This story, by Bob St. John, first appeared in the Nov. 18, 1972, issue of The Sporting News, under the headline “What Makes Cowboys So Tough? Rugged Lilly ”. It was written the season after the Cowboys, seemingly always “next year’s champions,” broke through in Super Bowl VI by shutting down the Dolphins, 24-3, in no small part because of Lilly.
DALLAS, Tex. – It’s difficult to imagine, but one of these days it has to happen. Right? Someday you’ll look out there on the playing field at the Dallas Cowboy defense and No. 74 won’t be there.
He won’t be standing there with his hands on his hips, looking intensely into the opposition’s huddle, or coming off blocks by the guard, the center and sometimes a running back to destroy the man with the ball.
Someday Bob Lilly just won’t be there anymore and things never will be quite the same. For Lilly, more than anybody, has been and is the Dallas Cowboys. This marks his 12th year and he never has missed a game. He has bridged the gap between the expansion years, the great frustrations and, finally, the championship 1971 season.
And he has epitomized … you remember? Just after Jim O’Brien’s field goal crossed through the uprights to give Baltimore a 16-13 Super Bowl victory over Dallas with five seconds to play, Lilly jerked off his helmet and slung it 20-30 yards downfield in utter frustration.
Then, in the last Super Bowl game, when Dallas had thoroughly beaten Miami and Lilly was trotting off the field toward the dressing room, suddenly he was overcome. He just leaped up into the air, raising his arms skyward in victory.
“I remember when I threw that helmet,” Lilly was saying. “I was just thinking it was unbelievable that it could happen to us again. We had controlled Baltimore and yet… I just thought it was a helluva thing that we’d found another way to blow it.
“And leaving the field against Miami, I could have jumped over the stadium at that moment you’re talking about. I felt like I had been walking uphill for six years and finally, finally reached the top.”
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But Lilly, unlike the Cowboys, always has been on top. He was named All-Pro at defensive tackle seven times and has been named to the Pro Bowl eight times. And now, at 33, he seems to be in the midst of his prime.
The past two seasons were the best he’s ever had and, after getting off to a slow start this season, due to a spur in his heel, he’s now picking up momentum, which he hopes will help the Cowboys win another Super Bowl.
“That heel has been giving him a lot of trouble since training camp,” said Coach Tom Landry. “It slows him down. But even playing with the injury, he’s better than most. And when he’s healthy. He’s better than anybody.
“I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. In my lifetime, there hasn’t been a player as good as Lilly. And I don’t expect ever to see another one. He is that once-in- a-lifetime player.
“Some people have said Alan Page is better, but I don’t think so. Lilly’s experience and what he does with it makes him better. And I in no way mean to take anything away from Page, who is a fine player, an outstanding player.
“You watch everything the offense is trying to do Lilly and you get even more impressed. Man, they’re hitting him from every direction. It’s kind of pathetic when you watch them. You know they’re putting two men or three men on him and using every conceivable weapon to keep him out of there.
“You just don’t see him at the quarterback all the time because he’s fighting through half the team to get there.”
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Still Lilly makes the big plays. In that Super Bowl game last year, he threw Bob Griese for a 29-yard loss and he also helped make the big play in the Cowboys’ toughest game last season —the game – against San Francisco for the NFC title.
He got in the way of a John Brodie screen pass, causing the 49er quarterback to try and throw the ball away … right into the hands of George Andrie, who intercepted the pass and ran it back to the San Francisco 2, where Dallas scored en route to a 14-3 victory.
Defensive coach Ernie Stautner likes to remember this story of when Dallas was playing the Rams. He said:
“Lilly had those linemen so fouled up that I heard the center finally start griping at the guard when they lined up for a play. ‘For God’s sake,’ the guy said, ‘at least slow him up a little and give me a chance to get back and set up to try and block him. ‘”
Perhaps one of the most amazing performances came against St. Louis. Lilly made 12 tackles in the Cowboys’ win while helping coordinate the defense.
“A middle linebacker has a great day and he makes 12 tackles, but for a tackle to make that many is unheard of … even more so in the type of defense we play,” Landry said.
Baltimore’s fine guard, Glenn Rossler, who has faced Lilly many times, said, “He is awesome in what he does to people. He may be the best tackle that ever played the game.”
If this sounds like a Lilly testimonial, maybe it is. When you write about him, it’s difficult not to make it sound like a testimonial.
Strong and Quick
Physically, Lilly is most impressive at 6-5, 260 and, outside of perhaps a younger Deacon Jones, nobody has had the combination of strength and quickness he has. Yet his face seems at odds with the violence of the world in which his body lives. He has straight blond hair and a sleepy country-boy face that seems only a couple of generations removed from a haystack. There is more truth than speculation in this. Bob grew up in the small West Texas town of Throckmorton, where his father had a small land-clearing business.
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He gained some notoriety at TCU, where he not only made All-America but had an unusual hobby – he went around lifting Volkswagens. It was at TCU that a teammate uttered those immortal words, “Man, if I was Bob Lilly, I’d charge people just to live.”
The Cowboys were formed in 1960, Lilly’s senior year, and Dallas didn’t take part in the draft that first year, so in 1961 Lilly literally became the club’s first draft choice in history. It made the best choice the club ever made.
He’s limping a little now on his sore heel and his knee bothers him some, but the punishment of 12 years doesn’t show on him all that much.
“As far as punishment, I’ve taken a lot, but it’s part of the game and you get used to it,” he said. “It’s like before the season, you can forearm a tree a few times and you’ll get bruises all over you.Once you get into the football season, you can do the same thing and it wouldn’t hurt.
“The first month of the season, you hit people and get black and blue all over. After about a month, you don’t get a bruise. The first part of the year, when you get flipped up in the air and come down , you can feel all the different organs in your body bouncing around. After a month, you don’t feel anything. I don’t know why the hell that happens, but that’s the way it has been with me. “
Victim of Holding
Lilly has fought a lifelong battle against holding and I can remember actually seeing him drag people who had hold of his jersey.
“It’s worse now than ever,” he said. “The officials don’t ever call it much. And the offensive linemen are smarter now. They learn more ways to hold you without getting caught … but I guess if I was an offensive lineman, I’d do the same thing, ”
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It appears Lilly may be able to live out the twilight of his career without the frustration he once experienced when the Cowboys would continually come to the brink … then fail.
“I feel good about our chances right now. After we beat Baltimore, I started to get that good feeling about our team again. The players and coaches could sense that we were beginning to hustle and hit the way we did the past two years when we put together those two big winning streaks that took us to the Super Bowl.
“This team I think now has that old Green Bay attitude. It comes from confidence. There’s a feeling on the field that something good will happen and we’ll win. I think all good teams have that. Tom Landry doesn’t want us to lose that feeling because it comes from doing good, not doing bad. “
Whatever good comes to the Dallas Cowboys this season, Bob Lilly will be in the middle of it. It’s difficult to imagine the Cowboys any other way.