Behind The Scenes

First Person: Don Van Natta Jr. on his Jerry Jones profiles

When I was assigned to do a profile of Jerry Jones, I had two choices: Dig deep into his background, talk with as many people as possible and then, near the end, try to interview Jones. Or while digging deeply, I could try to go through the front door, tell Jones what I’m doing and see where that leads.

I took the latter approach, figuring he’d find out soon enough what I was doing, anyway. I was also hoping I’d get the chance to observe him in action. For weeks, Rich Dalrymple, the Cowboys public relations chief, did not return my calls. As I talked with former Cowboys coaches and players and Jones’ old friends and former business associates, Dalrymple finally got back to me and asked: “Why now?” I mentioned this was Jones’ 25th anniversary as Cowboys owner and general manager, but Dalrymple explained that ESPNDallas.com had done a series of stories marking the occasion in February.

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So on May 20, I went to Atlanta’s Ritz-Carlton for the spring owners’ meeting to try to meet Jones. And, after the all-day session, I found Jones in the hotel bar. I’d later learn that showing up at an owners’ meeting with high hopes was a strategy Jones himself had used as a young man when he’d hang around the hotel lobby at AFL league meetings in Houston and try to introduce himself to owners.

Perhaps he remembered that when I introduced myself — or, more likely, he just took pity on me. After inviting me to join him for a drink, we talked for nearly three and a half hours, about everything from his decision not to draft Johnny Manziel to the Cowboys’ branding strategy. When I brought up Jimmy Johnson, it was as if I had lit a fire inside Jones. I knew the 20th anniversary of Jones’ firing of Johnson had occurred two months earlier, and Johnson had carpet-bombed Jones in an interview with Dallas Morning News columnist (and Around the Horn panelist) Tim Cowlishaw.

I can’t be certain this line of questions motivated Jones to cooperate, but it may have. As we said our goodbyes that evening, Jones said, “This is gonna be some fun,” but he also asked me to e-mail my bio to his executive assistant.

A few days later, I heard, officially, he had agreed. This summer, we spent a few days together and a few evenings, too, and I had phone conversations with him on many other days. On our first official visit, our Outside the Lines TV crew, including the great producer Justine Gubar (under the guidance of equally great coordinating producer Carolyn Hong), and I accompanied Jones and his wife, Gene, on his Gulfstream V (G-V) from Dallas to Fayetteville, Ark., for a tribute he gave to his college coach, Frank Broyles. On his plane, Jones invited us to attend the George Strait concert the following evening at AT&T Stadium, in his suite. That evening, we spent nearly seven hours with Jones, who introduced me to Tony Romo, Jason Witten and several of his old friends from Arkansas. Late that night, I eavesdropped on Jones’ impromptu phone conversation with Adrian Peterson.

Of the people I’ve met in nearly 30 years as a journalist, Jones is one of a kind: charming, passionate, curious and he cares deeply about his legacy. He also wears his heart on his sleeve, getting emotional as he recounted the lessons taught him by his late father and Coach Broyles. But he was at times difficult, controlling and frustrating as he contradicted himself from one day to the next. And he became angry, more than once, talking about Jimmy Johnson.

After the Cowboys’ first home pre-season game in August, Jones and I stood at the bar in his suite. His daughter, Charlotte, the Cowboys’ executive vice president and chief brand officer, stopped by and jokingly called me “Cousin Don.” I’m not sure it was a term of endearment, but it was a clue I had probably worn out my welcome. It was time to get our profiles published and on the air.

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