Early training camps were memorable

Posted Friday, Jul. 18, 2008  comments  Print Reprints
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The newborn Dallas Cowboys came out feisty.

Because their first-year training camp conditions were so unpleasant, so shoddy, the players hanged Gil Brandt in effigy for putting them there.

It was the summer of 1960 in Delafield, Wisc., and a group of players secretly fashioned a human figure out of feed sacks, then attached a large “Gil Brandt” sign to it.

Brandt tells the story on himself. The players wanted the upstart personnel director of the upstart Cowboys to catch their drift: They weren’t happy.

As castoffs of established NFL teams from New York to Los Angeles, many of these players felt it was quite punishment enough to be stuck with some expansion outfit from North Texas.

Moreover, these early Cowboys were training-camp squatters.

They had no fewer than five summertime sites in their first four years of existence, often going where the preseason schedule took them.

“Money was paramount in those days,” Brandt said. “When you played one of those preseason games, you got $25,000.”

But back to hanging Brandt in effigy ...

He painstakingly checked out each training-camp location in advance. That was his job — well, one of them. He had many.

Brandt received a promise from St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy officers in Delafield, Wis., which was to be the second-half summer home for the ’60 Cowboys. (They began the summer at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore.)

“Don’t worry, these dorms will be remodeled,” an officer on staff at St. John’s told Brandt. “When you come back, you won’t even recognize the place.”

Famous last words.

After spending a month in Forest Grove, Ore., which was 150 miles away from the team’s first-ever preseason game in Seattle, the Cowboys moved five states east to Delafield, Wisc., in late August.

“The plan was to spend the last two weeks of camp at this military academy in Wisconsin,” Brandt said. “I was a young guy, and I took some colonel, or whatever the hell he was, at his word.”

And so?

“When we got there, the same 40-watt lightbulbs were in the dormitories. There were bats flying around the hallways, no screens on the windows, and mosquitos galore,” Brandt recalled. “It was a disaster!”

As if this wasn’t professional hardship enough, players and coaches traveled four hours in a prop plane to get there, then took a 90-minute bus ride to reach the academy.

“I noticed a big military statue out front when we pulled up,” Brandt said. “The next morning, some of the guys had tied together a couple of stuffed burlap sacks, with a sign that read ‘Gil Brandt’ ... [and] that’s where they hung me in effigy.”

It was probably warranted, although I’m guessing Brandt would’ve chosen the name of a certain colonel to use on the dummy instead.

Frank Clarke: ‘The audacity’

Middle linebacker Jerry Tubbs, an impact player on those early Cowboys teams from the get-go, remembers hearing that it was an offensive lineman behind the Brandt prank.

“I guess one of the offensive tackles had a pretty good sense of humor,” said Tubbs, who came to Dallas in the ’60 expansion draft from the San Francisco 49ers. “Personally, I didn’t go into things like that too much.”

No one interviewed for Old ‘Boys Club expressed any involvement or firsthand knowledge into what has remained something of a “whodunit” for 48 years.

Receiver Frank Clarke, ex of Cleveland in the same expansion draft as Tubbs, looks back now and sees guys with no room to be petty ... being petty.

“Didn’t we have the nerve?” Clarke asked increduously. “Here we were — most of us has-beens with other clubs — yet we had the audacity to complain about training camp. We should’ve been grateful for the opportunity.”

Eddie LeBaron, a star with the Redskins before he joined the Cowboys, knew paradise when he saw it. And this wasn’t paradise.

“I remember it being cold and decrepted,” LeBaron said of St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy. “It looked like an old castle ... [and it was] leaking.”

Tubbs came up his own apt description: “Ancient fort.”

It was easily the worst training-camp site in Cowboys history. Two weeks felt like an eternity to the players.

LeBaron and his wife, Doralee, recently visited relatives in Wisconsin. They dropped by the old military academy in Delafield to see if it was still standing.

“I have to say,” LeBaron said, “they’ve really shaped it up.”

Today’s deal ... yesterday’s dud.

It happens.

As a franchise, the Cowboys have strung together an NFL-record 20 consecutive winning seasons. They’ve appeared in a record eight Super Bowls, and won five of them.

But in 1960, they were an 0-11-1 team.

And not all of that could be blamed on training camp.

Landry: Eyes for Oregon

Brandt explained: “A big reason we held our first training camp in Forest Grove, Ore., was because we had a preseason [opener] in Seattle. That’s what you did then.”

The Cowboys’ first baby steps in actual competition were taken Aug. 6, 1960, against a middle-of-the-pack 49ers team led by John Brodie, R.C. Owens and Hugh McElhenny.

It was a typical first pre-season game, with a lot of lesser names on the field. The Cowboys lost, 16-10.

“Tom [Landry] always liked Oregon,” said Brandt, “because the New York Giants trained at Willamette University in Salem, Ore,” about 40 miles from Forest Grove.

Hall of Famer Amos Alonzo Stagg finished his legendary college coaching career at Pacific University (1933-46), and later served as “associate coach” for his son there, Brandt recalled.

When the Cowboys arrived at Forest Grove in the summer of ’60, Stagg was still somewhat involved with the Pacific football program ... and about to turn 98.

NFL teams looked to the state of Oregon to play their so-called “exhibitions” in those days for another reason — money.

“Everybody wanted to play in Oregon because of a promoter named Harry Glickman, who later became president of the NBA Portland Trail Blazers,” Brandt said. “The first $75,000 was split three ways right off the top — $25,000 for each team, $25,000 for the promoter.”

After expenses, the three parties divvied up the rest.

“We’d go home with maybe $30,000,” said Brandt.

Eat ‘Cowboys’ bread, kids

The distance between Forest Grove, Ore. and Oxnard, Calif., where the Cowboys now train, is 809 miles.

But what separates the two camp sites in terms of facilities, media attention and fan draw can only be measured in light-years.

It was a much simplier time in 1960. A two-column “invitation” appeared in the Star-Telegram that made Cowboys fans feel an actual part of the team.

“Join the Cowboys,” it read. “Eat Cowboys’ Training Table Bread for gridiron go power ... and grow power.”

OK ... it was a paid advertisement. So what?

“Here’s the bread the Cowboys eat at every training table meal ...”

We were so much easier to please then.

Of course, “extra minerals and vitamins” from a loaf of bread weren’t enough for the first-year Cowboys to find a victory.

They did manage to tie the Giants, 31-31, in the next-to-last game of the season at Yankee Stadium. But the remainder of their games were lost by an average score of of 30.7-13.3.

What Brandt found consistent with early training-camp sites was that none measured up to Cal Lutheran at Thousand Oaks, Calif. (1963-89).

But in the summer of ’60, nirvana was a long way off for the Cowboys.

Disgrunted players swatted mosquitos and occupied military-style rooms. They read playbooks by a 40-watt bulb and shared dorm space with bats.

Castoffs or not, for some, it was the longest two weeks of their lives.

NEXT WEEK: Cowboys’ early training camps, Part 2 of 2. Tom Landry gets his fill of cold-weather summers.

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