Bill Bates: From gritty underdog to Cowboys’ beloved overachiever

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When the average fan watches a pro football game, they see gods. Ideal physical specimens come to life, performing athletic feats they themselves can only dream of.

On a field filled with larger-than-life superheroes, the scrappy underdog who looks like maybe he doesn’t belong always stands out and inevitably becomes a fan favorite.

The heart of a lion… trapped in the body of a mutt.

Think Rudy.

In sixty-plus years of Dallas Cowboys lore, perhaps no player personified that ethos more than Bill Bates.

“I think [the fans] could see some of themselves in me,” Bates said, as author Jeff Sullivan shares in America’s Team: The Official History of the Dallas Cowboys. “I wasn’t the biggest guy out there, oftentimes one of the smallest. I wasn’t the fastest guy out there. I was the gritty, hardworking stiff who was out there living his dream, and fans appreciated that.”

Appreciate it, they did. For fifteen improbable seasons, he was a fan favorite, even on rosters loaded with legends. But Bill Bates was always more than his stats; that’s the whole point. He was the poster child for playing with passion, for giving his all to the game and the team he loved, and for making dreams come true.

'Footprints on my chest:' On the wrong end of a historic hit

https://twitter.com/CowboysFanClub/status/350826133522087937 Bill Bates knew his destiny as early as high school. "In my mind, I was a Dallas Cowboy," he once said of his teenage self. "The Cowboys didn't know it." When Ken Sparks was hired as coach at Farragut High prior to Bates's sophomore year, his first order of business was to change the team's uniforms to more closely his own favorite pro squad. The Admirals already wore blue and grey; Sparks ordered a shift to blue and silver and added a familiar five-pointed logo to their headgear. "Wearing that star on my helmet," Bates would say many years later, "I dreamt about playing for the Dallas Cowboys." Over his high school career, Bates recorded 14 interceptions, over 1,000 return yards, and almost 200 tackles, and then played basketball and ran track on the side. Signing on to play football at the University of Tennessee, just twenty minutes from home, Bates was the fourth-best high school recruit in the state. Bates built on his local reputation as a hard hitter with the Volunteers, starting at safety all four years. But his introduction to a national audience came by being on the receiving end of a collision that still makes highlight reels four decades later. Tennessee was hosting No. 16-ranked Georgia in their 1980 season opener. A then-record crowd of over 95,000 packed Neyland Stadium in Knoxville to watch the Vols face the Bulldogs. In the Georgia backfield that night, an 18-year-old running back named Herschel Walker in his first collegiate game. Down 15-2 in the third quarter, Georgia had possession on the Volunteer 16. Walker took the handoff and made one cut. Suddenly, the only thing between Walker and the end zone was Bill Bates, who got low and braced for impact. "Our coaches always told us to break down for a tackle. So I broke down," Bates would tell ESPN years later about the moment that would become infamous. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Nc2XsimM90 "I looked into Herschel's eyes and realized he wasn't going to make a move. The next thing I knew, I had footprints on my chest and turned around and saw No. 34 running into the end zone for a touchdown. It was a big deal and something I'll always remember." Noted sports agent Jimmy Sexton was a high school senior at the time and in the stands that night. "I thought Bates was in great position to make the tackle," he recalled. "I thought if Herschel was going to get through that tackle, he was going to have to run through him. And that's what he did." Georgia running back coach Mike Cavan perhaps said it best. "He took the straightest line to the end zone," he explained, "and that was right through Bates." The play- Walker's first college touchdown- and its iconic radio call ("My God, a freshman!") made the powerful rusher a nationwide phenom overnight. But Herschel himself has been quick to come to Bates's defense in the years since. "Bill has always gotten a lot of heat for it, but he is an incredible football player," Walker has said. "As I started to run toward him and accelerated, his foot slipped. He lowered his head right before I got to him. Everybody wants to give me 15 minutes of fame, but it was God's grace that the hole opened and his foot slipped and not mine." Bates has claimed he didn't even think much of the play until the next morning. "I never thought it as that big of a deal until we lost the game by one point," he recalled. "And then after the game, I go to church. And everybody's pointing at me. 'That's him. That's him.' Then I look at the paper, and it's me getting run over by Herschel Walker on the front page of the paper." The legacies of Bates and Walker were forever intertwined with that one devastating collision in 1980. But it wouldn't be the last time their paths would cross.

Revolutionizing the game by making special teams something truly special

Oct 5, 1986; Denver, CO, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive back Bill Bates (40) on the field against the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium. FILE PHOTO; Mandatory Credit: USA TODAY Sports

After turning in All-SEC campaigns as a junior and senior, Bates declared for the NFL draft in 1983. But thanks in large part to a slow 40-yard dash time at the combine that year, the undersized safety (and onetime track sprinter) went unselected. Jeff Pearlman, author of Boys Will Be Boys:The Glory Days and the Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty, picks up the story of what ultimately landed Bates in Dallas:

"On the following day, Dallas scout Bob Ford contacted Bates and invited him to try out, telling him, 'If there were thirteen rounds in the draft instead of twelve, you'd be the thirteenth pick of the Dallas Cowboys.'

"Bates was ecstatic," Pearlman writes. "Ever since I was a boy, my dream was to play for Dallas. And when you're given the chance to pursue a dream, I believe you have to go for it."

"What Bates didn't realize at the time was that the Cowboys were telling literally every semi-talented undrafted collegiate player that he would have been the team's thirteenth-round selection. When he arrived at camp in Thousand Oaks, California, Bates was surrounded by dozens upon dozens of thirteenth-round picks."

But Bates made the most of the opportunity, treating every drill in every practice like it was the Super Bowl, in an attempt to impress the Cowboys coaches. "People can count you off," Bates would say of the overachieving underdog mentality that would eventually define him, "but as long as you have a uniform, then they can't write me off." The longshot made the final roster. And he made an immediate impression on the rest of the league, mainly through his kamikaze-style of play on special teams. "It was a battle for me every day because nobody expected me to be on the team," Bates remembered in a 2013 profile piece on the team website. "And I just said, 'Hey, while I'm here with the Cowboys, I don't know how long it's going to be: another game, another day, whatever. I'm going to get out and see if this is as good as I can be.' I looked at every day like it might be my last." "On kickoffs and punts," Pearlman describes, "Bates would dart down the field like a bull after a red cloth, charging through blockers, battering over bigger players, single-minded in his determination to destroy the ball carrier." In his debut 1983 season, Bates appeared in all 16 games on Dallas's schedule, but started only one. Along the way, though, Bates got in on 84 tackles, snagged an interception, recovered two fumbles, and notched four quarterback sacks. And he was named the NFC's special teams player of the year. He was even more of a force the following year, his play in the so-called "third phase" so dominant, in fact, that he was selected to the Pro Bowl. As a result, the NFL was forced to create a first-time roster spot for special teams players. Leading the the revolution to make special-teamers Pro Bowl-eligible was none other than broadcast legend John Madden. "Every game starts with a kick," Madden said. "With Bill Bates on the field, every game begins with a bang!"

A lifetime of laying the lumber... to anyone and everyone

Dec 29, 1991; Chicago, IL, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive back Bill Bates (40) reacts during the 1991 NFC Wild Card Playoff Game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Dallas won 17-13. FILE PHOTO; Mandatory Credit: USA TODAY Sports

Tom Landry, Bates's first Cowboys coach, called him- and Hall of Famer Cliff Harris- "the hardest hitters I ever saw." Even after the changing of the guard at the head coaching position in Dallas, Bates was keen on showing Jimmy Johnson that he could deliver a big stick. And the recipient on the first day of 1989's training camp was none other than Herschel Walker. Bates and Walker had nearly been teammates once before, in the USFL. Bates was claimed by the New Jersey Generals in that league's Territorial Draft in January of 1983. Walker signed with the same club several weeks later, a shocking turn of events at the time since he was still a collegiate underclassman. When Bates got the call to come to training camp with the Cowboys, he spurned the Generals' offer and instead poured himself into making the roster with the NFL team he had loved since high school. And the reunion with the back who had trucked him in college would wait a few more years. Bates's revenge for the hit, though, would wait even longer... until he had a new coach he needed to impress. He lit up Walker during a no-contact drill. "There I am out there in the first practice with Herschel, and we're in helmets only," Bates explained. "I was trying to kill Herschel. Jimmy started screaming, 'Wait a second! We're not tackling! We're not tackling!' I wanted Jimmy to know that I was tough and remembered it." "I just vowed after that play [in college] that I would work my tail off to never let it happen again," Bates said. "It pushed me to be better and stronger so it wouldn't happen again." Bates's reputation as one of the NFL's most punishing hitters followed him for his entire career. And it's the driving plot point behind most of the stories about his football life. But the thing about being a heat-seeking missile is: in obliterating its target, the missile sustains a consequential amount of damage, too. "I remember coming to the sideline once," teammate Kenny Gant is quoted as saying in Pearlman's book. "Bill had broken his wrist and the trainers told him, 'Game's over.' Bill said, 'No, tape it up.' As a young guy coming in, I never saw a player who cared less about his body." Unfortunately, that disregard sometimes carried over to the bodies of those around Bates. Even his coaches occasionally found themselves to be targets. Longtime Cowboys special teams coach Joe Avezzano had a memorable- and painful- sideline encounter with Bates after a well-executed special teams stop. "I thought it was a high-five kind of moment," the late Avezzano would say as he often retold the story. "Bill thought it was a head-butt kind of moment. But he forgot to take off his helmet." Bates moved on to defensive duties. Avezzano, meanwhile, had to get himself a towel to stop the bleeding. "A few minutes later," Bates recalls, "I come back up to him and say, 'Hey, what play are going to run?' And I look up, and I say, 'Hey, Joe, how'd you get that cut on your head?' He just walked away... I didn't even remember." "Bill has always been a little too excitable," fullback Daryl Johnston once deadpanned. But the team's Super Bowl run that began in 1992 would put the excitable Bates on an unexpected rollercoaster of emotions.

The Super Bowl dream finally comes true for the old veteran

Jan 30, 1994; Atlanta, GA, USA; FILE PHOTO; Dallas Cowboys linebacker Ken Norton Jr. (51), Jim Jeffcoat (77) Michael Irvin (88), Bill Bates (40), Kevin Gogan (66) and Eddie Murray (3) at mid-field for the coin toss prior to Super Bowl XXVIII against the Buffalo Bills at the Georgia Dome. The Cowboys defeated the Bills 30-13. Mandatory Credit: USA TODAY Sports

By the 1992 season, Bates had made the Cowboys roster ten straight seasons, always fearing he would be cut before each of them. He had gone from an undrafted rookie to special teams ace to Pro Bowler, and then to starting safety under Coach Landry. He had survived a scare after Jimmy Johnson's first season, when the coach informed Bates he would be left unprotected as a free agent. Despite interest from the Vikings, the Cowboys retained his services with one hour to go before the deadline. "That sort of added fuel to my fire," Bates was quoted as saying. "I was determined to show that I could play." He had also ridden the wave of the team's success (or lack thereof)- from two playoff appearances in his first three years to the depths of 1989's 1-15 season- Bates was the man responsible for famously mussing up Johnson's perfect hair on TV after that lone victory, and then suddenly back on the upswing as part of a emerging dynasty. But 1992 ended prematurely for Bates, after suffering an ACL tear on a special teams play in Week 6. Shut down for the season, Bates could only look on as the Cowboys finished 13-3 and earned a late January trip to Pasadena. "He planned to stand along the Rose Bowl sideline for Super Bowl XXVII," Pearlman notes, "but the idea of watching his team play without him on the world's largest stage was too much to bear. As soon as his healthy teammates left the locker room, Bates turned to a trainer and pleaded, 'There's a lot of tape left here. You can still tape me!'" The player nicknamed "The Wildman from Tennessee" saw less action in his first Super Bowl than the ballboy. But Bates was always the exception to the rule, and never more so than on those high-profile Cowboys teams. While many of his flashier teammates were living the party-hearty lifestyle in the '90s-era limelight, Bates remained a good old boy from Tennessee. His teammates were getting DWI tickets and crashing luxury coupes; Bates was driving is five kids to the carpool lane at school. His teammates were making it rain at the notorious "White House" in town; Bates was inviting fans to his ranch for traditional pregame pep rallies. The give-it-all player who had never experienced a championship enjoyed winning, but the squeaky-clean Bates couldn't condone the overindulgence that so many around him reveled in. "For a guy who his whole life wanted to play for the Dallas Cowboys," Bates said in the Joe Nick Patoski book The Dallas Cowboys: The Outrageous History of the Biggest, Loudest, Most Hated, Best Loved Football Team in America, "you know, at times, it really makes you sick to your stomach." A healthy Bates returned in 1993. He was bigger, stronger, and even faster. His 40-yard-dash time- at age 32- beat the one that got him passed over at the NFL combine coming out of college. "Three weeks ago, I would have given you ten-to-one odds that Bill Bates wouldn't have a chance to make the team, Johnson told reporters during that training camp. "But it really is incredible what he's done." Bates went on to once again led the Cowboys in special teams tackles that season. His comeback prompted his teammates to award him the Ed Block Courage Award. And his play contributed mightily to the team's return to a second straight Super Bowl. Bates was named a captain for Super Bowl XXVIII and was even chosen to make the call during the pregame coin toss. "Tails" was a decision he had debated for hours with his wife. "We want the ball!" Bates squealed when the coin landed tail-side up. "We want the ball! We want the ball!" Later, he admitted, "That was really embarrassing. But that was everything pent up: missing the previous [Super Bowl] game, coming from nothing, joy, energy, excitement." Bates registered only modest stats during the game. After the confetti settled on the 30-13 Dallas win in Atlanta, most of the Cowboys players enjoyed a fairly subdued celebration, having beaten the same opponent in far more impressive style the year before. Eleven-year veteran Bill Bates, however, was found curled up at his locker in the bowels of the Georgia Dome, sobbing tears of unbridled joy.

The twilight years of a punishing football life

Sep; 2, 2010; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys former safety Bill Bates (40) on the sidelines during the game against the Miami Dolphins at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Bates went on to earn a third championship ring when the team won Super Bowl XXX. After the 1997 season, though, 15 hard-fought NFL campaigns had finally caught up with him, and Bates announced his retirement. At the time, he was tied with Ed "Too Tall"Jones and Mark Tuinei as the longest-tenured Cowboys players to that point. He remains the club's all-time special-team tackles leader, by a sizable margin. And in a franchise full of stars, Bates was one of the most popular Cowboys ever. He won the Bob Lilly Award- a fan vote for the player demonstrating the most leadership on and off the field- for four straight years. Bates remained with the Cowboys organization for the next five seasons as an assistant under Chan Gailey and Dave Campo. In 2003, he followed former teammate Jack Del Rio to Jacksonville; he served as special teams coach during Del Rio's first year as head coach there. 2004 saw Bates head back to the high school ranks, where he helped coach at his sons' high schools in Florida, even winning a state championship in 2005 with a promising young quarterback named Tim Tebow. In the years that followed, Bates engaged in public speaking, worked with companies creating safer football gear, worked with a variety of charitable organizations, hosted massive Cowboys tailgate parties near AT&T Stadium on gameday, and even ran a cattle ranch in North Dallas. But as with far too many NFL veterans who gave their bodies to the sport, the sport took an unspeakable toll in return. In early 2020, it was revealed that Bates had started to show the debilitating effects of concussion-related dementia. "Slowed, slurred speech," reported FanNation's Richie Whitt. "Headaches. Even trouble consistently rattling off the names of his five children." It's a sad development for a beloved Dallas legend who is still regularly mentioned as deserving of a spot in the Ring of Honor. But whether his name is installed on the stadium facade or not, generations of Cowboys faithful will always remember No. 40. And vice versa.

"With the success that we had," Bates said at an autograph session in 2019, "that kind of just stays together with the Cowboys and stays with me forever."

"My dream was to shoot for the stars and try to play for the Cowboys. Fortunately, my dreams came true."

This offseason, Cowboys Wire is reaching back into the archives in a series called Stars of the Cowboys' Past. We'll re-acquaint readers with the stories of some of the franchise's players who have shone brightly during the 60-year history of America's Team. 1/13: Larry Cole 1/28: Eddie LeBaron 2/10: Rayfield Wright 2/25: Dat Nguyen 3/18: Everson Walls 4/4: Toni Fritsch 4/24: Calvin Hill You can suggest future Stars of the Cowboys' Past by following Todd on Twitter at @ToddBrock24f7.

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