Pugh has never forgotten the day he made Tex Schramm’s blood boil.
He had just been drafted — and signed — by the Dallas Cowboys out of Elizabeth City State College.
As an 11th-round pick in 1965, Pugh was given a $1,000 signing bonus on top of a one-year, $10,000 contract.
He later would become one of Schramm’s favorite all-time Cowboys. But for now, he represented an investment to Schramm. A 20-year-old kid with potential.
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Pugh chose to pass the time by playing in a pickup softball game.
“When you’re young and in college, you think you can do anything,” Pugh said. “Well, I was going to make this Willie Mays catch in center field.”
A la Mays with his back to the plate, Jethro lunged for the ball, landed awkwardly and separated his shoulder — not exactly the best way to start an NFL career.
He quietly underwent surgery at Norfolk (Va.) General Hospital (once the surgeon convinced him that he had operated on Cleveland quarterback Frank Ryan).
Embarrassed, Jethro begged the hospital staff not to tell his mother.
A school official queried him, “Have you told the Cowboys yet? You really need to tell them.”
He did. And as longtime personnel man Gil Brandt recalls, he thinks he saw smoke come out of Schramm’s ears that day.
“Tex was always money conscious — that was just his nature [as team president and general manager],” Brandt said. “As soon as we heard that Jethro had separated his shoulder, Tex screamed, ‘[Deleted expletive], ‘I don’t want to pay this guy if he’s not a player.’ I had to tell him, ‘I think we should keep him.’.”
Smart move. Pugh went on to become an integral part of the Cowboys’ original Doomsday Defense: LE Larry Cole, LT Pugh, RT Bob Lilly, RE George Andrie.
Pugh would also chalk up the fourth-longest career in Cowboys history: 14 seasons. Only Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Bill Bates and Mark Tuinei played more — 15 apiece.
The Willie Mays catch
What happened during a simple softball game turned out to be a valuable lesson for a young athlete who thought he was bulletproof.
The lesson: He wasn’t.
“Tex was totally [miffed],” Pugh recalled. “I said, ‘Mr. Schramm, the Oakland Raiders offered me more money than you’ve given me.’ You got to keep in mind that I was only 20 years old. Well, [Schramm] calmed down a little after that.”
Rookie Pugh never missed any time with the shoulder injury. This had an immediate impact on Tom Landry, who knew he had a player.
The family values
Pugh left home in Windsor, N.C., to earn an education at Elizabeth City State at the age of 16. That’s why he was only 20 when he signed to play in the NFL.
Growing up poor in Windsor, Pugh learned most of his basic values from his mother, Mamie, and his grandmother, Agnes.
“My mother stretched every penny to the limit,” Pugh recalled. “And when it was time to sign with the Cowboys, my grandmother told me: ‘You do this so you can tell someone else how to do it.’ In our lingo, I knew what she meant.”
Jethro became a pioneer in his family.
This would later help him become a successful businessman after football.
The trash can
Everyone knows the story of how Brandt flooded college campuses in the ’60s and ’70s with fact-gathering questionnaires and team propaganda. The best athletes in the land were targeted.
Because the Cowboys were the first NFL team to hire a scout to recruit just the black colleges (Dick Mansperger), they gained a leg up on the competition. Brandt’s mailings made their way to Jethro Pugh’s dorm room in Elizabeth City, N.C.
There, Pugh would watch the outside world on a tiny black-and-white TV set — with a coat hanger for an antenna — and dream of playing for the New York Giants, the Cleveland Browns, the Baltimore Colts.
“I never heard of the Dallas Cowboys,” Pugh confessed, now 43 years later. “So when all that [Brandt mail] came to me, I threw it in the trash. My roommate was an older guy who had been in the armed services, and he pulled everything back out of the trash can.
“He told me, ‘Roomie, you don’t do this.’ Then, he filled out the application for me and sent it in to the Cowboys.”
The annual snub
Pugh didn’t become a fulltime starter until 1967. For two seasons, he sat behind veteran Jim Colvin, a former eighth-round pick of the Colts.
During one amazing stretch of his Cowboys career (1968-73), Pugh averaged 12 1/2 sacks — leading the team each of those five seasons.
Yet, he never made the Pro Bowl.
How can that even be?
“I don’t know. I get asked that question a lot,” Pugh replied.
What makes this even harder to believe, Dallas was sending as many as eight players a year to the Pro Bowl during Pugh’s heyday.
He lockered next to Lilly — Mr. Cowboy himself — and roomed with Rayfield Wright, a perennial Pro Bowler throughout the ’70s.
Pugh played on teams that made the postseason every year and put up big numbers for them: 15 1/2 sacks in ’68, followed by 13, 13 1/2 and 13 sacks through ’71 ... but the Pro Bowl voters were just as consistent with their annual snub.
Jethro drew some solace from Landry, who himself was named NFL Coach of the Year only once (1966) in 29 seasons. Awards reflect what a man does; they don’t define who he is.
“Coach Landry was so fair and honest. He put my mind at rest,” Pugh said. “He was a powerful guy.”
Jethro never felt bitter — not then, not now.
“Sometimes the truth hurts,” he said. “I didn’t go to Pro Bowl.....that’s just the reality of it.”
Pugh left the game after the 1978 season. His teammates up front were now “Too Tall” Jones, Randy White and Harvey Martin.
Dallas lost Super Bowl XIII to Pittsburgh 35-31. And Pugh retired.
Less than five years later — December 1983 — he opened the Jethro Pugh Shop inside DFW Airport. It sold Texas-made gifts to airline passengers and — back in the ’80s and ’90s — anyone else who strolled through the airport to greet or see somebody off.
Of course, Sept. 11, 2001, changed all that.
“Everything is so different now,” said Pugh, 63, a grandfather of five, and owner of just as many DFW Airport gift shops.
They are: Jethro Pugh Shop and Ropin’ & Ridin’ located in Terminal A; Brooks Brothers and Texas Market Place in Terminal D, and J.P. Dude Ranch in Terminal B.
He is partnered with The Paradies Shops, which are located in 64 airports across the U.S. and Canada.
Like his grandmother used to tell him: “You do this so you can tell someone else how to do it.”