When Dan Devine, a Dallas Cowboys fan from New York City for the past 53 years, came across Tuesday’s news—that Cowboys owner, president, and general manager Jerry Jones, despite his team’s stunning 48-32 home playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers last Sunday, was keeping Mike McCarthy on as head coach—he couldn’t believe what he was reading. Enough, he decided, was enough.
Despite his half-century strong allegiance to the team, despite the five Super Bowls and the 30 or so Cowboys games he’s seen in person all over the country and all the jerseys hanging in his closet and the Dallas memorabilia in his office, Devine, 59, was swearing off his Cowboys fandom forever. “I am done,” says Devine, a forensic accountant. What really rankled him was Jones’ contention, in Tuesday’s statement announcing McCarthy’s retention, that “this team is very close and capable of achieving our ultimate goals.”
Green Bay had a 27-0 lead on Dallas in the first half. “Did he not watch the game?” says Devine, his volume rising. “To think he’s still got a roster that can compete with the 49ers or the Ravens? They played against the youngest, most inexperienced team and got their asses kicked. And you’re close?”
Fans of the mighty Cowboys, the most valuable sports franchise in the world, seem to be suffering some sort of existential crisis this week, in the wake of the disastrous Wild Card loss to Green Bay and Jones’ decision to keep McCarthy, although the most successful coach in NFL history is available on the open market. Vitriol is at an all-time high. Supporters spewed profanity on social media. People made memes galore. Pundits were apoplectic.
But a fan like Devine disavowing Dallas, which hasn’t reached a conference championship game in almost 30 years, speaks to something more seriously amiss in Cowboy Nation. Fans like Devine helped brandish Dallas’ reputation as “America’s Team,” and build the franchise into a multibillion-dollar brand. They came of age in the 1970s—as Monday Night Football grew into a cultural phenomenon—drawn to the star on the helmet, Roger Staubach’s winning ways, the cheerleaders, and the glamour. Even deep in rival territory, like New York City, kids like Devine bled silver and blue. They suffered through some rough patches in the 1980s—three straight conference-championship game losses, the flailing end of the Tom Landry era, the 1-15 season under new owner Jerry Jones and his handpicked Landry coaching successor, Jimmy Johnson. But that patience was rewarded in the ‘90s, with a trio of Super Bowls won by “the triplets”—quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith, and wide receiver Michael Irvin, Hall of Famers all.
Since then, however, Cowboys fans felt some promise, with the hiring of Super Bowl champ Bill Parcells as coach, the signing of Terrell Owens, the emergence of quarterbacks Tony Romo and Dak Prescott. But year after year, Jones’ Cowboys have fallen short. So many appear fed up. If Dallas loses Dan Devine, it might be losing the country. The “America’s Team” status is fraying, fast.
I know all this about Dan because I’m his nephew. When I was coming of age in the 1980s, I spent hours alone in his room—he was in college, either in class or out partying—watching cartoons or baseball games and seeing the little Cowboys helmets on his shelf. Now I sometimes receive text rants from Uncle Dan, my mother’s brother, about his favorite sports team, especially the Cowboys and the New York Mets (we share a baseball-team affinity; I’ve never much cared for the Cowboys). But the one from Tuesday night took me by surprise: “I am giving you the scoop. Cowboys are dead to me. Ravens my new favorite team, followed by the Pack.”
I’ve only known Uncle Dan as a Dallas die-hard. Dan started rooting for Dallas in 1971, when he was 7. His best friend’s dad had met Bob Lilly, a Hall of Fame Dallas defensive tackle known as Mr. Cowboy, and spoke highly of him. Plus, Dan always liked westerns and sheriffs. Gunsmoke was popular in his home. He hung posters of Staubach and Tony Dorsett and Randy White in his room. In pickup football games on a basketball court in the Bronx housing development where he grew up, he’d insist on pretending he was Staubach or Drew Pearson, the wide receiver. “Those games would start out as touch,” says Bob Schaefer, Devine’s longtime friend and fellow New York City Cowboys fan. “And end in fisticuffs.”
Schaefer tried to name his son, who’s now 27, Troy—after Aikman. His wife rejected that idea. He, for one, is not giving up on the Cowboys. So was Dan really being serious? When I called him up to make sure he wasn’t just text-raging in the moment, he held firm. “I just throw my hands up,” Dan says. “I’m a bigger Cowboys fan than I am my other teams. So losing that is going to be difficult. The ownership doesn’t care about the fans. Why should I care so much?” He’s already taken all eight of his Cowboys jerseys off hangers. They’re rolled up in a ball, on the floor.
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Dan’s wife of 30 years, Michelle, confirms he means it. “That’s the craziest part of it all,” says Michelle. “I believe he is truly done. I can’t believe I’m actually saying that. I’m shocked. I would have never believed this day would come.” She’s lived through the highs, like going with Dan to AT&T Stadium in 2016. “It was really, really cool,” she says. Plus the tough moments, like the time Dan shouted, “Please, someone help me!” during a Cowboys loss about 15 years ago, and his neighbors—New York City police officers—came to check on his safety.
Mostly, Dan’s stance makes Michelle sad. “That was such a big piece of who he was,” she says. “I feel like he’s losing a piece of himself.”
I picture next Thanksgiving and our annual family tradition of watching the Cowboys game at Dan’s house. If Dallas is undefeated, looking like true Super Bowl contenders, he won’t be glued to the TV loudly pulling for his ‘Boys? “No,” he says. “It doesn’t matter. The first 15 weeks, they can go 15-0, and they’ll sh-t the bed in week 16 or 17 or the first week of the playoffs.”
Spoken like a true, utterly defeated, Cowboys fan.
And you know Dan Devine is not alone.
It’s a new day in Dallas.