Bob Lilly sits in a chair and shakes his head in disbelief.
“How did I get this old this fast?” he said, chuckling. “I’ve never felt really old.”
Lilly doesn’t act old, either. He certainly doesn’t feel 80-years-old, though, that’s precisely what he turned on Friday.
He still drives. He still walks two or three miles a day. He still remembers everything from hauling bales of hay in Throckmorton as a youngster and roughing up Don Meredith during a TCU-SMU game, to his signature sack of Bob Griese to help lead the Dallas Cowboys to the franchise’s first championship in Super Bowl VI.
The man affectionately known as “Mr. Cowboy” still has it.
“When I turned 70, I couldn’t stand it,” Lilly said this week from his living room. “When I turned 40, 50, 60 … didn’t bother me a bit. I don’t feel older now than I did when I was 70. There’s certain things I wouldn’t want to do right now that I used to do when I was 70 and that’s go climb mountains and take photographs. But I can still do most anything.”
The Star-Telegram met with Lilly as he reflected on his life on and off the football field. He’ll celebrate his birthday with roughly 70 family, friends and former teammates.
Mr. Cowboy’s Road to TCU
Lilly was born on July 26, 1939, in Olney, Texas, and grew up primarily in Throckmorton, 130 miles west of Fort Worth. His father, Jim, was a farmer. Or, as Lilly described it, more of a “custom farmer” working on machinery.
“He was really a mechanic when he started,” Lilly said. “He dropped out of school after seventh grade. He was about 12 when he got a full-time job to help the family.”
Lilly soon found himself helping his father farm, hauling 140-pound hay bales. That paid off when it came to athletics.
He didn’t lift weights until well into his professional career, but he was “farm-boy” strong and was a standout on Throckmorton’s football and basketball teams. Throckmorton’s football team at the time was coached by former TCU player George “Dutch” Kline.
That helped ingrain a fondness for TCU even more for Lilly. He and his father attended at least one or two football games each season in Fort Worth. His father knew one of the ticket attendants at TCU who would let them in for free.
“My dad’s hero was Sam Baugh,” said Lilly, pointing to a football in his living room autographed by Baugh. “He was one of the greats. He was a great passer and a great defensive back, led the NFL three or four times in interceptions.”
But Lilly’s father was forced to uproot the family during the 1950s drought that wiped out thousands of farms and ranches in the state. Following Lilly’s junior season at Throckmorton, the family headed to the Pacific Northwest and Pendleton, Oregon, a small farming community.
Lilly remembers that drive well, thinking one of the few positives of leaving Texas would be no more hauling hay.
He learned otherwise when he and his father went to an uncle’s farm the day after they arrived.
“A 640-acre alfalfa farm,” Lilly said, smiling. “So here I am, out there hauling 140-pound alfalfa bales. … I got my hay hauling in whether I wanted it or not.”
Lilly enjoyed his time in Oregon, and made fast friends.
“The people there were mostly farmers and ranchers, so they were very similar to the people in Throckmorton, except their diction was totally different,” Lilly said. “But very friendly. I felt part of the group right when I got there.”
Lilly fit in with the football team, of course. Pendleton was led by a legendary high school coach named Don Requa, and Lilly shined on the field his senior season.
The University of Washington, coached by Jim Owens, offered him a scholarship. The legendary Bear Bryant called him. But Lilly grew up going to TCU games and made the trek to Fort Worth with a friend in his dad’s 1953 Studebaker.
Once on campus, TCU coach Abe Martin offered Lilly a scholarship, and Lilly signed his letter of intent on the spot.
Mr. Cowboys’ College days
Lilly had a sensational college career at TCU, as the program won two Southwest Conference titles, and reached the 1959 Cotton Bowl and the inaugural Bluebonnet Bowl in 1960 in his three seasons with the varsity squad.
As former teammate Buddy Iles put it, “Bob Lilly was Mr. TCU before he was Mr. Cowboy.”
Lilly described TCU’s basic defense under Martin as a 4-3, and he split time between defensive end and defensive tackle. He became a consensus All-America selection in 1960.
Lilly recalled when TCU faced SMU his junior season in 1959. SMU was led by quarterback Don Meredith, Lilly’s future teammate with the Cowboys, and SMU ran the spread offense.
In fact, the Mustangs were coming off a 30-14 victory over Baylor. But TCU had a secret weapon.
“TCU’s athletic director at the time was Dutch Meyer, and Dutch Meyer had invented the spread offense, a single-wing offshoot,” Lilly said. “So Dutch Meyer came out and coached our defense all week. We sacked Meredith nine or 10 times during that game. Meredith used to tell me, ‘The worst beating I ever took in a football game was when we played TCU my senior year.’ ”
TCU won the game 19-0, holding SMU to minus-1 yard rushing. Lilly finished with 10 tackles, a blocked punt and two fumble recoveries.
“Bob was an unusual athlete,” Iles said. “He was quick and could cover ground. He outran me in the 40-yard dash one day, and I played defensive end and wide receiver. But he was not a mean football player. He was a gentleman and remains that today. I wish that the players today were more like him.”
The Frogs went on to face Clemson in the Bluebonnet Bowl, and were leading 7-3 at halftime. But Clemson scored 20 unanswered points in the second half to win.
“They started passing in the second half, and we hadn’t seen them do that on film,” Lilly said, grinning. “So we weren’t quite ready for that.”
But it wasn’t all for naught.
“We had two All-Americans in that game,” Lilly said. “[TCU’s] Don Floyd and [Clemson’s] Lou Cordileone, but I got defensive player of the game.”
It’s just one of many accolades Lilly earned throughout his TCU career. Today’s football performance center on campus is named after Lilly.
“I could’ve gone to a few schools [in the Pacific Northwest], but I didn’t want to stay up there,” Lilly said. “I wanted to come back to TCU, which was the best decision I ever made.”
Mr. Cowboy becoming Mr. Cowboy
For as great as Lilly was at TCU, he became a star with the Cowboys. His name is synonymous with America’s Team.
Lilly became the Cowboys’ first-ever draft choice in 1961, and went on to have a sensational 14-year career. He made All-Pro nine times, was named to the All-Decade Team for the 1960s and 1970s and was the first member inducted into the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor.
No other player has worn Lilly’s No. 74 in a regular-season game. ‘Mr. Cowboy’ is a fitting title for Lilly, but it’s not something he embraces.
“I have no idea why I got that title,” Lilly said. “I think it was because I was their first draft choice, and I was the first one in the Ring of Honor, and then I was the first one inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame from the Cowboys.
“I take it as an honor, but I do think there’s a lot of other players that certainly deserve that title if there’s going to be a title like that. I really don’t … I don’t know that I really like it. It makes me feel kind of weird cause I’ve got so many friends that I think are great.”
But a case can be made for Lilly to be included on a Cowboys’ Mount Rushmore.
He excelled in Tom Landry’s “flex defense,” disrupting plays on a consistent basis. His most memorable play may be sacking Miami Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese for 29 yards in Super Bowl VI.
That’s the longest sack in Super Bowl history, and served as a signature play in the Cowboys’ first championship, a 24-3 victory over a Dolphins team that would go undefeated the following season.
Lilly remembers the sack in vivid detail. He and fellow defensive tackle Jethro Pugh were going to stunt, and defensive ends Larry Cole and George Andrie were going to come around up the middle.
“It was amazing ‘cause I got there quickly,” Lilly said. “My goal was to grab my guy and grab George’s tackle before he could set up. Jethro would get his guard and Larry was going to come through, but we both [Lilly and Cole] got through there just like that (snaps fingers).
“Cole was over there, I was here, and it was kind of like a rodeo deal. We had him in the middle. Pretty soon, Bob Griese just turns around and took off fast, and I caught him and dragged him down. So I give Larry Cole a big part of the credit.
“Bob [Griese] always says, ‘How’d you get me?’ Well, I had Larry Cole. He said, ‘I took off.’ Well, I said, ‘Bob, I’m faster than you are.’”
Lilly chuckles for a moment and then adds: “But Bob was a good quarterback, and he proved it the next year.”
That marked the first of what is now five Super Bowl championships for the Cowboys. The Cowboys’’ “Doomsday Defense” carried the team that day.
The Dolphins had a vaunted rushing attack with Jim Kiick, Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris, but the Cowboys held them to a season-low in rushing yards (80 yards on 20 carries) for the game.
The three points were the fewest points scored by a Super Bowl team until the Patriots tied the record in last year’s Super Bowl, holding the Rams to three points.
“Our whole game plan was to stop the run,” Lilly said. “The flex defense was ideal to stop the run. And we had worked very, very hard that year because we lost [Super Bowl V] the year before.”
Lilly went on to talk about Landry and how great of a football coach he was for the Cowboys.
“Coach Landry was very fair, and a wonderful, wonderful man,” Lilly said. “I’ll never forget our first meeting. He got up and said, ‘Here are my priorities in life -- God, family and football.’ We’re all looking at each other, I wonder if he has his priorities backwards. We’re here to play football.”
Lilly laughed at the thought, and recalled how tough Landry would be on the players, too. Landry would fine players $50 if they were late to meetings; $25 for every pound a player was overweight; $500 if they were late to a flight; and so on.
But there’s no questioning Landry’s ability to coach a football team at the highest level.
“Tom Landry was very precise,” Lilly said. “When we had the defense set up, you did not deviate. You didn’t want to deviate.”
Mr. Cowboy on Retired life
Lilly worked several jobs during the offseasons of his NFL career. The money back then wasn’t like it is today, and Lilly did everything from selling insurance for Mitchell, Gartner & Thompson in Fort Worth to installing security systems.
“I think my first salary [in the NFL] was $12,000 or something like that,” Lilly said, smiling. “I thought that was pretty great.”
Lilly’s first big purchase after he signed with the Cowboys was a Chevrolet Corvair from an old car dealership at I-30 and University Drive in Fort Worth.
After his playing days, though, Lilly worked at a beer distribution company in Waco and then pursued his passion for photography. He and his wife, Ann, opened a photo art gallery in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in the 1980s before moving back to Texas.
They recently moved from Sun City to DFW to be closer to their four children and 12 grandchildren (six boys, six girls).
They’re still not fully settled into their new home, although Lilly has managed to hang a signed picture by one of his all-time favorite players, Jim Brown, in the living room as well as his Ring of Honor bowl with the Baugh autographed football inside it.
But being around his family is how Lilly spends most of his time nowadays.
“We went to football games last year on Tuesday nights, Thursday nights, Friday nights and sometimes Saturdays,” Lilly said.
Lilly knows he’s fortunate to still have his mind sharp, and his body intact, for the most part.
“I’m not as sharp as I used to be, but I feel pretty lucky that I can still get out there and drive with these drivers today and outdrive some of them, not get killed,” Lilly said, laughing. “I think I’m very fortunate to have reached this point in life.
“When I finally realized I’m going to be 80 about two months ago … man, how did I get here? It seems like only yesterday that I was 25.”