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Footnotes in Texas History

The Most Glorious Autumn

Tom Landry’s finest season came in Mission, years before his reign in Dallas

Tom Landry and Charles Schulz died on the same day: February 12, 2000. Mike Thompson of the Detroit Free Press honored the legendary football coach and cartoonist with a drawing showing them entering the Pearly Gates together. Schulz was depicted as Charlie Brown, and Landry had his arm around him, saying, “Now a few pointers on kicking a football …”

For coach Landry, at least, I can’t imagine a finer eulogy.

Known as the man in the hat, Landry was the stoic leader on the Dallas Cowboys sidelines, always impeccably dressed, sporting his fedora. “If there were a Mount Rushmore for the NFL,” former commissioner Paul Tagliabue said, “the profile of Tom Landry would have to be there, wearing his trademark hat.”

In his 29 years as Dallas’ head coach, Landry led the Cowboys to more playoff seasons than they’ve had since. His team won 13 division titles and played in five Super Bowls, winning two. They enjoyed 20 consecutive winning seasons.

As glorious as those years were, none equaled Landry’s finest season in football.

Sure, he played for the New York Giants and was All-Pro one year, but that wasn’t his finest season either. Landry also played for the University of Texas, but after only one semester, his career there was put on hold by World War II. He volunteered to join the Army Air Corps and flew 30 missions over Europe, crash-landing once in Belgium.

To get to his best season ever, we must go all the way back to his high school years in Mission, in the Rio Grande Valley.

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It was Landry’s senior year, 1941. He played quarterback and defensive back and led the Mission Eagles to a perfect 12-0 season. In those 12 games, they gave up only one score: Donna High School managed to eke out one touchdown.

The Eagles went all the way to the regional championship, which was as far as they could go (there was no state championship then). In the regional game, they demoralized Hondo 33-0.

“That autumn of glory, shared with my boyhood friends … remains perhaps my most meaningful season in my fifty years of football,” Landry wrote in his 1980 autobiography. “The game was never more fun, the victories never sweeter, the achievement never more satisfying.”

Landry’s nearly flawless season and his professional career were honored in 1975 when the Mission school district named its football stadium for the coach.

After Landry’s coaching days were over, he developed a sterling reputation as an inspirational speaker. He was fond of saying, “As of today, you have 100% of your life left.”

He took his own words to heart. After he was fired by the Cowboys in 1989, while fans were livid about the way he was sacked, Landry was already moving on.

With characteristic optimism, he saw a silver lining. “As a boy growing up in Mission, Texas, I always dreamed of being a cowboy,” he said. “For 29 wonderful years, I was one.”