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Gold Jacket Spotlight: 'Mr. Cowboy,' Bob Lilly

Gold Jacket Spotlight: 'Mr. Cowboy,' Bob Lilly

04/25/2021
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Bob Lilly went through life with several nicknames, none more widely used than “Mr. Cowboy.”

And why not?

Bob’s career, filled with superlatives and remembered this week in the Gold Jacket Spotlight, was filled with “firsts” for one of the National Football League’s iconic franchises.

  • First draft pick in the history of the Dallas Cowboys.
  • First player who spent his entire career with the Cowboys to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Class of 1980).
  • Elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
  • First defensive tackle named in The Sporting News’ list of “100 Greatest Football Players” (No. 10 overall).
  • First name inscribed on the team’s Ring of Honor.

Truth be told, however, Bob never cared much for the nickname. He even suggested once to former teammate Roger Staubach, who used it and helped popularize it, that Staubach or more recent Hall of Famers like Troy Aikman or Emmitt Smith are equally worthy of the label.

‘“Mr. Cowboy’ was never really something I particularly liked,” Bob said in an interview. “It’s an honor, I guess. … But I’m just one of the bunch.”

That humility also rates among the many reasons teammates, fans and media tagged Bob as “Mr. Cowboy.”

“He didn’t have a mean streak in his body,” former teammate Dan Reeves told NFL Films in a feature that rated Bob as the 26th best player in the history of the NFL. “If he had been really mean, they would have had to outlaw him.”

Bob recalled once trying to play “mean” at the behest of a coach. He head-slapped an opposing offensive lineman and cracked his helmet. It came at a price, though: a slashed hand. After that, Bob said, he played with a simpler – and safer – mantra: “Just beat ’em.”

And that he did routinely.

Double-teamed constantly, teams rarely succeeded in stopping Bob, whose slender frame and lack of muscle definition belied his dominating power.

“He was just an ordinary-looking person. You really didn’t think when you looked at him that this guy was a football player,” Reeves said. “And yet he was the strongest guy on the team. You combine that strength with the quickness that he had, it was just impossible for people to block him one on one.”

Accolades for Bob were numerous: All-Decade Team of the 1960s and All-Decade Team of the 1970s, NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, NFL 100 All-Time Team, AFL-NFL 1960-1984 All-Star Team, Associated Press first-team All-Pro seven times and selection to 11 Pro Bowls. He scored four defensive touchdowns (three fumble returns and an interception).

But the number most meaningful to Bob was 196 starts in 196 possible regular-season games in his 14-year career. When he retired after the 1974 season, the streak of consecutive games played ranked third in NFL history. In his praise for the man he called a “once-in-a-lifetime player,” Coach Tom Landry put the number of games close to 300 with all the preseason and postseason appearances Bob made.

The only game Bob missed was the 1973 NFC Championship Game against the Minnesota Vikings. A leg injury in the playoff game the previous week kept him on the bench in a 27-10 loss.

“The players you win with are the ones that are durable,” Bob said in an interview with the Houston Chronicle. “They hold up. They’re leaders.”

Bob held up. He was a leader. He remains Mr. Cowboy.

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