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Behind unruffled face was a heart big as Texas

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© St. Petersburg Times, published February 14, 2000

Tom Landry had a Mount Rushmore look, chiseled from historic American rock. Old Stone Face wore a stylish Fifth Avenue fedora amid ranchy, oily, booty Dallas glitz, where chic is forever a 10-gallon hat.

Landry was an extraordinary NFL coach, but an even more victorious spiritual being. Beyond his icy stares, Tom had a warm heart his Cowboys players were seldom allowed to know.

Tom's choice.

Tom's belief.

"I must keep my distance," he explained, "so I can make objective calls on tough decisions. If a player gets too close, he might be tempted to use friendship as a personal crutch."

An uncharacteristically shy Texan, aloof by nature, Landry was an auto mechanic's son, a football wizard born of a dusty little place called Mission, not far from the Rio Grande.

A hero in multiple ways.

In the fall of 1942, he was a University of Texas freshman. A spectacular football prospect. His country was a few months into World War II. Word came that Tom's brother was missing in Europe.

Robert Landry was 22. Four years older than Tom. A pilot in the Army Air Forces. They were inseparable back in Mission. No trace would be found of the B-17 lost over the North Atlantic. Nor of Robert.

"You can grow up in a hurry, with a lot of pain, when the world is at war," Tom told me a few years ago. "I just had to do my part. Football suddenly wasn't so important." Tears came to the steely Landry eyes as he talked.

Robert's kid brother immediately enlisted in the Army Reserve. Signing up for pilot training. Tom was activated in February 1943. Before long, he was flying B-17s. Emulating Robert.

Old Stone Face, when he was young, had 30 combat missions. Deadly serious stuff, unlike football. Landry ducked bullets and rockets. His bomber ran out of fuel over France. Tom was forced to ditch, but his crew was uninjured.

Years later, after Landry became famous, his autobiography related, "During the course of three short years, I went from scared college freshman, lost on his university campus, to a grizzled war veteran of 21.

"War had tested me, but I had survived. That experience had given me not only a broader perspective on life, but a confidence in myself I had never known before."

Far more than a coach.

Landry died Saturday. Leukemia brought him down. Hired by the expansion Cowboys in 1960, he won no games that first season. But a colossus would soon take form.

Tom's approach was unique. He had the firmness of Vince Lombardi, but with outward demeanor 180 degrees from Green Bay's fire-breathing icon. Landry said he copied the cold, distant, methodical traits of Texas golfing legend Ben Hogan.

Stoic worked for Tom.

"Coach Landry never got excited," said Lee Roy Jordan, a spectacular Dallas linebacker in the 1960s who played collegiately for Bear Bryant at Alabama. "Tom never got down. He was just stable. Didn't show great emotion when things went right. Didn't show great dejection when things went wrong."

Not all Cowboys enjoyed Landry's ways. By design, Tom never got personally close with any of them. Pete Gent, a Dallas tight end who would evolve into a superb social commentator, once suggested to a rookie player, "Don't read Landry's playbook. Everybody gets killed in the end."

There was controversy, but Tom didn't bend. Except now and then, like in 1965 when Landry removed his hat and cried in front of his team, telling those Cowboys he had failed them.

At a practice back then, Don Meredith threw a pass. It was intercepted by Cornell Green. In mock anger, Dandy Don chased defensive back Green downfield, eventually pretending to bash Cornell with a star-studded helmet. Cowboys players exploded with laughter. Landry didn't even smile.

"Nothing funny," Tom said, "ever happens on a football field." Years later, the free-wheeling Meredith was asked if he would like to have a son play football for Landry. "Nope," said Dandy. "I'd rather he had some fun."

Landry's most unfunny NFL day came in 1989. Jerry Jones bought the team and fired Tom to bring in Jimmy Johnson. Doing it with far too little compassion or appreciation. Landry was angry, disillusioned and perplexed. But, outwardly, Old Stone Face showed no quiver. Nothing but class.

Whatever his oddities, Landry did hugely succeed. Third in NFL coaching victories behind Don Shula and George Halas. Twenty consecutive winning seasons (1966-85), getting the Cowboys to five Super Bowls and winning two.

When the Great Scorer makes this call, I'm guessing the Landry spiritual being will far outrank anything Tom accomplished with Xs and Os. He believed, preached and lived ... Christianity, family, patriotism and football.

A man among 'Boys.

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