Tom Landry, Existentialist, Dead at 75.
BY Sarah Vowell
The front-page obituaries honoring former Dallas Cowboys head coach Tom Landry unimaginatively list only his most obvious achievements: Leading America’s team to five Super Bowls between 1960 and 1988; playing and coaching for the New York Giants in the ’50s; fathering three children; and staying married for 51 years. Oh, but his life had greater, more metaphysical manifestations. At least to me. Before Sartre, before Camus, there was Tom Landry.
He introduced me to existentialism. Tom Landry was my first entrée into dread: nagging, doubting, gnawing fear. And I’m not even referring to the ‘78 Super Bowl, in which I crumpled onto the living room carpet and wept as my beloved Cowboys—oh Roger Staubach, quarterback my quarterback — lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The wound is still so fresh that to this day I change the channel every time then-Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw’s smug and shining pate pops out of my TV. (Can it be a coincidence that my own first love was the spitting image of Bradshaw and that he set my tender fifteen-year-old heart out to dry only to hack it into strips of jerky which he chewed up and swallowed in his pale green car while singing along with Frankie Goes to Hollywood?)
Oh, I learned things from the ‘78 Superbowl—disappointment, upset, dashed dreams, etc., but those things combined do not necessarily add up to existentialism proper. (I also learned, just weeks before the game, at Christmas, that my mother had no understanding of the NFL what with its separate players and teams and all, because she sent a football for Roger Staubach to sign for me which came back with his signature — beautiful penmanship — but also covered in Dallas Cowboys stickers due to the fact that the ball my mother had sent Staubach to sign was a Joe Namath, so Namath’s name was blocked with little gray and blue helmets. And despite this faux pas, Staubach sent me framed team pictures two years in a row. Would Terry Bradshaw have been that gracious, that forgiving? Would he?) No, the existentialism came up in the off season as I read my Tom Landry Christian comic book.
My Pentecostal youth was awash in salvation testimonials that consistently backfired. Meant to inspire young Protestants with tales of redemption, more often than not, these books and films and stories clued me in to the horrors of the world. I learned of knife fights from the Pat Boone flick “The Cross and the Switchblade”; of paralysis from the story of Joni, a girl whose spine snapped in a diving accident, got saved, and then had a promising art career by painting flowers and things with a brush stuck between her teeth (or was it her toes?); of the Holocaust when I was five as my mother read Cori Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, in which Dutch Christians hid Jews; and from my Landry comic book I had my first inkling of the being and nothingness that was my birthright.
In the comic, Landry, in signature coat and hat, looked back on his youth. He said that as a player he won games. He said that he fell in love, got married, had children, became a coach. And then, he said the thing that shocked me. He said that despite the wins, the love, the success, the family, he said that SOMETHING WAS MISSING. That is, until he accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior. But before that, SOMETHING WAS MISSING. I gasped. I thanked the Lord for my certainty, which was the certainty of Tom Landry—faith in God, in the Cowboys, in America. It never occurred to me that something might be missing, and so I prayed every night that when I grew up, nothing would be missing. Prayed that prayer every night up until the day I lost my faith in God. And, Tom Landry would be happy to know, something has been missing ever since, different things at different times. If not love, then success, if not success, then supplies. Who hasn’t known the terror of that moment when you’re baking the cake and the oven is pre-heated and you’ve mixed in everything, creamed the butter with the sugar, floured the pans, only to reali ze that you’re out of baking powder? Every day, I wake up and wonder, What will be missing today? Looking back on Landry’s work in the theory of something-is-missingness, I am reminded of the words of his existential colleage Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote, “Man is condemned to be free.”
And to die. Rest in Peace, Tom Landry. Something is missing and it’s you.
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