In The Footsteps Of Legends: A Look At The History Of Dallas Cowboys Running Backs

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Fellow FPW Tom Ryle recently remarked to me that sometimes we all need a reminder that Dallas football existed before the Triplets came to town. Starting with the running backs, we are going to look at the men who preceded Smith, Irvin, and Aikman.

Following the legendary career of Emmitt Smith, who holds seven of the top ten single season rushing totals for the Dallas Cowboys, there has been a long shadow cast on those who have followed in Smith's footsteps. Since #22 left the the Dallas Cowboys following the 2002 season, two men have managed to emerge from that shadow to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season. Only Julius Jones in 2006 and DeMarco Murray last year have managed anything that resembled a breakthrough.

This article is not about those men; it is to pay homage to the the other great backs that once pounded the rock for the Dallas Cowboys. In much the same way as Smith now casts his shadow over the ground where Murray now runs, other legends once cast a similar shadow across the path that Emmitt would blaze. The time has come for newer fans to meet, and for seasoned veterans to remember, the great running backs in Cowboys history.

Tony Dorsett

Before Smith, Dorsett was "the man" among Dallas running backs. Starting with his selection as the second overall pick in the 1977 NFL Draft, #33 spent eleven seasons with the Cowboys. He played a total of 157 games wearing the star and in that time Tony ran for 12,036 yards. His career average of 4.4 yards per attempt exceeds the 4.2 yard mark credited to Smith. Dorsett found the endzone 72 times during his career in Dallas.

TD was well honored throughout his football career. He became the first player to be honored three times with first team All-America honors from the Associated Press while a member of the Pitt Panthers. His efforts also were rewarded with a Heisman Trophy following his final collegiate season, a year that also saw his team win the National Championship. In 1994, Tony Dorsett was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Dorsett continued to experience success in the professional ranks. His rookie season saw him honored as the 1977 Offensive Rookie of the Year. He was selected to four Pro Bowls during his tenure in Dallas and was three times a All Pro. For his efforts, Dorsett wears a Super Bowl ring earned during his rookie season and his name is forever etched into the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor.  He was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1994, the same year he was honored for his collegiate efforts.

Cowboys fans of a certain age will remember a Monday Night Football game that took place in Minnesota during January of 1983. The Dallas Cowboys lined up in the shadow of their own goal post, and only had ten men on the field. Danny White took the snap and got the ball to Dorsett who promptly took it 99 yards for a touchdown. The play eclipsed the NFL record for the longest play from scrimmage. That is a record that will never be broken.

Don Perkins

Don Perkins actually signed with the team prior to Dallas being awarded an NFL franchise. He was selected by the Baltimore Colts in the ninth round of the 1960 draft, but the league honored his commitment to the Cowboys. Perkins debut was delayed as a broken foot cost him the entire 1960 season but he returned to football the following year and earned NFL Rookie of the Year honors. Early that season he became the first Dallas back to rush for 100 yards in a single game. The following season, Perkins turned in his best single season effort. He rushed for 945 yards and scored seven touchdowns.

Perkins comes from a different era of football. He was a superb blocker, so he primarily played fullback for Dallas, but he was also the leading rusher on those early squads. Don still holds the third slot on the Cowboys all-time rushing list. He gained 6217 yards while playing for some lousy Dallas teams. He retired from football after eight seasons; at that time Don Perkins was the fifth leading rusher in professional football history.

Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy, who coached Perkins in college, referred to Perkins as one of the greatest players that he was ever associated with. He earned All-America honors as a two way player for the University of New Mexico. After turning professional Don was named to the Pro Bowl six times in his eight year career. Perkins and his quarterback, Don Meredith, became the second and third members of the Ring of Honor in 1976.

Sounds is loud on video, might want to turn down speakers before playing.

Calvin Hill

Hill has the distinction of being the first Ivy League player to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. He had been drafted as an "athlete" rather than with a position in mind, and when Don Perkins formally retired Hill was given a shot to carry the ball. He earned the starting position at halfback and never relinquished the role. His first year in the league he threatened to eclipse the single-season rushing mark set by Perkins when he gained 942 yards before missing two games with a broken toe.

Calvin Hill spent six of his twelve professional seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. During that time he earned four Pro Bowl berths and was twice named All Pro. He became the first Cowboy to break the 1,000 yard barrier in 1972 when he rushed for 1,045 yards. Hill then followed up with a 1,143 yard season in 1973. Calvin gained 5,009 of his 6,083 career yards while playing for the Cowboys.

Herschel Walker

Walker, like Dorsett, was a three time All-American and Heisman Trophy winner. He originally signed with the New Jersey Generals of the USFL and made his professional debut there. After the demise of that league, Walker joined the Dallas Cowboys who had invested a fifth-round selection on him during the 1985 NFL Draft. The team was anticipating the USFL failure and wanted to secure his rights in case the USFL did not resume play.

Walker's first stint in Dallas lasted for parts of four seasons. The first two seasons he and Tony Dorsett split responsibilities in the Dallas backfield (the first pair of Heisman Trophy winners to do so). Both were productive seasons for Walker; he rushed for 737 and 891 yards during the two seasons that they split carries. In 1988 he became the full time running back and rushed for over 1,500 yards.

Herschel Walker was traded to the Minnesota Vikings shortly after the 1989 season began. That trade gave the Cowboys five players and six draft picks that laid the groundwork for the dynasty years of the 1990's. Herschel later returned to the team as a third down back and kick return specialist for his final two professional seasons.

During his Cowboys career Walker was twice named to the Pro Bowl and was twice a second team All Pro.  He is one of the six men who have rushed for over 1,000 yards while wearing a Dallas uniform. Although he only saw significant carries during three seasons in Dallas, Walker ranks as the team's eighth leading rusher with 3,491 yards on the ground.

Robert Newhouse

Newhouse was another of those fullbacks from a bygone era who was also expected to pound the ball. He had a total of 16 1,000 yard games while playing FB for the University of Houston (including ten during a single season) and Tom Landry saw no reason to take the ball out for Robert's hands. He was an effective lead blocker for the Cowboys and at least as valuable as a primary ball carrier. Tackling Newhouse was compared to tackling a fire hydrant.

Robert Newhouse played a dozen seasons for the Cowboys and he gained 4,784 yards during this time. He also found the end zone 31 times. Robert added nearly a thousand more yards as a receiver and threw a touchdown pass to Golden Richards during Super Bowl XII. At the time of his retirement he was the team's fourth All Time rusher. Today he stands in seventh place.

Walt Garrison

Walt Garrison took over the fullback position when Don Perkins retired. A native of nearby Denton, Robert had found his way to Oklahoma State where he led the Big Eight in rushing during his junior and senior seasons.  The Dallas Cowboys brought Garrison home when they selected him with the fifth-round selection in the 1966 NFL Draft.

Garrison saw limited action behind Perkins, but after the veteran left the game, he came into his own. Together with Calvin Hill and Duane Thomas, Garrison formed a part of the three headed monster running back corps that Tom Landry used to pound his way to many of his early playoff appearances. Walt was a triple threat back. He could run, block,  or catch the ball. At the time of his retirement, Walt was the third leading rusher and fourth leading receiver in team history. Even though he is now well down the receiving charts thanks to changes in offensive football, Walt Garrison remains the seventh leading rusher in Cowboys history with 3,886 yards.

Honors were few and far between during Garrison's playing career, but he did earn a Pro Bowl trip after the 1972 season in which he rushed for 784 yards. He also earned an appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated for his efforts. Walt is also a member of the 25th Anniversary Cowboys team and the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.

Emmitt Smith is rightly the standard by which Dallas Cowboys running backs are measured. His place in history is secured for all time, but the running back positions in Dallas were filled by many talented men before him. The efforts of those players should not be forgotten simply because they have been surpassed. Dallas have been fortunate to have many outstanding runners during its history and it has been an honor to write a few words in praise of some of these players. Now I want to turn it over to you, the readers, to share your memories of the "other backs" who have carries the ball for the Cowboys.

(Video of some of the best Cowboys backs, including the great, but short-tenured Duane Thomas)

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