Dallas Cowboys

How the Cowboys got their Mighty Orphans nickname

Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli nicknamed his unit “The Mighty Orphans” after Jim Dent’s book.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli nicknamed his unit “The Mighty Orphans” after Jim Dent’s book. mfaulkner@star-telegram.com

Editor’s note: The original Mighty Orphans story was published in the Star-Telegram on Oct. 19. This is an updated version of how the Cowboys defense got its nickname.

Tyrone Crawford was telling the story of how the Cowboys’ defense got its nickname when rookie Maliek Collins interjected.

“It’s from the book,” Collins said.

Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, an avid reader, recently used a synopsis of Jim Dent’s book, “Twelve Mighty Orphans,” to inspire his unit. The nickname stuck.

“Coach Marinelli always has something he comes up with every year,” Crawford said. “This year it’s ‘The Mighty Orphans.’ It’s kind of how we live, the mentality of being treated with less [respect]. We’re Rocky, not the Russians. We don’t get the high-class treatment, but we get the job done.

“He was explaining to us that he read the book about the ‘Orphans,’ them starting a football team and having a couple of guys go to the NFL. He talked about the way they played because they were orphans, and the mindset they had. He’s just trying to instill that type of stuff in us.”

The “Twelve Mighty Orphans,” residents of the Masonic Home Orphanage in Fort Worth, played Texas high school football at the highest level during the 1930s and ‘40s. Despite an enrollment of 150 and no real athletic budget, the smaller Masons became a football powerhouse under coach Rusty Russell.

They tied Corsicana for the high school state championship in 1932.

“Loved it. Great book,” Marinelli said. “Just their love of football and the toughness was inspiring. We talk about it a lot. It’s just something that fit.

“Now, they’ve just got to play like them.”

The name fits the Cowboys, a group without a star player who rank 10th in total defense after the 35-10 victory over the Browns. Dallas hasn’t ranked in the top 10 for a season since 2009. The Cowboys ranked 17th last year, 19th in 2014 and last in 2013.

“I think it’s fantastic,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “I am familiar with the book. I am familiar with the stories, the pictures. The defensive meetings are outstanding every day, the references to the orphans. I do think it’s something those guys have embraced. In a lot of ways, it’s very accurate. Sometimes people overlook certain players for different reasons. Sometimes you can use that as a little bit of a rallying cry and a little chip on your shoulder and it really brings the best out in you. We have a lot of guys who are like that, who go about it the right way and maybe get motivated and inspired by the fact that they were overlooked in some way. I do think that our defense is playing really good team defense, and they’re embracing the roles that they have, embracing the chance to play next to the guy and live up to the standards that we’ve all established for the defense, and they try to do that on a daily basis.”

While the Cowboys sport five first-round picks on its offensive starting 11, only two of the defense’s 25 players were first-rounders. Seven others heard the call in the second or third rounds.

Six Cowboys’ defenders were undrafted free agents, and seven more were drafted in the fifth round or later.

Indeed, they are the NFL’s “Orphans.”

“The Mighty Orphans. I love it, man,” said Cowboys safety Byron Jones, a first-round pick in 2015. “It’s hilarious, because that’s what we are right now.

“Everybody likes it.”