Nate Newton reminisces about his days at Valley Ranch as a player
There are a few moments in any life where you feel vulnerable to death, and as the walls of the Dallas Cowboys’ practice facility violently shook and came up from the ground I was sure this was one of those times it could be over.
Ten years ago removed from the worst moment in the history of the Dallas Cowboys football franchise, there are no more physical signs at Valley Ranch of the microburst that ripped down the 88,000 square foot practice facility late in the afternoon on May 2, 2009.
Surveying the spot today where the encased field previously existed, it was as if nothing was ever there. The team never rebuilt the piece-of-junk pup tent that was built on the cheap to be the “indoor practice facility;” the Cowboys moved out of this Valley Ranch facility to its new headquarters in Frisco in the summer of 2016.
Those of us who were inside the tent that afternoon will never forget it, and small few will forever have scars that were attended to, and some ignored.
THE WALLS SHOOK
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones wasn’t at his team’s rookie minicamp that Saturday, but rather attending the Kentucky Derby. The only reason the practice activities were moved inside that afternoon was because then-head coach Wade Phillips was told rain was coming.
That’s what the practice facility was there for: for rain or cold weather. The indoor facility was a climate-controlled steel cage with a heavy tarp encased over it. It was also an eyesore that neighbors had complained about when it was built.
Because it was a rookie minicamp, the amount of people inside that afternoon was low; maybe 70. The atmosphere was relaxed, small, and comfortable.
Practice was almost over when the rain began. Because this was before smart phones, none of us inside had any idea of the severity of the storm. The wind began to rattle the tarp against the steel girders. You felt neither safe, nor vulnerable.
Outside, the wind blew so hard that it knocked over a port-a-john against one of the two doors of the south end zone. The long cables that held the warehouse style lights began to sway, and some flickered, at which point I moved closer to the walls.
The fear was the lights could snap. A few of us smiled nervously at the other, and I looked at the two doors that were blocked so only one could open.
It was so loud you couldn’t hear anyone and my eyes drifted to the north end of the practice tent, the top of it began to come down and the bottom ripped from the ground. At this moment I feared for my life, not because of a tornado but because of a flying projectile.
The herd of us in the endzone immediately ran for those two doors, about 10 yards away. But there were not two doors. There was one. Remember, one of them was blocked.
A few people were in front of me when suddenly a pair of hands on my shoulders pushed me out of the way; a member of the Dallas Cowboys was pushing me to get to a door that was collapsing on us. He was a player, and players are always more important than the rest of us, a point that would be driven home in the coming months.
As incredulous as I was in that moment, that push prevented me from falling into the few bodies that fell through the doorway; I stumbled my way around and could feel the rain and the wind blowing at a level I had never previously experienced.
Myself and then-Dallas Morning News reporter Tim MacMahon had about 110 yards to run up to the actual building; the scariest sprint of my life. We both sprinted up to the overhang, and inside to the locker room. A few players were there, one was laughing. We were all looked as if we had been submerged in a pool.
A few seconds later, we both went outside to see it. The indoor practice facility was shredded. Mother Nature had torn it apart.
WE WERE LUCKY
In only a minute or two, the storm that ripped this facility apart was gone and replaced by a gentle late afternoon May sun. Players frantically lifted the giant pieces of torn tarp looking for anyone who may be stuck or trapped. Light cables dangled, or rested in standing water.
Long time Dallas Cowboys scout Chris Hall was trapped under a girder, and he was in shock. Emergency crews had arrived to provide aid, and assess the damage.
In the Valley Ranch halls, special teams coach Joe DeCamillis walked past me and grimaced. He didn’t know he had sustained a broken neck.
Wade Phillips talked to myself and one other person and said, “It could have been so much worse.”
NO DAY IN COWBOYS’ HISTORY IS ANY WORSE
About 24 hours after the incident occurred, word spread that among the 12 people who sustained injuries, it was worse. Scouting assistant Rich Behm, one of the nicest men on earth, sustained a fracture to his Thoracic spine. He is paralyzed from the waist down.
The Cowboys have gone out of their way to take care of Behm, who remains an active member of the scouting staff to this day.
Immediately after the incident, every player and coach was told not to talk about it; you will notice those who did were only members of the media that were not affiliated with the team - myself, Todd Archer, now of ESPN, and MacMahon, and a few local photographers.
This is how it broke down: If you were a player, or coach, and had a legit claim, you got something. The rest? Not so much.
Anyone else who sustained a serious injury, many of whom are still there to this day, effectively had to keep their mouth shut, or take the risk and hire a lawyer.
The lawsuits, and the semantics of dodging liability and while offering verbal bouquets of accountability that wilted shortly after they were issued, began.
Everyone did it the American Way: Hid behind their billable lawyers at $450 an hour.
Behm and DeCamillis settled lawsuits; Behm reportedly received $19.5 million, and the latter $4.5 million. People with the Cowboys have disputed those figures.
Former Dallas Cowboys public relations assistant Jancy Briles, who was in that heap of humanity ahead of me when the door collapsed, filed a suit and later settled for an undisclosed amount.
For the next few months, a few of us who were inside still actually “enjoyed” some lingering effects from it. Mine was mostly fear of another storm. We briefly talked about “doing something” but nothing ever came of it.
Three years later, documents obtained by the Associated Press showed that the Summit Structures LLC, which designed and built the facility, knew that the bubble was prone to buckling and could collapse in high winds. The company built similar structures at Texas A&M, New Mexico and for the New England Patriots.
One of the employees who worked on the project was listed as an engineering director; he did not actually have a college degree, and had served time in a federal prison for drug and weapons convictions.
The company that provided the materials for the structure, Cover All Buildings Systems Inc., filed for bankruptcy about a year later and dissolved.
In hindsight, these types of facilities provided a mirage of security and protection against Mother Nature’s mood swings. In a big storm, the facility was as effective as a kid’s umbrella in a typhoon. When Mother Nature drops the gloves, she makes a mockery of Man.
No day in the history of the Dallas Cowboys is any worse and far more meaningful than the firing of Tom Landry, a Super Bowl loss to the Steelers, or a dumb trade or bad draft pick.
People were hurt, and when you fear for your life you never forget it.