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How Jerry Jones Became God’s Gift to Sportswriters

No one absorbs more shots from the media than the owner of the Dallas Cowboys. So why does he keep coming back for more?

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Every reporter in Dallas has a great story about Jerry Jones. My favorite comes from Dale Hansen, the Channel 8 sports anchor and survivor of the Ron Burgundy era of local news. One night at training camp years ago, Jones and Hansen decided to go for a beer. First, Hansen had to deliver his late sports report to viewers back in Dallas.

As the sportscast began, Hansen spoke into a camera while Jones stood a few feet away, just out of the shot. Hansen loves slashing commentaries. And that night, he decided to launch into one about Jones. Hansen remembers calling the Cowboys a “Mickey Mouse” operation.

It’s not every day the NFL’s most powerful owner watches his evisceration live and in person. But when the newscast ended and the TV lights dimmed, Jones didn’t storm off. He looked at Hansen and said, “You want to go grab a beer?”

Jones is being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend because he won three Super Bowls and became a singular figure within the NFL. But his relationship with the media is—to borrow a Jerryism once lavished on Tony Romo—a meer-a-cle. Jones talks to reporters more than any owner in the league. The reporters interrogate him, make fun of him, and occasionally light him up, Hansen-style. Then Jones reappears the next day, apparently no more wary of the press than before.

“He’s like that old boxing doll we all had as kids, with the rounded bottom,” Hansen told me recently. “You can hit Jerry right upside the head. He’ll just bounce back up with a grin on his face and keep right on going.”

In the tightly scripted world of pro sports, the arrangement is a dream … for the reporters. The most powerful owner in the NFL is the most criticized, and yet also the most available. I always wondered: What does Jerry Jones get out of it?

On July 23, I had a chance to see Jones’s resilient charm in person. At Cowboys training camp in Oxnard, California, I sat with a few dozen reporters on a tennis court that had been converted into an outdoor auditorium. Just after 11, Jones strode out. He had traces of white stubble on his cheeks and was wearing a polo over a long-sleeve T-shirt—an early-bird-special kind of outfit. He is 74 years old.

Jones was joined on the podium by Stephen, his son and the Cowboys’ COO, and Jason Garrett, the head coach. But the Q&A session was clearly Jones’s, and he spoke first. “I know the kind of commitment you and your organizations have made for you to be here,” he told the reporters. “It’s a big deal. I have to say, again, that we’ve got more in common than maybe a bunch of you’d like to think.”

The Cowboys’ offseason seemed to dignify every slur uttered about the franchise. The star running back was involved in a bar fight that Dallas police lost either the ability or will to investigate; the star wide receiver held a party for 3,000 people in his hometown and showed up late for a conditioning test the next day; and the then-kick-returner’s dog was kidnapped and held for ransom. Make the mandatory reference to the White House and you have a First Take segment.

Fourteen of the reporters’ first 15 questions involved off-the-field issues. Jones was unfazed. If any emotion radiated from his unlined face, it was a delight in being there and answering questions. It reminded me of the time in January when I called Jones to interview him for a profile of Michael Irvin. Jones had a cold. “Brine,” he said, Jerryfying my name, “my voice is hoarse, but I’m trying to get some hot tea in here to loosen up my throat for ya’.”

We didn’t get a classic Jerryism like 2012’s “I want me some glory hole!” But Jones did exclaim, “We’re going to have to burn some wagons and float the Mississippi with some of the others.” He was talking about losing players to injury or suspension.

The Cowboys’ roster was so loaded, Jones boasted, that the team could take risks. “The stronger the core is, the better it can take the tor-peed-uh,” he said.

Jones swore he wouldn’t divulge details from his players’ off-the-field case files. But of course he did. Speaking of running back Zeke Elliott, who has been under investigation by the NFL for more than a year for accusations of domestic violence, Jones said: “There is absolutely nothing, not one thing that I’ve seen, that has anything to do with domestic violence.”

Later, standing in a scrum of reporters off the podium, Jones went even further: “My opinion is, there’s not even an issue of ‘he said, she said.’” How can there be an accusation of domestic violence without “he said, she said?”

Jones talks with Ezekiel Elliott before the NFC divisional playoff game against the Green Bay Packers on January 15, 2017, in Arlington, Texas.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Jones rattled off the names of players with complicated off-the-field lives with whom he’d won Super Bowls: Irvin, Charles Haley. “Those are the ones that you know about,” Jones said. “There are others.” Imagine Stan Kroenke daring reporters to discover off-the-field incidents that hadn’t been reported.

Matt Mosley, the writer and cohost of the Cowboys-centric Doomsday podcast, told me Jones sounds better in person than he reads on the page. Indeed, to appreciate Jones’s performance--and it is a performance--you have to see it live. When Jones goes off on an odd tangent, the reporters seem to lean forward in their seats, and a big, frozen smile appears on Garrett’s face.

“I’ll never forget pillow talk,” Jones said.

Sorry, what?

One night, Jones told us, he was lying in bed next his wife, Gene. Gene told him: “You just cain’t leave it alone, can you?”

If a thought bubble could have appeared above the reporters, it would have read: “What does he mean by it?” We’ve all seen the photos

After a dramatic pause, Jones shared Gene’s question: “How in the world is Jimmy [Johnson] not our coach?”

From the crowd, a reporter asked how Jones had answered his wife. Jones’s mind veered back toward pillow talk: “What goes on …” he said, trailing off. At that point, Rich Dalrymple, the team’s PR chief, brought the session to a close.

After the press conference, reporters had a choice to make: Should they go after Garrett or Jones for more info? Garrett walked away mostly untouched; Jones was mobbed. “We go to a Wade Phillips or Jason Garrett press conference and it’s like, man, please,” said Newy Scruggs, the sports anchor of Dallas’s Channel 5. “We need to go get Jerry. We get the real stuff with Jerry.”

In the scrum, Jones kept talking about the Elliott case. Dalrymple announced that Jones had meetings to go to. Jones began to walk away, but his media ministrations didn’t end. As he moved, he was still sloughing off quotes to two beat writers, the Dallas Morning News David Moore and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Clarence Hill Jr. Four TV cameramen walked backward in front of Jones to capture his every stride. When Jones finally left the tennis court and broke free of the scrum, he was chatting with USA Today’s Jarrett Bell. It was the first day of training camp.


On a normal NFL team, the owner speaks once a year, and then almost sheepishly, as if everything about professional football is alien to him except the money.

Jones talks all the time. After a regular-season game, Dallas reporters wait outside the locker room for the players to finish their cooling-off period. When the locker-room door opens, Jones is often the first one out. He gives a press conference--the only owner in the NFL, if not sports, who regularly speaks after games.

Garrett is quotable only if you like coach-speak. (“Accountability does not mean infallibility.”) Jones works without a script. “The beauty of Jerry is I don’t think he enters into an interview with an agenda,” said Jean-Jacques Taylor, a Dallas radio host who did a stint on the Cowboys beat. “It’s off the cuff, off the top of his head.” Jones is known to release so many previously secret injury details that reporters call him “Dr. Jerry.”

Jones’s lowest moments as owner came when he clashed with Jimmy Johnson (and, to a lesser extent, Bill Parcells). A long-standing rap is that Jones has since hired pushover coaches so that he would be firmly in charge of the team. This is true. But hiring such coaches also had another effect: It made Jones the franchise’s singular voice.

Jones and coach Bill Parcells in 2006
Ron Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images

Occasionally, Jones and Garrett accidentally compete for airtime. On Fridays during the season, Garrett holds a press conference that often coincides with Jones’s weekly radio segment. Todd Archer, who covers the Cowboys for ESPN, attends Garrett’s presser but can scroll through Twitter while he does. That way, Archer can ask Garrett about news Jones has just made on the radio.

If a reporter tells Garrett that Jones has just ruled out an injured player for Sunday’s game, Garrett will say something like: “We’ve not made a decision on that.” Wade Phillips had a better response: “If Jerry said that, that’s what you got to go with.”

Some writers have adopted the odious tradition of calling a team owner “Mr. So and So.” No Dallas reporter would ever do that with Jones except as a gag. Everybody calls him “Jerry.”

This may be because they feel they know him. Skip Bayless, a longtime Dallas columnist who wrote three books about the Cowboys, said that beneath the bluster, Jones had a self-deprecating, even humble affect. As Bayless explained: “He was (a) the most interesting human I ever interviewed or attempted to analyze in print; and (b) the most accessible and fair of anyone I ever dealt with.”

“I always tried not to like him,” Bayless continued, “and I couldn’t not like Jerry Jones.”

In Oxnard, Jones watches practice from atop a giant tower between two football fields. When practice ends, the reporters will amble toward him to see if he wants to talk. “When he did, you dropped everything and you ran to where he was,” said Rainer Sabin, who covered the Cowboys for five seasons for the Morning News. “Anything with Jerry, it was like white smoke coming out of the Vatican.”

If the Dallas media has any complaint, it’s that Jones feeds the national media as well as or better than he feeds them. In Oxnard one afternoon, I found the MMQB’s Peter King watching practice from the sidelines. King guessed he’d conducted around 50 one-on-one interviews with Jones. He said Jones’s availability reminded him of the mom-and-pop NFL he covered in the ’80s, when he could dial up just about any owner at a moment’s notice. Naturally, King had been granted an audience with Jones that night.

If any article fixed Jones’s image in sports fans’ minds, it was Don Van Natta Jr.’s 2014 ESPN The Magazine profile, which captured the owner swigging Johnnie Walker Blue and lusting after Johnny Manziel. Readers might have assumed that Jones was ticked off by the piece. In fact, Van Natta told me, he never heard a bad word about the story from Jones directly. And Van Natta repeated King’s mantra: “Anytime I need to see Jerry and talk to Jerry, he makes time.”

Dallas sportswriters are pussycats compared to their colleagues in, say, Boston. But Jerry Jones is the one subject on which they will happily get medieval. “We’re probably not tough enough on the Rangers, and the Mavericks are just kind of the Mavericks,” said Tim Cowlishaw, a columnist at the Dallas Morning News. “Jerry, even though he’s going in the Hall of Fame, has pretty much been a target for 27 years.”

In Dallas, Jerry-punching has become a rite of a passage. It started in 1989, when Jones bought the Cowboys and fired Tom Landry. The late Dallas Times Herald columnist Frank Luksa wrote a series of columns so pointed that even a Jones critic like Hansen thought, Wow, I can’t believe Frank went there.

A funny thing happened. With every rip job, Jones only seemed to get nicer. He flattered Luksa and suggested they get a beer. Luksa later grumbled, “I’m afraid if I write another critical column about him that he’s going to adopt me.”

In three decades as a columnist at the Morning News and Star-Telegram, Randy Galloway took a certain joy in pissing off members of the “jock kingdom.” “With Jerry,” Galloway said recently, “it was like he didn’t read the column and no one told him what I wrote. In a way, that kind of hurts. You’d think, ‘Man, I hammered on him on that.’ Jerry would never give you the pleasure of thinking you got to him.”

Jones talking with football analyst Hank Stram circa 1991
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Rather than bawling out a reporter, Jones was more likely to smother him with praise. Jones once said of Bayless that while he didn’t always agree with his columns, he always read them, because he thought they were important. “That really meant a lot to me,” Bayless said.

When Van Natta was on the final lap of reporting his ESPN The Magazine profile, Jones paid him the ultimate compliment. He said only two journalists were up to the task of a Jerry Jones profile: Van Natta and Frank Deford.

Jones has a way of locking eyes on a reporter that can make the scribe feel like he’s the most important person in the world. Once, at the Cowboys’ annual media party, Matt Mosley got the Jones lock-in for an hour and a half. Mosley told me: “You don’t go back to your laptop and say, ‘Oh, he said something nice about me.’ You just keep ripping him and nothing ever changes in the relationship.”

The longtime Cowboys writer Mike Fisher tells a Jones childhood story that almost qualifies as a Rosebud. Jones’s dad, Pat, once saw his car damaged by a service-station attendant. Pat Jones had a choice: chew out the attendant or forgive him. He chose the latter. As the story goes, the grateful station attendant shopped at the grocery store Jones owned thenceforth. Fisher wrote in an email: “Jerry makes good friends because he’s extraordinarily friendly … but also because he learned at an early age that it’s good entrepreneurship to do so.”

One reporter who elicited a different response was Ed Werder, who worked for the Dallas Morning News and ESPN. In 1993, when he was with the Morning News, Werder wrote a magazine story that displeased Jones. Jones berated him but promised not to be punitive. The next day, the Star-Telegram, the News’ rival, broke the news of Landry accepting Jones’s invitation to join the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor. Werder guessed Jones had leaked it. When he confronted Jones at training camp, Jones could be heard yelling, “Get this little fucker away from me!”

“In many cases, he decided to charm those who criticized him into his camp,” Werder said. “With me, it was sort of a visceral reaction.”

For Jones, consuming nasty press is a form of self-flagellation. “I probably listen to more talk radio than anyone,” he once told CBS. “I think I love the pain. … I need to crah a little bit.”

But if such stories help Jones maintain his edge, they also fulfill a need to have his power acknowledged. Once, Cowlishaw wrote a column whacking the team’s scouting director for a bad draft pick. The next day, Jones pulled Cowlishaw aside and said that he—Jones—ought to have been the column’s proper target. “Jerry was asking for more!” Cowlishaw said.

Covering Jones is like being a linguist who must master a tongue spoken by only one person on earth. Jones’s speech—his Jerryisms—have distinct parts. Billionaire Jerry unleashes a torrent of qualifiers. “Consequently …” “Candidly …” “To be trite …” “But I can say this …” The last of which means Jones is going to talk about something he shouldn’t.

It’s Country Jerry—the son of a North Little Rock grocer—that provides the most color. Jones once recalled turning down an exorbitant contract demand from Michael Irvin like this: “Michael, there’s an old West Texas town called El Paso. I el paso.” Explaining why he took AT&T’s money for stadium-naming rights, he told Van Natta: “I was a whore!”

Jones shares a common trait with those of us who’ve moved to the big city: As we get older, our accents grow thicker and we cling to regional pronunciations like birth certificates from Real America. Country Jerry may often be the opposite of what he calls art-i-cu-lut. But it’s oddly soothing when he talks about the frail-i-ties of certain players, and how he’ll spoil them with big contracts if they have—as he once said of Romo—great hand-ah coordination.

“In some ways, the league has bled of color,” said Sam Farmer, the pro football writer for the Los Angeles Times. “He stands in contrast to the corporate monolith the NFL has become.” Indeed, despite being the NFL’s toothiest shark, Jones maintains the air of a provincial making his way in a modern world. A possible NFL franchise in London, Jones said a few years ago, “has cachet. It has an air about it.” On entering the Astrodome for the first time: “It looked like you were on the moon.”

Jones talks to fans during opening day of training camp on July 24, 2017, in Oxnard, California.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

“Most people speak in sentences,” said Jean-Jacques Taylor. “Jerry speaks in paragraphs with fragmented sentences. … You interview Jerry and go back and listen to the tape and you’re like, ‘Oh my god.’”

For example, listen to Jones talk about the NFL’s behavior policy in Oxnard:

What we all need to know if is we’d look in the mirror, that if everything that we’ve not been about were out here a part of everything that’s written about you, then that happens.

What?

A man who speaks without notes, and who is trying to juggle many football and business tasks at once, is bound to make gaffes. In 2003, a Cowboys running back named Ennis Haywood died after accidentally mixing alcohol and prescription medication. In an otherwise touching tribute at Haywood’s funeral, Jones repeatedly called him “Emmitt.” Eventually, Jones was corrected by the congregation.

A Dallas radio host named Gordon Keith does a loving-but-vicious Jerry Jones impression. When Keith’s station had the rights to Cowboys games, the real Jerry and the fake Jerry would appear on the same show. Keith told the Morning News that Jones often asks him to do the impression.

It’s fitting that the ultimate Jerry Jones media moment happened in a bar. For the bar is the place where Jones and sportswriters go to commune, and where a wormhole into Jones’s second life opens up.

It was March 21, 1994. The NFL owners meetings. The Morning News’ Werder and Rick Gosselin and two out-of-town writers were headed to the hotel elevator when they walked by Jones’s table in the bar. As Werder recalled: “He grabbed me by the pants leg and said, ‘Don’t leave now. You’ll miss the story of the year.’ I said, ‘What’s the story of the year?’ He said, ‘I’m going to fire that blankety-blank Jimmy Johnson.’”

Jones—who would later say he wasn’t drunk—began to lay into Johnson, with whom he’d just won his second straight Super Bowl. “There are 500 coaches who could have won the Super Bowl with our team,” he told the reporters.

“It was the most amazing thing I’d ever heard …” Werder said. “I’d never heard Jerry talk like that, with such ruthless conviction. It was not only something he wanted to say but wanted us to hear. ”

From that point, a crazy sequence of events happened. First, Werder declared the bar session off the record—not to protect Jones but to protect his and Gosselin’s scoop from the out-of-town writers he feared would steal it. Second, Werder and Gosselin got rid of the out-of-towners by convincing them that Jones always talked that way about his head coach. After the other writers went to bed, Werder and Gosselin went back to the bar to hear more of Jones’s diatribe before finally retiring around 5 a.m.

Neither Werder nor Gosselin slept that night as they worked on Dallas’s sports story of the decade. The next morning, Jones told Werder and Gosselin that they couldn’t print his remarks—after all, Werder had declared the session off the record. The reporters found Johnson, who’d already heard about the tirade. They got Johnson’s reaction. That forced Jones to go on the record himself. In the next morning’s paper, the reporters had their exclusive.

Jimmy Johnson announces his resignation as head coach of the Cowboys
PAUL K. BUCK/AFP/Getty Images

There’s a notion that the internet dragged Jones’s private life into public. “Boy,” Jones said from the stage in Oxnard, “I had a wonderful time before this social media hit.”

But Jones’s private life has been news in Dallas off and on for two decades. Jim Dent’s biography King of the Cowboys (1995) alleged Jones was seen with women at various nightspots. (Jones said the book had “a whole lot of National Enquirer.”) One year, Jones showed up for training camp having lost a lot of weight; reporters suspected he’d also had plastic surgery. When Channel 4’s Mike Doocy tried to gently ask Jones on the air why he looked so good, Jones shrugged off the question. Afterward, he told Doocy, who is several years younger, “Your day’s comin’, boy. Your day’s comin’.”

In 2010, a bar patron surreptitiously filmed Jones jabbering about Parcells and Romo. Four years later, pictures surfaced of Jones in compromising positions with two women. Jones cryptically said the pictures were “misrepresented.”

Dale Hansen, who sat in more bars with Jones in the late ’80s and early ’90s than just about anybody, used the same standard with the owner as he did with players: What happens at night isn’t news until it affects your day job. Hansen recalled one after-hours moment he shared with Jones at training camp. Jones, Hansen said obliquely, was “in a ridiculous situation. He goes, ‘You’re not reporting this, are you?’ I said, ‘If you trade Aikman tomorrow to impress her, I will bust your ass.’”

Dallas reporters have theories about why Jones tolerates and even likes the press. He has a considerable ego, for one thing. Rainer Sabin noted that Jones took the media-courtliness of his old college football coach, Frank Broyles, and brought it to the NFL.

Some amount of Jones’s media love is an outgrowth of his knack for salesmanship. In 2008, Sam Farmer sat in the passenger seat of a Lincoln Town Car while Jones drove him around the site of what would become AT&T Stadium. Jones took his eyes off the road so he could tell Farmer of the virtues of his new pleasure dome. The car veered off course, and Jones had to slam on the brakes before the car broke through a barricade and hurtled into a ditch.

As the men recovered, Jones told Farmer he’d helped him avoid the crash. Coining a Jerryism, Jones said: “You were like a receiver, and I was the DB. I could read it in your eyes.”

As columnist Mike Sielski wrote recently, Jones understands the NFL and its media arm is basically a reality show that needs heroes and villains. He is willing to play either part. Once, on his weekly radio segment, Jones got into an argument with host Norm Hitzges that was so tense that the owner himself threw it to commercial. The following week, Hitzges asked Jones how he felt about their last encounter. “I thought it was great radio!” Jones said.

Jones in 2014
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Jones has a weirdly optimistic quality about him. “I thought it was almost this beautiful naïveté he had—that he was born with,” Skip Bayless said. “Onward and upward, damn the torpedoes. … He was always in a good mood, no matter how dire the circumstances.” It was almost like an oilman’s ability to shrug and move on from a dry hole.

Which brings us to the final reason Jones tolerates the press. Jones is getting into the Pro Football Hall of Fame because of his bottomless appetite for risk. He leveraged himself to the hilt to buy the Cowboys in 1989. Jones traded up in the draft and bellied up to bars at night.

That same love of risk leads Jones, like Donald Trump, into unscripted encounters with the media. After Trump’s recent Oval Office interview with The New York Times, people asked: Why is he still talking? Well, the need to be loved; the supreme confidence in your ability to win over your critics; and the willingness to accept the immense downsides if you can’t—these qualities equally describe the president of the United States and Jerry Jones. You want to go grab a beer?!

When Jones shuffles off this mortal coil, he will hand control of the franchise to his kids. Few reporters in Dallas think things will be quite the same. They won’t have the unending stream of chatter or the rich supply of Jerryisms or the same free hand to roast the most powerful owner in the NFL.

“I hope he lives forever …” said Channel 5’s Newy Scruggs. “It’s going to be a sad doggone day when that man leaves.” The mere thought of a Jerry-less future, as the owner himself might say, is enough to make a grown man crah.

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