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How Jimmy's Cowboys got into the groove

Long before his baseball presidency, Rangers pitcher Nolan Ryan was a symbol of “blood-and-guts” in the Metroplex.

Even the biggest and baddest of the cross-town Cowboys marveled at the ageless wonder who worked in Arlington.

“I just remember how he was a workhorse ... a really tough guy,” recalled Danny Noonan.

Noonan, a 6-foot-4, 270-pound defensive starter for both Tom Landry (1987-88) and Jimmy Johnson (’89-91), came along when “transition” was the only symbol of an ever-revolving Cowboys roster.

“Sure, a lot of us wondered where we stood,” said Noonan, now a successful wealth management adviser in Omaha, Neb.

That’s what makes the weekend of Sept. 8-9, 1990, such a memorable one, for a couple of reasons: Ryan added to his lore and the Cowboys exorcised a few demons. An Arlington Stadium crowd of 34,412 showed up Saturday night to watch Ryan pitch; a Texas Stadium crowd of 48,063 showed up Sunday for the Cowboys’ season opener and a hope for something more than the 1-15 they got in ’89.

Both teams won — Rangers 2-1 over Kansas City; Cowboys 17-14 over San Diego.

Ryan spilled his blood and needed to take six stitches in his lip; the Cowboys gave fans the gutsiest showing at home in nearly two years.

The Cowboys had gotten caught up in the vortex of change: new players, new coaches, new ownership. They had lost 26 of 28 games, including 14 in a row at Texas Stadium.

They had lost their coach of 29 seasons. In fact, very few TLGs (“Tom Landry Guys”) remained on the team.

But one game into the ’90 season, the Cowboys would match their win total from the previous year. Yes, it was a very good weekend.

Saturday, Sept. 8, 1990

The cross-town Rangers were on a hot streak as they met the Royals for the third game of a four-game set. Ryan (13-7) was trying for his 303rd career victory, on a third-place Rangers team, 16 1/2 games back in the AL West.

As usual, Ryan was the main attraction. But, oh yeah ... Bo Jackson batted cleanup for Kansas City.

The two-sport star was still an LA Raider and “Bo Knows” was still Nike’s most popular advertising campaign.

In the second inning, DH Jackson led off with a one-hop tracer back to the mound. It caught Ryan right on the kisser.

“I saw it, put up my glove, and never saw it again,” Ryan told reporters after the game. “When it didn’t hit my glove, I knew I was in trouble.”

Despite a bloody uniform shirt, a loosened tooth and a split lower lip that required six stitches to close, Ryan stayed in the game.

He would change uniform shirts twice and give Bobby Valentine seven scoreless innings.

Incidentally, Ryan somehow recovered to throw out Bo on the play, although Ryan did woozily walk the next two KC batters.

The 43-year-old Ryan was lifted (because of the humidity — not the lip) after a leadoff walk in the eighth, and a 1-0 Rangers lead was turned over to Kenny Rogers out of the bullpen.

Rogers blew the save but picked up the win 2-1 ... when Rafael Palmeiro doubled home Julio Franco in the bottom of the ninth.

Act II of this blood-and-guts weekend now shifted venues: Texas Stadium.

Sunday, Sept. 9, 1990

The Cowboys trailed, 14-10, with 5:15 left.

Worse yet — San Diego had the ball.

But on fourth-and-5 from the Dallas 48, Chargers coach Dan Henning decided to get cute. He faked a punt.

The snap went directly to upback Gary Plummer, a linebacker with little speed and fewer moves. He barely got to the line of scrimmage before being met — and dropped — by safety Bill Bates, another one of those TLGs.

“Until that point, there seemed no less likely a hero than Bates,” wrote Gil LeBreton in the Sept. 10, 1990, editions of the Star-Telegram. “He, after all, was old news, one of Tom Landry’s boys.”

What all the other transitional survivors from the Landry Era faced with Johnson was the stigma of losing compounded by a sense of being on the outside looking in. That’s a bad combination.

“[Bates’] chances of starting in Jimmy Johnson’s secondary were long ago rendered moot,” LeBreton wrote. “A larger question became whether Bates would survive the final roster cut.”

Bates tackled Plummer five yards shy of the first-down marker. Just as the Cowboys had done all day, San Diego was stopped in its tracks.

The run-oriented Chargers were held to four rushing first downs and 85 rushing yards for the game. Noonan, Daniel Stubbs, Jim Jeffcoat, Eugene Lockhart, Ken Norton and Jack Del Rio wreaked havoc on Marion Butts & Co.

But anticipation quickly turned to skepticism when the young Dallas offense hurried onto the field.

Dallas hadn’t won a home game since Sept. 25, 1988 — Week 4 of Landry’s final season. Why expect anything different now?

But Troy Aikman moved the chains, reached the end zone, and the young Cowboys offense came of age ... in exactly eight plays.

From the San Diego 45, Tommie Agee turned a crucial fourth-and-2 into a 16-yard run. Next play, Kelvin Martin made a fingertip catch.

Two plays later, Aikman sneaked in from the 1.

“I don’t think we would’ve won this game last year,” said Aikman, making only his 12th NFL start. “We wouldn’t have known how to win it.”

'A little foggy to me'

Noonan doesn’t recall many of the details from that ’90 season-opening victory.

But he has a reason. Two of them, actually.

“I just had my ninth and 10th knee [arthroscopic surgeries],” said Noonan, now 42. “With the anesthesia, everything’s a little foggy to me.”

He does remember Jimmy Johnson ratcheting up training camp after the 1-15 in ’89, as season in which Aikman was 0-11 and the Cowboys’ only win came at Washington with Steve Walsh at quarterback.

“Jimmy was pretty easy on us that first year ... short practices, very few meetings,” Noonan recalled. “But he must’ve talked to somebody during the off-season. Because he really got tough on us.”

Noonan, an All-American at Nebraska, was Landry’s next-to-last first-round pick (12th overall in ’87). He would succeed Randy White, whose 14-year Hall of Fame career came to an end in ’88.

When a few Cowboys players were asked about San Diego’s ill-conceived fake punt, Lockhart replied, “How stupid could they be? They had the game in the bag.”

OK. Mark it down. This was an early sighting of swagger — something the ’90s Cowboys would use to win three Super Bowls in four years.

As for Noonan, he keeps his football memories in several boxes in the garage.

“Football was a great experience, but it doesn’t define me,” he said.

About once a month, he gets someone asking him about the other Danny Noonan — the Michael O’Keefe character in the 1980 movie Caddyshack.

“I’ll be playing in a charity golf event,” Noonan said, “and somebody will say, ‘Miss it!’ ”

What Noonan did miss out on was a Super Bowl ring with the ’92 Cowboys. He was cut two games into the season.

He hooked on with the ’92 Packers, then retired while with the Broncos during the ’93 preseason.

“By then, I had slowed down quite a bit because of my knees,” Noonan said. “But I don’t make excuses.”

He recently cracked the top 10 percent of his sales team at Carson Wealth Management Group.

“I feel better about that than my playing career,” Noonan said. “I’m not one of those guys who likes to stand around and tell old football stories.”

Spoken like a true blood-and-guts salesman.