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Dallas Mount Rushmore of Sports: Roger Staubach, Emmitt Smith, Dirk Nowitzki, Bob Lilly voted best of the best

Sporting News logo Sporting News 7/26/2022 Mike DeCourcy

The SN Rushmore project named four pro athletes from the 13 cities that have had at least four of the following five leagues represented for at least 20 years – NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, WNBA. While there were no hard-and-fast rules pertaining to the athletes selected, our panel of experts considered individual resumes, team success and legacy within the sports landscape of each city. Multiple players from the same franchise were allowed, and not every franchise needed to be represented. All sports fans have an opinion on this topic. This is ours.

When we decided to select a Mount Rushmore of pro sporting figures for Dallas, the result was immediately obvious, succinctly summarized in this fashion:

Three Cowboys and Dirk.

MORE: See The Sporting News Rushmore of all 13 cities

Which three Cowboys would involve at least a little discussion, but in a region that grew nearly six-fold since the National Football League wisely chose to grant an expansion team in 1960, that has built its identity on that singular blue-and-white star, three of the faces on that monument were going to be obscured by helmets.

Eligibility for inclusion in this project by The Sporting News mandated a city have a team in four of the five most established team sports (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, WNBA). Dallas produced impressive candidates with baseball’s Rangers (Pudge Rodriguez, Nolan Ryan) and hockey’s Stars (Mike Modano). The Rangers have no championships in their history, though, and the Stars own one Stanley Cup.

Even though the Cowboys haven’t visited in a while, they own five Super Bowl victories. This is a football town in a football region in a football nation. The NBA’s Mavericks never will challenge that, but they executed one of the cleverest trades in the league’s history and helped make the team a champion and much more than a diversion between the final football game and the start of training camp.

MORE: Nolan Ryan's case for getting on Dallas Rushmore

“I don’t think there’s any huge debate regarding this,” Wendell Barnhouse, who spent 25 years with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, told TSN. “Y’all did good.”

ROGER STAUBACH (Cowboys, 1969-1979)

Staubach was so great so soon it’s easy to forget he didn’t have that long to be great. Really, that’s the only memory we have of Staubach. He was elite, and then he exited. He became a star from the moment he became a starter, but that moment had been delayed so long that retirement age raced up on him.

It began with his decision to attend the United States Naval Academy, which meant his college years would be followed by a commitment to four years of service at a time when the U.S. was becoming increasingly involved in military action in Vietnam. So even though he won the Heisman Trophy as a Navy junior in 1964, and was drafted after that season in the 10th round by the Cowboys because a year in prep school meant he was eligible even with one more season remaining with the Midshipmen, he did not join Dallas until training camp prior to the 1969 season.

And even though he stood there as a future Hall of Famer at age 27, he did not become the Cowboys’ starter until the fourth game in 1971, just four months prior to his 30th birthday. He finished runner-up in the MVP voting and won the Super Bowl that year. They reached the playoffs in seven of his eight seasons as primary starter, the Super Bowl in four of them. He lifted the Lombardi Trophy twice.

Legendary coach Tom Landry called him possibly “the best combination of a passer, an athlete and a leader ever to play in the NFL.” And that seems reasonable, given how much Staubach learned about leadership during his military education and career, his four times leading the league in passer rating (including his final season, 1979, at age 37) and his 20 career rushing touchdowns. It’s fair to point out, though, that Landry often urged Staubach to use that athleticism a bit less often to scramble out of the pocket.

 
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“He seemed to have that competitiveness: Hey, I’m the quarterback, we’re not going to lose. We’re going to find some way to come back,” Barnhouse said. “And I think that might have been the thing that gave the team and the franchise something extra. He was going to figure out a way to get a win.

“It was a talented team. They had come very close a couple of times as far as reaching the mountaintop, but Staubach was the guy that gave the team the confidence … that little extra something they need to be able to win a Super Bowl.”

Staubach produced 21 game-winning drives in his nine seasons as a starter, which seems like a small number but works out to 2.3 per season, just short of the 2.5 per season of Tom Brady and 3.1 of Ben Roethlisberger (in shorter seasons). But Staubach produced exactly as many postseason GWDs as Big Ben, including the one against the Vikings in 1975 that included two long-distance passes to Drew Pearson, the second a 51-yard touchdown that was the original “Hail Mary” throw.

“Staubach might have set the NFL record for nicknames,” Barnhouse said. “Because he was Captain America, Roger the Dodger and Captain Comeback.”

The Cowboys wanted Staubach to continue for at least two years after his terrific 1979 season, but he thought it best for his long-term health to retire at that point. It’s hard to argue with his decision in retrospect. He spent the next several decades building a $600 million commercial real estate empire. If there ever were any desire to turn this Mount Rushmore into an actual monument, he’d be the most obvious choice to hit up for a donation.

Staubach By The Numbers
Winning percentage (2nd all-time, min. 85 wins) .745
Super Bowl titles 2
Super Bowl MVPs 1
Pro Bowls 6
Passing titles 4

SN ARCHIVES: Roger Staubach wins NFC Player of the Year (Jan. 22, 1972) 

BOB LILLY (Cowboys, 1961-1974)

He was the first draft pick the Dallas Cowboys ever made, and the perfection of that decision goes beyond the nine All-Pro selections, the six championship game appearances, the two Super Bowls, the one Lombardi Trophy. It was the symmetry, as well: A young man grows up just a short cattle drive from the city and is forced to finish high school in Oregon because of economic hardship that visited many in the area, but he returns to the area to play college football and rise to stardom at TCU and then becomes, in a sense, Cowboy No. 1.

That’s a story that will not fade.

“He was involved in a lot of firsts: first Super Bowl team, first Super Bowl team that won, was the first guy to go into the Ring of Honor, the first Hall of Famer the team had,” Barnhouse said. “In a lot of ways, he really was kind of an anchor, and he arguably was the best defensive player in the history of the franchise. You could argue, if you’re not swayed by recency bias, he’s the best player in the team’s history.”

In the foreword to Lilly’s autobiography, “A Cowboy’s Life,” Roger Staubach declares Lilly “revolutionized” the position of defensive tackle and said teammates were “in awe” of Lilly’s skill and dynamism.

“In one game, I remember seeing the guard pull and the center trying to cut Lilly off,” Staubach wrote. “Bob, who stood 6’5’’ tall and weighed about 260 pounds, literally jumped over the center!”

He is credited with 95.5 sacks in his career, although that wasn’t an official NFL statistic until nearly a decade after his career ended. The numbers were compiled by statisticians watching game film. He pulled down 15 quarterbacks in the 1966 season, and 12.5 in 1968, in a stage of the sport’s evolution where teams attempted 25 percent fewer passes than now.

Lilly was entering the latter part of his career in the 1971 season, but he still was top 10 in the vote for league MVP and second for Defensive Player of the Year as he helped the Cowboys finish 11-3 and reach a second consecutive Super Bowl. The breadth of his ability was evident on a single play from their blowout of the Miami Dolphins, Lilly lining up to the right of the center, slicing through a gap at the snap and joined defensive end Larry Cole in chasing Bob Griese backward. Cole couldn’t quite catch him, but Lilly ultimately did – 29 yards behind the line. No defensive player in Super Bowl history has matched that level of single-play destruction.

“When the Cowboys first started out, they were pretty mediocre,” Barnhouse said. “He became kind of their first star when they were trying to establish themselves. He became the anchor for the Doomsday Defense. I think you could say he was the reason they got as good as they got as quickly as they did.”

Lilly By The Numbers
First-team All-Pro selections 7
Pro Bowls 11
Super Bowl titles 1
Consecutive games 196
Career sacks (unofficial) 95.5

SN ARCHIVES: Bob Lilly is what makes Cowboys so rugged

DIRK NOWITZKI (Mavericks, 1998-2019)

It was fitting Nowitzki would come to consider himself a Texan, because it was there he was introduced to the world of basketball, the sport that eventually made him a champion, a Hall of Famer and an extremely wealthy man.

Although he was born and raised in Wurzburg, Germany, more than 5,000 miles away, it was a Sunday afternoon in San Antonio that transformed Dirk from a prized recruit for a few top colleges into a must-see NBA Draft prospect and, ultimately, into a Maverick-for-life.

Discovering basketball at 13 after he’d been mocked as a too-tall tennis player, Nowitzki was taught by his personal coach to master perimeter skills rather than simply become a standard low-post big man. By the time he came to the U.S. to challenge Rashard Lewis, Al Harrington and Stromile Swift at the Nike Hoop Summit game, staged during the NCAA Final Four weekend, he had developed into the best player on the floor. He scored 33 points and grabbed 19 rebounds.

“For the Mavs, that was it,” writes author Sean Deveney in his fascinating (and forthcoming) book, “The History of the NBA in Twelve Games”. They held the No. 6 pick in the draft and arranged a trade with Milwaukee; they would select Michigan’s Robert Traylor for the Bucks and, in return, would get the No. 9 pick to choose Nowitzki and also the No. 19 selection.

After Dirk accumulated 31,560 points, 15 playoff seasons, 12 All-NBA selections, two NBA Finals appearances and one Larry O’Brien Trophy for the Mavs organization, while Traylor never averaged more than 5.7 points, this ranks with one of the greatest trade heists in league history.

   

Dallas got more than its greatest-ever basketball player, though.

“As he got better and better and more world-renowned, he became a part of the Dallas fabric,” longtime city resident and ESPN basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla told TSN. “It was not unusual to see him out at dinner. At least a couple times I remember jogging, and I’d see this giant figure coming my way in the distance and it would be Dirk jogging by in the summertime and just waving.

“He became a very unassuming superstar. It’s rare that somebody spends an entire Hall-of-Fame career in one city anymore and becomes so connected to one franchise like Dirk. That would have been enough to be on anybody’s Mt. Rushmore, but to win an NBA title kind of validated his greatness as a player and his standing in the Dallas community.”

 

It was not an easy title to win. Remember, 2011 was the first year of the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh triumvirate in Miami, and the Mavs were underdogs in that NBA Finals series. Dirk was 32, past his peak and edging toward the boundary of his prime. But he was not leaving the court without a title.

He barely left the court at all, averaging 40 minutes in the series and filling that time with 26 points, 9.7 rebounds and only a single missed free throw in 46 attempts. 

“It’s such a football-oriented city that even though we have all four major sports and at various times the Rangers, Mavericks and Stars have all had great success, Dirk was able to fit comfortably into the community,” Fraschilla said. “Because it is still a football city.”

Nowitzki By The Numbers
Career points (No. 6 all-time) 31,560
All-Star Games 14
MVP 1
NBA titles 1
Career games played (No. 4 all-time) 1,522

SN ARCHIVES: Dallas icon Dirk Nowitzki, a scouting report ahead of a 21-year career (Dec. 27, 1999)

EMMITT SMITH (Cowboys, 1990-2002)

He is the leading rusher in NFL history, nearly 2,000 yards ahead of the great Walter Payton and also scored more rushing touchdowns than anyone, ever. He was a first-ballot selection by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is among the select group of players with three Super Bowl rings, earned with the Cowboys in the 1992, 1993 and 1995 seasons. He was a league MVP and Super Bowl MVP.

And yet somehow, he remains underrated.

Admit it: If you were going to cut one of the footballers off this list in favor of a baseball player or hockey player or even another Cowboy, perhaps one of the other 90s stars be it Troy Aikman or Michael Irvin, the guy to go would be Emmitt. 

This has been his entire career in football, really, starting with his dismissal by recruiting expert Max Emfinger as Smith was on his way to playing for the Florida Gators. At the time, Emfinger called him “a lugger, not a runner. He’s not fast. He can’t get around the corner. When he falls flat on his face, remember where you heard it first.” Smith was ninth in Heisman Trophy voting after his freshman year.

Even after that, even after he’d rushed for 1,599 yards as a junior and been named Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and became one of the first college underclassmen to enter the NFL Draft, the Cowboys were able to get him with the 17th pick, heisted from the Steelers in exchange for dropping down four picks and adding a third-rounder. Only six of the 16 players taken ahead of him made even a single Pro Bowl. 

“You consider the Triplets: Aikman wouldn’t have been Aikman without Smith, or Irvin,” Barnhouse said. “They were a three-legged stool, and a two-legged stool doesn’t stand up. It was an old-style offense. Aikman was under center almost the whole time. You had a fullback. You had a tight end and two wide receivers. And a really good offensive line. And that was the offense. 

“They needed someone like Smith who was a consistent yard-gainer. One of the knocks on him was his size, but also he didn’t have breakaway speed. Maybe 10 years ago, someone got ahold of the Cowboys’ scouting report from that draft class, and other than the fact whoever the scout was misspelled Smith’s first name, some of the concerns about him were they rated him as a 5 for acceleration and a 6 for power. That doesn’t sound great. 

“But even though he wasn’t one of those guys you thought was going to break it for 80, you also didn’t think he was going to get stuffed for a 2-yard loss.”

Smith stood 5-9 and weighed 216 pounds during his playing career and was timed at 4.55 yards in the 40-yard dash. He did not possess the paralyzing quickness that made contemporary Barry Sanders a legend. In Smith’s 13 years with the Cowboys, though, he never ceased moving forward. That’s true whether it’s in regards to the 10 seasons in which he appeared in every game that mattered or the 4,052 carries that almost inevitably produced positive yardage.

“He was that constant ingredient: When we run the ball with him, something good is going to happen,” Barnhouse said. “He was always there. After they won the first Super Bowl, the next year they were trying to clinch home field and they played the Giants, and he suffered a first-degree shoulder separation. You knew he was hurt. And the Giants back then were still pretty damn good on defense. He kept playing, and they won in overtime. Now maybe they would have gone on and won the Super Bowl, anyway.”

Or they might not have. But Smith turned a close contest with the Buffalo Bills into a blowout with two fourth-quarter touchdowns. And they sure as hell did.

Smith By The Numbers
Career rushing yards (No. 1 all-time) 18,355 (17,162 with DAL)
Career rushing TDs (No. 1 all-time) 164 (153 with DAL)
Rushing titles 4
Super Bowl titles 3
Pro Bowls 8

SN ARCHIVES: Emmitt Smith sets NFL career rushing record (Nov. 4, 2002)

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