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It's Time to Circle the Wagons Again

Pro football:The Cowboy-Redskin rivalry remains compelling, even when the teams aren't.


The Dallas Cowboys tried to pretend it was just another football game, but the pock-pock-pock of circling helicopters was hard to ignore. Washington was in town, and Cowboy Coach Tom Landry was convinced Redskin spies were positioned at the Days Inn overlooking his practice field. So he moved workouts to the Cotton Bowl and had security guards roaming the ground and searching the skies.

"That's when I knew there was something different about Redskin week," longtime Cowboy defensive back Charlie Waters said. "The helicopters were a dead giveaway."

Things have changed quite a bit for the NFL's most storied rivalry. Helicopters don't circle these days. Buzzards do. When the winless Cowboys host the winless Redskins tonight, it will be the first matchup in the 32-year history of "Monday Night Football" of two 0-4 bottom feeders.

Said Deion Sanders: "The coin toss might be the most exciting play."

OK, so Sanders might not be the most objective source--he works for CBS, and the game is being broadcast on ABC. But he knows the Cowboys and Redskins, having played for both, and he understands the intensity of these games, even when both teams stink.

"They need one another," he said. "Like Sonny needed Cher, and Cher needed Sonny."

Ah, yes. "I Got You, Babe." Ken Houston could have uttered those words as he slammed into Walt Garrison in 1973, stopping the Cowboy fullback inches from the goal line and preserving a 14-7 Washington victory. It was the most famous tackle in the history of the rivalry.

Dallas exacted revenge a year later, on Thanksgiving Day, when rookie quarterback Clint Longley replaced Roger Staubach, whom the Redskins had knocked out of the game. Longley entered with his team trailing, 9-3, and threw two touchdown passes on his way to a 24-23 victory.

How could a rookie perform so well under pressure? Well, Longley was a simple sort, prompting teammate Blaine Nye to call it "a triumph of an uncluttered mind."

Cluttering minds was a specialty of Dallas quarterback "Dandy" Don Meredith, whose ceaseless chatter wormed its way into the ear holes of opponents. The guy never shut up.

"He just had to talk to you, and I didn't like that," said Sam Huff, a Hall of Fame linebacker who played for the Redskins and now is their radio color commentator. "Dandy would say, 'Sam, you know you're in the wrong position. You're supposed to be lined up over there.' I'd just snarl at him."

The two became good friends, something that was never apparent on the field. Once, Meredith was nursing sore ribs and had a gel-filled hot pack taped to his torso under a flak jacket. Huff was as sympathetic as any crazy-eyed, Cowboy-loathing linebacker would be.

"I hit him and the thing burst," he said. "Don's rolling around saying, 'You killed me! You killed me!' All of a sudden this stuff starts gushing out from the hot pack. I thought it was his stomach. That guy could have made [linebacker Dick] Butkus laugh. And I've never seen Butkus laugh."

Cowboy defensive end Harvey Martin wasn't laughing before a 1979 game when a Washington fan sent him a black wreath and a rest-in-peace note. Martin might have gotten a giggle, though, when he delivered it to the Redskin locker room after Dallas won, 35-34. The 'Skins sent it back, and Landry had Martin write a letter of apology.

"The Cowboys were a class team," said Huff, uttering words that might have gotten him booted out of Washington during his playing days. "Tom Landry was probably the finest gentleman I've ever known. The Cowboys took on his complexion."

Some of the classic matchups pitted Landry's Doomsday Defense and George Allen's Over the Hill Gang. In 1972, the Redskins reached their first Super Bowl by beating the defending champion Cowboys, 26-3, at RFK Stadium.

Dallas got a chilly reception and an ice-cold farewell.

"We never had a warm shower at RFK. Ever," Waters said. "They always turned the hot water off for us."

That thoughtful gesture notwithstanding, the rivalry never ran hot and cold.

"The most satisfying feeling I had as a player was having the RFK faithful boo the Redskins," Waters said.

The boos at Texas Stadium were deafening during a game in the early 1980s when a group of Redskin receivers--the "Fun Bunch"--gathered in the end zone for their trademark celebration, a leaping high-five. Unwilling to allow their sacred turf to be sullied, defensive back Dennis Thurman and several Dallas teammates charged into the circle and broke it up.

"I don't hold it against Dennis--we're friends," said former Redskin tight end Rick Walker, who was at UCLA when Thurman was at USC. "They didn't want us doing that at their place, which I can understand."

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