Jerrassic World, or: Cutting Out the Heart of Texas

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A view of AT&T Stadium from the northeast, just over Johnson Creek. You can’t see it here, but a Wal-Mart Supercenter is directly north of the stadium. It’s a match made in Texas.

Understanding the phenomenon of the NFL requires attending games and getting the full experience from a fan’s perspective.

But to really, truly understand the psychology of the fan, you have to go one step further. You have to go where your fanhood is despised the most — into the territory of your team’s most hated rival.

That’s how Kacey and I ended up in the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington metroplex last weekend.

A couple of weeks into the season, she and I decided to go ahead with an idea she hatched sometime in late summer: flying to Texas to see the Eagles play the Cowboys. From that simple idea, we built a four-day whirlwind tour of the tri-city area.

And what I learned is that every football fan’s bucket list should include a trip to AT&T Stadium, a monument to capitalism that appears to have been plucked from the Las Vegas Strip — or perhaps Area 51, owing to its resemblance to a spaceship — and dropped onto the flat Texas landscape. You may think your team’s stadium is impressive and loud and maybe even shiny — but you ain’t seen nothin’ till you seen this place, boy.

You can’t go anywhere in the metroplex without seeing Cowboys logos, and I know this because during our four days we spent time in each of the three major cities, starting with two JFK-related tours in Dallas. One of those was a roughly four-hour visit to the Sixth Floor Museum at the onetime Texas School Book Depository, one of the most well-curated museums I’ve ever toured.

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The view from the seventh floor of the former Texas School Book Depository. Elm Street can been seen below, and the famed triple underpass is to the right.

It seems we can’t go on a vacation without being assigned to a hotel room that has a major defect, and it happened again at the Fairfield Inn in Arlington: The air conditioner quit sometime during our first night. I can’t sleep in a room that’s remotely warm, so this made Friday night hellish. I was concerned that we might be stuck that way all weekend, given that we were in a hotel close to the epicenter of Cowboys mania on the weekend of the Eagles game, but the hotel staff moved us to the only other room available, and thankfully the A/C there was frosty.

Game day arrived, and after a 10-mile hike in Arlington’s beautiful River Legacy Park, we took the hotel’s 4:30 shuttle to the stadium. (At first I thought we could walk the 2.5 miles from the Fairfield to AT&T Stadium, but as I learned from eyeballing it, that would be a terrible decision. We would’ve had have to hoof it along a highway to cross over Interstate 30, and Texas didn’t seem to take too kindly to pedestrians.)

The bus drops us off on East Randol Mill Road. And as we step onto the sidewalk, the light shimmering off the reflective facade surrounding the stadium hits our eyes. We’re still maybe a third of a mile from the stadium, yet my first instinct is to pull out my camera and start taking pictures.

Walking up to Legends Way, a hundred yards from the ticket gate, we encounter the first wave of security. The guard eyes Kacey’s large Kenneth Cole purse. “You can’t take that in, ma’am,” he says. I had known about the stadium’s strict anti-bag policy, similar to the one at Lincoln Financial Field and probably every other NFL stadium, but in the rush to get ready I hadn’t thought about it.

The guard nods toward the small camera bag slung around my shoulder. “And they might not allow that in either.”

Crap. What are we going to do now? I start to consider our options. Should we try to take the next shuttle back to the hotel to return the bags? Call a cab? Uber? Try to stash the purse at the Wal-Mart next door?

Kacey has a different idea. “I’ll just hide this in one of the bushes right here,” she says. “No one will look here.” I think it’s a crazy plan. There will be 90,000-plus people at this game. Someone will walk by, see the purse and snatch it. And even on the small chance that no one does, security will probably spot it and confiscate it. I tell her she should try to hide the purse behind a car in a corner of the east parking lot, or maybe under the footbridge that crosses Johnson Creek (which, coincidentally, meanders right next to our hotel a couple of miles to the northeast).

She dismisses my idea and empties the handbag, stuffing everything she can into the pockets of her fleece jacket. She perches the purse in the recesses of the third tree in from the passageway. I take the shoulder strap off my camera case to make it less conspicuous. And a couple of minutes later we breeze through the security check. Pretty sure that purse is not going to be there after the game.

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******

It’s 6:10 p.m. A band called Warrior’s Call is performing  at the stadium. They’re dressed in military fatigues. I’ve never felt more in Texas.

6:40 p.m.: We’re at our seats in the sixth row of the lowest section of the upper deck. Thankfully there’s an Eagles fan sitting next to me. The Cowboys come running onto the field. “Greg Hardy, you’re a piece of shit!” yells a man in our section. He’s wearing a Cowboys hat and the woman he’s with has a Dallas Miles Austin jersey on.

On our way up, Kacey bought food. Purchasing stadium fare runs counter to my philosophy, but I have to say that Jerry World’s offerings are impressive. Kacey got four honkin’ chicken fingers and a tray of passable fries for $10. For a pro stadium in 2015, that’s not bad. The chicken fingers are meatier than the underwhelming nine-piece box we’d picked up at Church’s the previous night.

The roof is open. It’s modeled after the one at the stadium’s predecessor, Texas Stadium. When asked about the strange-looking hole in the roof of that facility, former Cowboys linebacker D.D. Lewis once said it was there “so God can look down on his team.”

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The concourse outside Section 438 at Jerry World.

Other than the stadium itself, the most stunning thing I’ve seen since arrival is the amount of green in the crowd. After we get to our seats, I begin listing the Eagles jerseys I see:

  • Dawkins
  • Jaworski
  • Alonso
  • Cunningham
  • White
  • Trotter
  • Owens
  • Westbrook
  • Kendricks
  • McCoy
  • Murray
  • Celek
  • Quinn
  • Foles
  • Quick
  • Hopkins
  • Vick
  • Jerome Brown
  • Barwin
  • Sproles
  • Westbrook
  • Keith Jackson
  • Cox
  • McNabb (yellow and blue 75th anniversary alternate)
  • Asomugha

On the massive video board above the field, Michael Irvin delivers a pregame “get fired up” speech wearing a Cowboys shirt. This same man is employed by NFL Network as an “objective” journalist. Seems like a conflict of interest, but perhaps my standards are just too high.

******

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The huge video boards stretch from one 20-yard line to the other. For the fans sitting behind the end zones, there are smaller boards on either end.

With 1:18 left in the first half, the monstrous video boards display the stadium code of conduct. I haven’t heard any profanity during the game. This is not the Linc.

The game is tied 7-7, and the Iggles eat the clock on the final possession. Is Chip Kelly coaching scared?

In the concourse, an E-A-G-L-E-S chant echoes off the walls. It helps make up for the most crowded bathroom I’ve ever seen — over a hundred people are jockeying for a couple dozen urinals and stalls. Thankfully I got in there with time still on the clock.

As Caleb Sturgis kicks off to begin the second half,  it looks like a third of the seats are empty. Twitter informs me that the crowd has been announced at 91,827. That’s a lot of people still stuck in the bathrooms.

*****

Cole Beasley ties the score at 14 with his second TD of the night. George W. Bush appears on the video board, and the Cowboys fan sitting in front of Kacey (wearing a Jason Witten 82 shirsey) applauds as hard as he possibly could. A moment later he stands up to fire an imaginary machine gun to celebrate a Cowboys sack. I later see when he holds up his cellphone that his name is Bryan Henson.

Later Mr. Henson wonders how Lucky Whitehead didn’t reach the end zone on what turned out to be a 79-yard kickoff return. In fact, Mr. Henson has a revolutionary idea: He says Whitehead should’ve kept running. Yes, that’s it! He didn’t score because he stopped running!

I have to say that except for the fact that they are Cowboys fans, the people of Dallas are nice. Really, genuinely nice. It’s the kind of place where you sneeze while walking in the airport terminal and a stranger sitting 30 feet away immediately says, “God bless you.” Even at the stadium, people provided that famous Southern hospitality.

It’s really hard to dislike people who are that nice, even if they cheer for people like Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders (an inordinate number of analysts employed by the TV networks are ex-Cowboys). In fact if you dislike people who are that nice, it says nothing about them. It says everything about you.

******

Just under the two-minute warning, Caleb Sturgis lines up a 52-yard field goal. The kid sitting next to me with the Eagles jersey hides his eyes; he can’t watch. He peeks back at the field as the ball hurtles toward the upright. I hear him scream: “He made it??”

There’s little chance Matt Cassel leads the Cowboys down the field in a minute and 46 seconds. “Just throw a pick and we can all go home,” I yell. But that doesn’t happen; they’re moving the ball. To make it worse, the officials make up for Cassel’s off-target throws by fabricating pass interference calls on back-to-back plays. The sea of green in the upper deck howls.

The game has come down to a 44-yard field goal by Dan Bailey, one of the top 10 kickers in the league. “Bailey’s too good to miss this,” I say. Reverse psychology? The whole section — the whole stadium — stands. The ball floats toward the upright, and oh my God it’s drifting to the left. Before I can say anything, the brown speck hits the yellow pole and falls to the ground. I look at the officials for the call; they step forward and extend their arms toward the hole in the roof and toward D.D. Lewis’ Creator. Tie game.

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*******

A few fans from the Eagles section get up and head for the aisles. I want to leave too, but I don’t say this to Kacey. We’ve traveled too far and invested too much to get to these seats. I look up a minute later during the coin flip and the section of green looks intact. Iggles win the toss — although a Zapuder-like film and audio recording have emerged that tries to cast some doubt upon that. (That’s typical for Dallas. I’m not the FBI, but for the record, I think the call was indeed “tails” — which is what Chris Maragos says he called. Tails never fails.)

The Birds methodically move the ball into Dallas territory. On fourth-and-1 from the 43, Kelly makes the not-so-easy decision to go for it. Ryan Mathews burrows up the middle and over the line of scrimmage — and suddenly the ball is loose and the Cowboys fall on it at the 43. The place goes bonkers.

I feel nauseated. The Cowboys are 20 yards from field-goal range.

“The play is under review.” Amid the home crowd’s exhilaration, those words from Ed Hochuli  provide hope. And after a few long minutes, the replay finally appears on the video board. The kid next to me erupts: “Knee was down! KNEE WAS DOWN!”

Hochuli confirms it.

“Keep running the ball,” I shout as the Birds line up in a one-back shotgun formation. It’s play-action, though, and two of the linebackers bite. Bradford throws over the middle to Jordan Matthews. As the ball gets to him, the cornerback covering him, rookie Byron Jones, falls down.

Matthews is in the clear. He accelerates at the 20-yard line around safety J.J. Wilcox, who had run to where Matthews was instead of where he was going to be. Matthews turns toward the end zone. The only defender left who could tackle him is corner Brandon Carr, and he’s being blocked perfectly by wideout Josh Huff.

Carr breaks off the block and dives for Matthews’ legs, but he’s too late. Extending the ball with his right hand, the receiver leaps into the blue turf of the end zone.

Euphoria. For the first time all game, I high-five the kid to my left. The green sea behind us dances and pumps their fists and yells “E-A-G-L-E-S! EAGLES!”

“They 2 and 6!” shouts someone a few seats down. He’s wearing green.

Kacey and I linger a few minutes. I snap a couple of pictures of the postgame gathering on the field. But the home crowd always vanishes rapidly after a defeat like that, so we decide to also. Plus, we both want to see if the purse is still there.

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In the dim light, we make our way to the row of trees. A few girls are there; one is on her phone. I hear say something like, “Yeah, she said it’s in the third tree.” What is she talking about? Could it be the purse?

Kacey leans into the branches and emerges with the bag. We make a beeline toward the pedestrian bridge amid the slumping shoulders of thousands of quiet Cowboys fans.

It looked dicey for three hours, but we were going home with everything we arrived with — plus the priceless memories of an overtime win at ground zero of enemy territory.

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