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Bill Bates was the ultimate free agent for Cowboys

“If we had 11 players on the field who played as hard as Bill Bates does and did their homework like he does, we’d be almost impossible to beat.” — Coach Tom Landry (circa mid-’80s)

High praise for an undrafted free agent.

But then, throughout 48 years of Dallas Cowboys history, Bill Bates is a refreshing reminder this time every year: Not every star who wore the star came out of the NFL draft.

Heck, no ...

Cliff Harris, aka, Capt. Crash, became a head-hunting safety for the entire 1970s and made the Ring of Honor. He was an undrafted free agent from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark.

Cornell Green, a Utah State basketball player who never played a down of college football, joined the ’62 Cowboys as an undrafted free agent. He played 13 seasons and made five Pro Bowls at two different positions — cornerback and safety.

Everson Walls, a Grambling cornerback, went undrafted in ’81. He immediately set an NFL rookie record with 11 interceptions — which is still a Cowboys’ single-season record.

Tony Romo ... OK ... just a modest 24 NFL starts (plus two playoff losses) into a rather high-profile career that lacks NFL draft pedigree. All Romo does is attract sportswriters and paparazzi alike.

It’s a nice collection of names.

But each one fell through the cracks on draft day. And no single undrafted free-agent in Cowboys history went on to enjoy more fan popularity and rack up more Cowboys seasons than Bill Bates (1983-97).

Snubbed by every NFL team in the ’83 draft — including Dallas — Bates provided special-teams star power from the get-go. He quickly moved into the secondary and played a fierce brand of safety for both Tom Landry and Jimmy Johnson.

The fact that he was hated by receivers over the middle and loved by fans in the seats made him something of an enigma.

First of all, his popularity meant something to him. He’s still proud to have received the team’s Bob Lilly Award as “Most Popular Cowboy” four consecutive seasons in the early ’90s.

Only Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Mark Tuinei played as many Cowboys seasons as Bates (15).

But this fairytale ending almost never got off the ground.

And why not? Bates was too slow.

Despite being a four-year starter at Tennessee, he ended up even more irrelevant than Mr. Irrelevant on ’83 draft day. (RB John Tuggle was selected 335th — and last — by the New York Giants that year.)

NFL scouts believed their stopwatches — and their stopwatches were trying to tell them: This guy can’t play.

Bates ran a 4.8-second 40-yard dash.

“NFL teams today realize the 40-yard dash isn’t all that important to playing football,” said Bates, who played and coached a total of 21 years in the NFL. “But in ’83, though, [scouts] saw my 40 time and figured, ‘He’s not fast enough.’ That was it.”

I find it funny that Bates wore No. 40 throughout his career. Maybe NFL scouts noticed. (Then again, maybe they didn’t.)

“I ran track in high school, but nobody taught me how to run,” Bates explained. “I pretty much ran straight-up.”

Lost in the NFL evaluation process were his other traits: SEC-pedigree, field awareness, quick reflexes ... and the ability to knock a receiver’s head off.

The Steelers, Raiders and Cowboys showed considerable interest in him before the ’83 draft — but none called.

“It was during the USFL years,” Bates recalled. “I was taken by the New Jersey Generals in their [territorial] draft, but I wanted to play in the NFL — not the USFL — and I wanted to play for the Dallas Cowboys.”

That was his favorite team as a kid growing up in Farragut, Tenn., a suburb of Knoxville. In fact, the Farragut High football team issued uniforms modeled after the Cowboys.

“We had a star on our helmets and everything,” said Bates, who began wearing No. 40 in high school.

As you might imagine, Bates being snubbed by 28 NFL teams in a 12-round draft left him feeling a bit disillusioned. And a lot disappointed.

“I figured I’d get a normal job like everybody else now,” he said. “My dad [Dan] worked as a field sales manager at Exxon at the time.”

So, a 9-to-5 business job appeared to be in his future ... until the Cowboys invited him to Thousand Oaks, Calif.. There was no way, in Bates’ mind now, that he was going to fail.

He was named “NFC Special-Teams Player of the Year” as a rookie and selected to the Pro Bowl in just his second year — forcing the NFL to create a first-time roster spot for “special-teams” players.

Coach-turned-TV analyst John Madden led the campaign because “a player like Bill Bates — boom! — should be in the Pro Bowl.”

After the ’84 season, “special-teamer” Bates joined Randy White and Doug Cosbie as the Cowboys’ three Pro Bowl selections. But five years later, Bates fell into a most precarious position: He was a “Landry guy” on a Jimmy Johnson team.

This was pre-NFL free agency, as we know it today, and Johnson informed Bates after the ’89 season that he was being placed on the team’s Plan B list of available players.

“The Minnesota Vikings called me and said they were going to pick me up in Plan B,” Bates recalled. “But one hour before the deadline, Jimmy called me at home and said, ‘Bill, we’ve decided to protect you.’.”

Bates had mixed emotions. He was staying in Dallas (where he was loved) but playing for Johnson (a coach who didn’t really want him).

“That sort of added fuel to my fire,” said Bates. “I was determined to show that I could play.”

And show it, he did. In the ’90 season-opener, Bates stuffed a fake-punt play by the San Diego Chargers in the waning minutes, putting the ball back into the hands of a young Troy Aikman, as the Cowboys pulled out a come-from-behind victory 17-14.

This is all you need to know about Bill Bates: He played to please his fans. And if you weren’t one of them, he played to prove you wrong.

He has three Super Bowls, although he watched SB XXVII in Pasadena, Calif., from the sideline. He was still recovering from knee surgery early in the ’92 season.

One of his all-time fondest memories was watching TV in Dallas as the Cowboys celebrated a win in Detroit — Nov. 8, 1992 — and having Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin present him with the game ball ... on the air.

“I cherish that moment so much,” Bates said.

Bill and his wife, Denise, now live in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., where he plays golf (as low as a 6-handicap), coaches kids and raises five of his own.

The Bates triplets — Hunter, Graham and Brianna — turn 19 next month. They’re off to college. Hunter, a former three-year starting safety at Nease High School in Jacksonville, Fla., is headed to Northwestern.

Graham, the bigger of the two boys (185-190 pounds) played several positions in high school (including quarterback and punter), has been recruited by Arkansas State to play safety.

Brianna, a volleyball player, is leaning toward Florida.

“She got the ‘short genes’ — she’s 5-foot-2,” Bates said. “But she’s got a big advantage ... she inherited her mamma’s IQ.”

There are still two Bates kids at home: Tanner, 17, and Dillon, 12.

The football-playing members of the triplets were on a Nease High team that lost only five games in four years. Although losing the state championship game each of the last two years, the Panthers won the Florida state Class 4-A championship in 2005, with Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow as a teammate.

Of course, Bates fit in well as an assistant coach on these teams. He brought along six years of NFL coaching experience with the Cowboys and Jaguars.

“Let me tell you something about Tim Tebow,” Bates said. “As great a football player as he is, he’s an even better person.”

Hmm. Interesting ... same can be said about Bill Bates.

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