As another training camp fast approaches, I am reminded of the times I have personally made the trek to watch the Cowboys assemble a team during the summer. I have attended training camps in the blistering heat of Austin, Wichita Falls, and twice on the cool, breezy California coast in Oxnard. The first time I went to California was in the summer of 2004. I had friends living out in LA that I wanted to visit, and I thought I'd combine that with a look at Bill Parcells' Cowboys.
I arrived in Oxnard on Wednesday August 4, 2004 just in time for the first day of two-a-day practices. I was struck by how cold the morning breeze was, coming off the ocean that seemed to be just a few feet away from where I stood, but it was a gorgeous morning for football. As I made my way to the field, I picked up a copy of the local Oxnard paper, welcoming the Cowboys to town, and featuring Quincy Carter on the cover (I still have that around here, somewhere). I wandered by the Cowboys' big souvenir trailer, and the "NFL Experience" where kids of all ages tried their hands (or feet) at throwing footballs, and kicking field goals, or other fun little games. There weren't huge crowds that morning, since it was in the middle of the week, and I had no problem finding a choice spot right along the fence that borders one of the two practice fields as the players came out and began to stretch.
Bill Parcells was the guy I came to see. He was in his second year coaching the Cowboys, and I was a huge fan of his disciplined, no-nonsense approach to the game, and his bigger than life personality. I casually pointed out to a few of the folks around me that the elderly man that Parcells was talking to in the middle of the field was the legendary coach Chuck Fairbanks, and after I mentioned I was from Dallas, I found myself answering a lot of questions about the team. About that time, just as practice was about to begin in earnest, the young son of one of the guys I had been chatting with came back from buying an overpriced football from the souvenir shop, and he asked his father "Dad, how many guys named Carter do the Cowboys have? They've got ESPN on at the souvenir shop, and they said the Cowboys had just released Carter." His dad looked at me, and I said "There's only one Carter on the team, and that's Quincy, the starting quarterback." Sure enough, we looked at the QBs warming up, and there was no sign of number 17. Word about Carter spread like wildfire up and down the gallery, and I even called out to a couple of the media guys I recognized from Dallas to ask if they knew what was going on. Steve Dennis from Ch. 11 seemed shocked that anyone in Oxnard would know his name, but when I asked him what happened to Quincy, it was the first time I realized that poor Steve has no more insight into the team that anybody else. We would hear the rumors about a failed drug test later, but for now, the focus went on the ancient Vinny Testeverde, and the much hyped former baseball player, Drew Henson. The joke going around was that the happiest guy in Oxnard was that skinny kid wearing number 9 who, according to a handy roster in the local paper, was a second year free agent from Eastern Illinois who had a name that sounded like a popular Dallas rib joint, Tony Roma's.
Later that day, at the second practice, I was standing behind the end zone fence, watching the QBs do 7 on 7 drills, and I struck up a conversation with a big guy in his thirties, who looked like he could've been a former athlete himself. Sure enough, he was a friend, and former teammate of Dallas' offensive coordinator Sean Payton who played at Eastern Illinois, just like the now third-string QB. I said something to him about how Drew Henson certainly looked the part of the prototypical NFL quarterback, since he was very similar physically to Troy Aikman, and he replied, "Don't count out Tony Romo. I watched every game he played in college, and he's a winner! He's from Wisconsin, like Brett Favre and just like Favre, he finds a way to get the job done. It might not be the way you'd draw it up, but he can really throw the ball, and he WINS!" I started watching number 9 a little more closely after that, but to be honest, I still wasn't all that impressed. It wasn't until October 23, 2006, when Tony Romo replaced Drew Bledsoe as the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys that I realized that I had been there on the day that Tony Romo got his big break with Dallas, except that it happened in beautiful Oxnard, California.
One can only imagine what other wonderfully improbable stories might come out of that place this time around, but one thing is certain, lives will be changed, one way or the other. Naturally, I'm hoping for a magical season that ends with a championship for the team this year, if for no other reason than it will make this a REALLY good story.