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Cowboys Down: The Agony Inside AT&T Stadium

A Dallas fan feels the pain of a brutal defeat at home

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

I was there. It was a nut kick. Go find Danny Kelly if you want some real analysis. This is mostly an account of personal horror.

I went with my Uncle Rod, who recently turned 60. Rod and I have attended every important Cowboys game this century together. After the November elections, we had to take a “break” from one another for a while (in fairness, it was I who needed the radio silence). But the Cowboys’ win over the Steelers the next Sunday brought us back. And this morning, we were happily sipping Bud Light in the stadium parking lot, him in a Dak Prescott jersey, and me “wearing” Bob Lilly.

If I’ll remember anything non-awful about Packers 34, Cowboys 31, it will be these fun, nervous moments: when a bunch of win-starved Dallas fans were relitigating the Dez (Non)-Catch and interlacing “Go Cowboys!” chants with quotes from Trump’s Access Hollywood video. (I pretended not to hear the latter.) It was a balmy 50-something degrees. A heavy fog had settled over Arlington. It wasn’t until Rod and I had journeyed to a light on Cowboys Way, a few blocks from the stadium, that we could actually see the thing. It looked like the alien ship in Arrival rising out of the mist.

Even nearly eight years after AT&T Stadium opened, the trip to your seats feels like a strange meeting of Andy Warhol and The Jetsons. You take escalators past giant pieces of modern art commissioned by Gene Jones, the wife of Jerry. (A graphic on the stadium big screen juxtaposes the art pieces with photos of the players, presumably because it is very classy.) There was a drum corps on the main concourse, and, on the 400 level, an aging cover band singing “Raspberry Beret.”

In our seats, on Row 12 of the vertiginous 400 level, we could look straight out and see the big screen. Michael Irvin came on with a recorded message, telling fans to help the Cowboys “finish the fight.” A couple of hours later, I saw Jason Garrett on the same screen, wanly lifting his arms to get the crowd pumped up. I realized then that Irvin was more excited in a canned promo than Garrett has been in his whole life.

The game started terribly enough. On the first drive, the Cowboys moved the ball well but got only a field goal. Rod and I looked at each other nervously. On the next drive, Aaron Rodgers caught the Cowboys with 12 men on the field and got a free first down. Then Rodgers drew them offside and used the free play to throw a touchdown. If you were drawing up a scenario for a Dallas loss, you’d say that the Cowboys should play sloppy, deer-in-the-headlights ball for a few quarters and Rodgers should play like himself. This is exactly what happened.

Anybody who goes to football games knows that when a QB like Rodgers sits in the pocket for a long time, the home fans emit a particular sound. Translated into human speech, it would probably read, “Get hiiiimmmm!” But it sounds like a high-pitched scream: “Ahhhhhhhhh!” We heard that a lot Sunday afternoon. Soon, the score was 21–3.

At halftime, Rod and I huddled in the concourse. In the playoffs two years ago, when the Cowboys played a listless first half against the Lions, we met in the same spot and tried to change the team’s luck. For the second half, we would switch seats: He would move to no. 22 and I would move to no. 23. Also, we would each inhale a giant, pink-and-yellow-striped drink called the Cowboyrita. I am absolutely convinced this is why the Cowboys beat the Lions that day, and why the refs didn’t call a late pass interference on Anthony Hitchens. Renewing the plan, Rod and I toasted drinks and headed back into the bowl.

Rodgers started the second half by racing down the field and throwing another touchdown. On the plus side, we were now very buzzed.

Prescott’s wretched interception on the Cowboys’ next drive seemed to end the game. Rod and I began looking around AT&T Stadium’s great, Galactic Senate bowl for amusements. Hey, there’s the guy dressed as the Macho Man! Where are we getting breakfast tacos tomorrow?

But then Jeff Heath — the obligatory clumsy backup safety — made an incredible interception on the next drive. Heath would later get a sack and have another pick waved off for pass interference on a different player. He was a field goal and picked-up flag away from being the hero.

When the Cowboys got the ball back, Jason Witten caught a third-and-14 pass, seeming to bend his elderly body into a BarcaLounger as he stretched backward for the first down. Witten scored a touchdown a play later to cut the lead to 28–20. Rod and I hugged — a tentative, we’re-not-out-of-this-thing hug.

At this point, the stadium announcer said, “Ladies and gentlemen, here to help the Cowboys finish the fight is … Papa John!” Right then, I knew the Cowboys would probably lose.

But first: Safety Barry Church was knocked to the ground on a blitz, got up, and still sacked Rodgers.

The Cowboys scored on the next possession, with Prescott throwing the ball to Dez Bryant, and Bryant controlling it to ground — unlike, well, you know. Rod and I hugged — a full-bodied, we-might-actually-win-this-thing hug. (It was also a reprise of the Lions game two years ago.) Prescott ran the ball in for a two-point conversion to tie the game at 28. Someone in Section 413 shouted, “Dak from the dead!” It may have even been me.

There was an exchange of field goals. Then Rod sprinted to the bathroom. I had chosen to have a No Bathroom Break game. You might shake your head at the thought of such a thing. But the playoffs are where champions are made, big players show up in big games, etc.

Rod returned on the game’s final drive, right after Rodgers had been sacked by Heath. You know what happened two plays later: Rodgers rolled left (toward our side of the field) and threw to ball to Jared Cook, who just got his feet down. “Fuck that motherfucker!” someone yelled (at Rodgers) as the officials looked at the replay. This wasn’t me, but it might have been.

When the game ended, Rod and I walked the mile or so to the car through a driving rainstorm. Lightning flashed around us. By the time we were on the highway back to Fort Worth, my mom was texting news of tornado warnings and saying the men on the TV had advised everyone to take shelter immediately. Maybe someday, Rod and I will be able to appreciate the metaphor.