An unlikely, unconventional, rebellious but swashbuckling journey that began in 1989 ended in the game’s ultimate place of honor Saturday.
Jerry Jones — who once tried to borrow money from the notorious Teamsters Union to buy the San Diego Chargers decades before buying the Cowboys — is an outsider no more.
He became a fully made man with his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame before more than 1,000 friends, family, former players and coaches. The entire Cowboys team and thousands of Cowboys fans attended the ceremony at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.
Jones shined brightly with custom-made gold Nike shoes given to him by Nike owner Phil Knight to go with his Hall of Fame gold jacket, sitting next to his wife, Gene, dressed strikingly and all in white.
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She has been the bright light for 54 years of marriage and she was his presenter Saturday night because — more than all the titles, marketing, promotional and stadium deals — she represented his journey to the Hall of Fame.
Gene Jones, who has attended 597 consecutive Cowboys games, was the perfect symbol of Jones’ love of family and football.
That was the point that Jones, who entered the league as a cocky oil and gas wildcatter from Arkansas and shook up the NFL’s buttoned-up establishment, eloquently drove home in a speech that lasted 36 minutes, 47 seconds, in which the only surprise was the lack of tears.
“Gene, you kept me between the rails when I didn’t have strength to get to the middle,” Jones said. “You always presented the family in a loving and caring light that only you can provide. ...We got here with the love of football and the love of family.”
Jones got to the Hall of Fame because of his efforts to grow and change the game off the field as much as the team’s three Super Bowl titles in the 1990s.
But he was driven here because of his intense fan-like love of the game, which he believes connects him to everyone.
“You are here because of your love for the game,” Jones said to the fans in the audience, and not just the thousands in Cowboys blue and silver. “I’m a fan. You are the heartbeat of the game. I am here because I love it too.”
Jones’ love and respect for the game peaked during his time at Arkansas, where he rose from being on the “13th team” to a starter on the 1964 national championship team under coach Frank Broyles.
He leaned on that experience when he bought the Cowboys in 1989 and hired former Razorbacks teammate Jimmy Johnson as coach following the controversial firing of the legendary Tom Landry.
Even though the relationship would blow up after five years, Jones made a point to thank Johnson for the two Super Bowl titles they won together and for setting him on this path to the Hall.
“I wanted someone I knew,” Jones said. “I wanted Jimmy Johnson.”
He then spoke directly to Johnson: “Jimmy, it was a great decision. You were a great teammate and great partner. We worked so well together for five years and restored the credibility of the Cowboys with our fans. I thank you.”
Jones went on to thank countless players and coaches who were part of his 29 years with the Cowboys, starting with fellow Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin.
He even made a point to highlight the recently retired Tony Romo and tight end Jason Witten, who he called one of the greatest men in the NFL and predicts will be fitted for a Hall of Fame gold jacket one day.
His greatest tributes were for his own family and the game of football.
Before buying the Cowboys, Jones spent a lot of time away from his family trying to make money.
But his greatest joy and greatest success have come as owner of the Cowboys because he gets to work closely with sons Stephen and Jerry Jr. and daughter Charlotte.
“I really thought that the time I spent there was going to be for them,” Jones said. “I needed to do it. When the one that gets the most out of all of it was ‘the daddy.’ The opportunity to work on a daily basis with three people that share your genetics is a blessing. I get credit for their ideas and their hard work. They are my backbone and my inspirations.”
Just like Aikman explaining a blind pass to tight end Jay Novacek because he is always there: “That’s my family. You are always there.”
Jones said Irvin taught him “to smile in the face of adversity” and Broyles taught him that the game is won in the fourth quarter in life and business, just as in football.
He took a lot of chances to get here, threatened the security of his family and endured intense criticism.
But the result was worth it.
So Jones paraphrased the lyrics of a Garth Brooks song: “Looking back on the memories ... I could have missed the pain, but I’d of had to miss the dance.”