFC East.
But every game has relevance to the standings. Rare is the game that offers a single saga as compelling as Gailey’s or Jackson’s, much less one game with two such story lines.
Let’s start with Gailey, whose hiring in 1998 was hailed by Jerry Jones with the proclamation, “Chan’s the man!”
Gailey took over as the Triplets era of Smith, Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin was winding down and Jones was desperate for one last-gasp bid for a title. They went 10-6 and won the division in his first season, followed by the humiliation of losing a playoff game at home to the Arizona Cardinals, a franchise that hadn’t won a postseason game since 1947.
Dallas was 3-0 the next season, then Irvin suffered the injury that would end his career. The Cowboys broke even that year, but still earned a wild card, then went to Minnesota and got thumped. Gailey was fired within days.
“It was two enjoyable years,” said Gailey, whose journey since has included stints as offensive coordinator of the Dolphins and Chiefs and coach at Georgia Tech before joining the Bills last year. “We were fighting to keep our head above water and fighting to try to win games. It was a great opportunity for me and I appreciated the opportunity.”
The Cowboys won 18 games in his two seasons. They won 15 games the next three seasons. They’ve made consecutive trips to the playoffs only once since then, all of which is why Jones has often said he didn’t give Gailey a fair enough chance to succeed.
“It’s kind of him to say that,” Gailey said.
Jones and Gailey get along just fine these days. They’ll certainly share a handshake before Sunday’s game. Fans are likely to greet him warmly, too, as will Garrett.
“I learned a lot from him,” Garrett said. “I really enjoyed our time together. It doesn’t surprise me he’s done as well as he has both at the college level and the pro level since then.”
Does Gailey think he could’ve kept the franchise afloat?
“Those coulda, woulda, shoulda things, you think about, but if you dwell on them you’re wasting brain cells,” Gailey said. “You go on with life. If you’re spending too much time in the past, all you’re doing is hurting yourself.”
Gailey knows he made plenty of mistakes during his first go-round in charge. He was learning about dealing with people and handling situations. For instance, the offensive innovator in him thought it would be crafty to make Irvin a slot receiver. But the plan to confuse defenses flopped because the role took him away from his best skill of handling cornerbacks one-on-one.
“The first time you’re a head coach, you don’t know what you don’t know,” Gailey said. “I can’t even remember everything that I’ve learned, but what I did became a part of me. I’ve been able to take those experiences and hopefully I’m better now than I was then.”
Jackson is different, too, than the folks around Arlington remember him.
A third-stringer who never started a single game in high school, Jackson calls himself a late-bloomer, like his dad. Both his parents were athletes — Fred Sr. played football and pickup basketball, mom Latricia was considered an Olympic-caliber track star before becoming pregnant with the twins — and dad always said, “It’ll come. It’s just going to take you a little while.”
“It was exactly what he said it would be,” Jackson said.
From Coe College to the Sioux City Bandits of the United Indoor Football League to the Rhein Fire, Jackson kept improving. In his second NFL season, he became the first player in NFL history to rush for more than 1,000 yards and have another 1,000 yards on kickoff returns. This season, his 803 yards rushing are third in the NFL and his 1,194 yards from scrimmage are second best.
“It’s just a long road traveled,” Jackson said. “A lot of work had to be put in to get to where I am today. I wouldn’t change that for anything. It’s made me the athlete I am today.”
There is one thing he’d still like to accomplish: getting to know Emmitt Smith.
Funny thing is, he has a perfect person to ask in Gailey, who was coaching Smith in Dallas at the same time that Jackson was in high school in Arlington.
“At some point in my career I’ll definitely want to sit down and pick his brain about it, see some of the stuff he did when he came to work,” Jackson said. “You always want to grow as a player.”
As a player and as a coach. The folks at Cowboys Stadium will see how both have progressed on Sunday.
ARLINGTON, Texas —
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- Bills' Pettine reportedly interviewing for Browns job
- Bills hire Hafley as defensive assistant
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