The Pro Football Hall of Fame was never a dream of Jerry Jones’.
He just wanted to own a football team.
Now that he’s here, it has caused him to reflect on the journey that has landed him on the doorstep of football’s ultimate pinnacle.
And not just the chronicled time since he bought the Dallas Cowboys in 1989 and entered the league as a rebel and unwelcome outsider because of how he brashly and unabashedly flipped the business model before becoming the NFL’s most powerful and influential owner.
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But more pointedly the time during his formative years when he was put on the path to be the ultimate salesman and schmoozer, working in his parents’ store greeting customers, starting at the age of 9, before going on to sell watermelons and Christmas trees and insurance and tickets while playing college football at Arkansas, where he initially hatched his ultimate dream of buying an NFL team.
“I did not think about playing pro football,” Jones said. “Lance Alworth signed with the Dallas Cowboys [back then] for $10,000. Now, engineers made $11,000 getting out of school when I graduated from school. … It didn’t fit my plans to be looking, what I thought the economics were, to be playing football or certainly even coaching at that time.”
But ownership was another story.
“I’ll never forget I was riding on the bus, we [Arkansas Razorbacks] played in Little Rock, riding on the bus leaving Fayetteville and sitting there with my good friend Jim Lindsey and I had a book and it showed a picture of Art Modell, his beautiful wife and their two boys,” Jones recalled. “And it was talking about how Art Modell had decided to leave, not leave, but had decided to buy the Cleveland Browns. I remember reading that and we’re riding along talking and I thought, ‘What would it be like to be doing that with your life?’
“The way this thing has grown was beyond anything I could have comprehended.”
It was never Jones’ dream to buy the Cowboys and be king of America’s Team.
His goal was to buy an NFL team, and in 1966 at the age of 23, he almost bought the San Diego Chargers.
AT&T Stadium, aka Jerry World, might have been in La Jolla, Calif., rather than Arlington if Jones’ dad, Pat, hadn’t stepped in and talked him out of it.
Not just because it was a bad deal, considering the shaky state of the American Football League at the time. It was losing money and had no television deal while losing daily battles to the National Football League.
But also because of who Jones was going into business with.
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Jones, broke and just out of college, had secured a loan with notorious mob boss Jimmy Hoffa and the powerful Teamsters union to help purchase the Chargers.
“I didn’t have money,” Jones said. “But I had procured financing to build 10 Shakey’s pizza parlors. And those people were willing to loan me the money to pursue the Chargers and buy them. They are ones who sent in a million dollar letter of credit, which was a lot of money back then. I mean a lot of money.
“They presented that letter of credit to Baron Hilton (then owner of the Chargers) in Chicago that I had the money to arrange for it to buy the team. But I didn’t have money.
“And I was borrowing the money to do it.”
The Chargers were losing money. There was no television deal. The elder Jones refused to let his son get in over his head at such an early age to a group associated with organized crime.
“I said, ‘Well, Dad, you are not going to be involved,’ ” Jones recalled while tearing up. “And he said ... Dad had tough love ... he said, ‘Don’t tell me I’m not involved.’ He said, ‘Don’t you tell me that.’ He said, ‘You get here and can’t pay… But if you can’t pay, you know they got it. So don’t you tell me I’m not involved.’ ”
So Jones passed.
A short time later, the Chargers team Jones was going to buy for $5.8 million sold for $12 million dollars to Gene Klein.
“Dad spent rest of his life talking about the time when I was 23 years old he cost me about 5 or 6 million dollars,” Jones said. “But I never looked back. I thought it really passed me by. I always dreamed of somehow getting involved. But I saw the teams go. I saw Eddie DeBartolo buy the San Francisco 49ers for $15 million. I saw expansion Tampa, expansion Seattle. I saw them selling for 60. I just said, ‘My goodness, I can’t even spell that.’ My dream. I never wanted to get involved in anything but football, professionally.”
Of course, Jones, who married his wife, Gene, while they were still in college, got a taste of financial hardship early on.
He said he was so upside down financially right out of college that he couldn’t hold a glass of beer “without his hands shaking.”
“I had them looking for me,” Jones said. “They cut Gene’s credit cards up. Grabbed her purse, got the cards out and cut them up. So that was a tough time. And because of that I had always had a vulnerable feeling and a running-scared attitude. I never thought that you got it made. I always thought it was shaky. I operated as if it was shaky.”
Jones was never upset at his dad for talking him out of the Chargers deal. The way this story ends, with him ultimately buying the Cowboys in 1989 after making a fortune in the oil and gas industry and turning it into a $4 billion franchise, he more than made up for the lost money.
But Jones also knows that he wouldn’t be where he is today is not for the lessons him mom and dad taught him.
It was his mom who put a bow tie on him at the age of 9 and had him at the front of their store in North Little Rock greeting customers. Jones said that’s where he learned his people savvy.
“Learned to be positive, the customer was first,” he said.
Working in that store is also where he learned to sell and push the envelope with out-of-the-box ideas, while also developing his entrepreneurial skills.
Jones sold ice cream, Christmas trees and watermelons all on commission out of his dad’s store. It was a store that sold food and dry goods well before Wal-Mart made that sort of thing famous.
“Dad was the first store in that area to sell, to have an area where you could buy pots and pans and those kinds of things,” Jones said. “Prior to that, most food retailing was you’d go to the meat market to get your meat. You’d go to the produce place to get produce. Well, that became what a supermarket was. Well, he was not an inventor but certainly practiced that.
“He took it a step further. He built a big bandstand right in the middle of the supermarket and he got what was to be the greatest radio personality that had ever seen, Brother Howe. And Brother Howe did all of his broadcasting out of there, particularly country music. Then he would have live amateur talent shows in the store, broadcasting them while people were buying their groceries. That was the kind of promotion that you saw there at that time.”
Jones also learned how to legally get around the rules from his dad, similar to his landmark deals that turned the league on his head when he got Miller Lite to sponsor the Cowboys while Coors Lite sponsored the NFL.
“I don’t accept the status quo,” Jones said. “For instance, they passed a blue law in the city to central Arkansas. Blue law meant you couldn’t stay open on Sunday. The only way you could stay open on Sunday is if you were a Seven Day Adventist and you closed on Saturday. Well, Dad went to the Adventist church and he closed on Saturday and opened on Sunday. … Became very controversial. … Well, you grew up basically figuring ways to be different and get to where you want to go.”
So did his dad actually become a Seventh-day Adventist?
“Yes … till they did away with the blue law,” Jones said with a smile.
Charisma and humor
Mike Parker, one of Jones’ former Arkansas teammates, coached at Texas from 1977-1985 before retiring, and also sold insurance for Pat Jones while in college.
He recalls Jones as being a great guy and the ultimate teammate. But more important, very savvy and intelligent.
What still stands out to him today was a planned fishing trip on Buffalo River. They ended up going to the White River because that’s where Pat Jones wanted to go and he was paying for the trip.
But the thing that stuck with Parker was the detail and preparing Jones had put into it.
“Before the trip, he goes over to the botany department and asked the guys about the Buffalo River and the best ways to fish,” Parker said. “He was extremely intelligent and purposeful. We would never think about that. That’s how he became a financial genius.”
Fred Marshall, the quarterback on the 1964 Arkansas national championship team that included Jones and former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, was most impressed with Jones’ personality, leadership and commitment.
Marshall entered Arkansas with Jones as a freshman in 1960. Neither started until their senior seasons.
But they had fun together.
Marshall recalled Jones not only being a top ticket seller, but also the life and organizer of the parties off the field.
“People wanted to be around him,” Marshall said. “He was energetic and enthusiastic. He could get you excited about doing something. He drew people to him. And you liked to be around him because he was funny and a comedian.”
What Marshall respected most was his leadership, something Jones showed in practice for three years while not playing much at Arkansas.
Jones was recruited to Arkansas as a running back, but he wasn’t fast enough to break into the lineup.
“Jerry goes to coach Broyles as a senior and said ‘I want to play, I will play anywhere,’ ” Marshall said. “So he started every game as a senior at right guard. That tells you he wasn’t a quitter. He didn’t care where he played. He just wanted to play.”
That senior year Arkansas went undefeated and won the national championship. Jones was a co-captain on the team.
Jones was an undersized guard at 187 pounds, but he was quick as a cat for an offensive lineman and fearless.
He also never lost his sense of humor on the field, as exhibited during a game against Baylor when he did a perfect impression of Broyles at a most opportune time.
“Coach Broyles always talked about character with a thick Southern accent,” Marshall said. “One game we marched 77 yards against Baylor. It took us a half a quarter and 15 plays. We were on the 3-yard line going in for a score and I threw an interception to linebacker Bobby Maples, who has 100 yards in front of him. We are all chasing him. Jerry Jones finally ran him down about 30 yards away from their end zone, knocks the ball out and recovers it. We drove 70 yards. We sprinted 70 yards. Now we have to do it again. Jerry is bent over in the huddle, but looks up, mocking Broyles, and says, ‘Boys if we take it in from here, we will show our character.’ ”
Marshall would later go on to work with Jones in the oil and gas business. But he had to quit because Jones moved too fast for him and too spontaneously. Late-night phones calls asking him to meet him at 3 a.m. to catch a flight proved to be too much.
But he said that was Jones, as he worked 18-hour days.
He was the same guy at Arkansas then as he is today.
And while Marshall had no thoughts of him ending up in the Hall of Fame, there was “no doubt early in my knowing Jerry that he was going to be successful at anything.”
“I knew he would end up on top,” Marshall said. “I didn’t think he would end up on top of the world. He is on top of the football world for sure.”
Championship teams in the Jerry Jones era
1992 Dallas Cowboys (NFC Eastern Division, NFC, Super Bowl XXVII champions)
1993 Dallas Cowboys (NFC Eastern Division, NFC, Super Bowl XXVIII champions)
1994 Dallas Cowboys (NFC Eastern Division champions)
1995 Dallas Cowboys (NFC Eastern Division, NFC, Super Bowl XXX champions)
1996 Dallas Cowboys (NFC Eastern Division champions)
1998 Dallas Cowboys (NFC Eastern Division champions)
2007 Dallas Cowboys (NFC East Division champions)
2009 Dallas Cowboys (NFC East Division champions)
2014 Dallas Cowboys (NFC East Division champions)
2016 Dallas Cowboys (NFC East Division champions)