It is late Sunday night, and Leonard Davis wants to feed his hunger ... or maybe drown his sorrows ... with a meal. Now, the man is 6-6 and 365 pounds, so it might require one of those Flintstonean "brontosaurus burgers'' to do the trick. ... but here he is, post-Chargers-loss, scarfing down a sandwich at a restaurant near his home, when a big fan of his approaches the table.
The fan introduces himself to the Cowboys offensive guard. It is John Niland, who played the same position for Dallas for nine seasons, six of them ending with Pro Bowl berths, once even making All-Pro.
"Keep your head up,'' Niland tells Davis. "You guys aren't done. Believe me, I've been there. I know.''
The above-the-marquee modern-day Cowboys talk openly and often about the support they get from their star-headed ancestors. Michael Irvin likes to big-brother the receivers and Deion Sanders does the same with the DB's. We all know about the bond between Roger and Troy and Tony. And every time I talk to Jay Novacek, the first thing he wants to relay is how superior Jason Witten is to him.
But it's somehow comforting to know that a bond exists, too, between the NFL's version of the ditch-digger, the lowly-and-anonymous linemen. It's also comforting to reflect on Niland's consoling remarks to "Bigg'' and to realize ...
He's right. The Cowboys have been here before. And these guys aren't done.
This is not a dissertation on how the 2009 Dallas Cowboys are going to beat the hell out of undefeated New Orleans this Saturday night and then win the NFC East and then crush the Vikings or somebody in the NFC Championship Game on the way to a record ninth Super Bowl appearance.
I'll leave such bold pronouncements/anti-pronouncements to the likes of Roy Williams, at his jibber-jabbery best/worst this week when offering his personal preview of the Cowboys-Saints game.
a)Sarcastically says the NFL "might as well crown (the Saints as champions). ... We don't have a chance.''
b)Semi-guarantees a win this weekend. "If we pack our bags and show up in New Orleans on Saturday night,'' he said, "we should be victorious.''
c)Predicts that this is simply the first of two big Dallas-New Orleans games this winter. "I think we're going to see (the Saints) in the playoffs down the road.''
That all sounds lovely ... But far too specific for my purposes here.
Let's keep it general by recognizing Niland's been-there/done-that wisdom.
Niland was a rookie on the Dallas franchise's first-ever playoff entry in 1966 that lost in the NFL Championship Game to Green Bay. He and the Cowboys did the same thing a year later with another title-game loss to the Packers. The Cowboys lost in the playoffs in '68 and '69 but finally the 1970 team advanced to the Super Bowl. ...and lost Super Bowl V to Baltimore.
Five straight years of almost-championship-level play, five years of grinding, five years of disappointment. ... and all it earned the Cowboys was the unfortunate nickname "Next Year's Champions.''
And then came the breakthrough.
On Jan. 16, 1972, the Cowboys won Super Bowl VI, beating Miami 24-3. "Next Year's Champion'' became "America's Team.'' A truly legendary franchise was born. And from down there digging that ditch, a lowly, anonymous but pretty special lineman, John Niland, got his Super Bowl ring and thus found a payoff to having persevered, to having "kept his head up.''
Believe him, Cowboys. John Niland -- like all the other great Cowboys who've come before you -- knows.
You guys aren't done.