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The man who made #88 great: Drew Pearson’s Cowboys career

The original #88 had quite the career.

Atlanta Falcons v Dallas Cowboys

There’s just a certain level of excellence that the No. 88 emblematizes in Cowboys folklore. The franchise’s all-time touchdown receving leader donned it as he torched opposing defenses for nearly a decade in the Silver and Blue. And before Dez Bryant, “The Playmaker” – Michael Irvin - gave it a swagger and flair of its own as he catapulted his way into an illustrious Hall of Fame career.

But in any given situation, there’s only one person who can hold the title of “pioneer.”

For the Cowboys, and their famed #88, that man is Drew Pearson, the team’s latest alum to be christened with immortality into football’s most private exclusive club: the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.

The call came after an elongated waiting period for Pearson, who, at times, wasn't sure if he’d ever be selected for inauguration, a thought that admittedly troubled him. It was a disquieting rocky road, and but Pearson remained diligent and patient throughout as he waited for his time to come.

Which is the exact summation of his career. In fact, if not for a positional conversion in college from quarterback to receiver, Pearson may not have gotten the chance to amass NFL glory at all.

He did have some pass-catching experience in high school, carving out a decent niche for himself at South River High in New Jersey, catching balls from none other than Joe Theismann. He had oodles of talent in the slot, but the multitalented playmaker was deemed more vital as a pass-thrower rather than receiver, and Pearson had usurped Theismann as the team’s signal-caller by his junior season.

It wasn’t until his second year of college at the University of Tulsa that he found his true permanent home as a stalwart on the outside, and there he stayed for the remainder of his playing days. Despite not being the centripetal centerpiece in the Golden Hurricane’s rush-heavy offense, he hauled in 55 receptions for 1,119 yards, 8 touchdowns, and 20.3 yards per catch which is a statline noteworthy enough to net him an UDFA contract with Dallas in 1973.

Pearson’s special teams versatility was the quality that most beckoned the Cowboys’ coaching staff, but he quickly flashed an infallible drive, and deep-ball tracking ability that forced coaches to include his name in their starting lineup cards almost immediately.

After injuries to Otto Stowe and Mike Montgomery, plus Stowe’s subsequent trade request shortly thereafter, Pearson was vaulted to a full-time job his second year, and led the ‘Boys in receptions four years straight on his way to three Pro-Bowl commemorations.

The most memorable moment of his career unfolded during this stretch as well – “The Catch” – a last minute prayer Hail Mary toss from Roger Staubach that sealed Dallas’ 1975 playoff victory over the Minnesota Vikings, a feat that would forever classify him as “Mr. Clutch.”

#88, along with Tony Hill and running back Tony Dorsett, became the first trio in league history to rack up 1,000 yards each between two receivers and a tailback, while Pearson and Hill established themselves as the first pair of 1,000-yard Cowboy receivers in ‘79.

He passed “Bullet” Boy Hayes as the franchise’s all-time catches leader in 1980, then etched his own mark on their receiving yards leaderboard in 1983, before a driving accident in 1984 prematurely brought his career to a screeching halt.

Despite the setback, Pearson’s overall ledger was something to marvel at: 489 receptions, 7,822 receiving yards, and 50 total touchdowns, earning recognition as one of the game’s top 20 All-Time wideouts, and an appearance on the NFL’s 1970s All-Decade Team.

And of course, enshrinement into the PFHOF, class of 2021.

Congratulations to Mr. Pearson, the original #88, for the prodigious honor. Canton awaits.