It was the jog that launched a run.
At the time, two days after the fifth game of the 1989 NFL season, the Dallas Cowboys were America's Winless Team. They had just lost 31-13 to the Packers in Green Bay, and there were grumblings in Dallas and snickerings around the NFL that rookie owner/general manager Jerry Jones and rookie head coach Jimmy Johnson were in way over their heads.
But there was a bounce in Johnson's step as he let his aides know it was time for their lunchtime jog on that Tuesday, Oct. 10.
"That was Jimmy," says Tony Wise, his offensive line coach. "We're getting our asses kicked every week, but he pops into my office to tell me he's ready to go, acting like we're 5-0. So I put down my clicker, and we set off through Valley Ranch for what we called our 'mobile staff meeting.'"
The run itself was about 1.5 miles through the uncompleted development built around the Cowboys' training complex in Irving, past unsold houses and vacant lots on streets named Staubach Drive and Howley Court and White Lane. In that day's group were Johnson, Wise, offensive coordinator David Shula, defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt, trainer Kevin O'Neill and Jimmy's administrative assistant, Bruce Mays.
"We were too slow for David Shula, so he usually left us in the dust," Wannstedt says. "Had David known what Jimmy was about to say, he might've stuck around." When the group reached the top of a certain rise, they would begin their walk back. That's when Johnson dropped the bomb.
"Six blocks from the finish," Johnson says, "I told them the only way to fix this thing was to trade our best player. I told them we had to trade Herschel Walker."
"What was my reaction?" Wannstedt says. "I asked Jimmy, 'After you do that, do you think you could get the Texas A&M job and take us with you?'"
The staff had every right to be worried. Walker was the only player to justify the star on the Cowboys' helmet: The former Heisman Trophy winner had rushed for 1,514 yards the year before while gaining another 505 yards receiving.
"I'll tell you how much he meant to the franchise," O'Neill says. "The security code at the facility was 3412 -- 34 for Herschel, 12 for Roger Staubach."
'We were already 0-5 with him'
But Johnson wasn't as enamored with Walker as other people were. For one thing, he preferred shifty backs to power runners like Walker. For another, he saw Walker as a prima donna whose grades in team chemistry weren't very good.
"We were already 0-5 with him, the worst team in the league, " Johnson says. "We were old and slow, and we needed to jump-start the rebuilding process. I had to figure out a way to parlay our best asset into a whole team." How bad were the Cowboys? Every Tuesday, they would hold a "Gong Show," trying out players who might, just might, be able to help them.
"The normal progression for an NFL player," Wannstedt says, "is to learn the playbook in training camp and learn the game plan during the week. Well, in the middle of the season, we were having to teach players how to properly huddle up."
"Here's the 1989 Dallas Cowboys for you," Johnson says. "I remember a defensive lineman out of Tulsa named [Kevin] Lilly. He tried out on a Tuesday, we signed him on Wednesday, he got into the team photo on Thursday, he played on Sunday, and we cut him on Monday."
The Cowboys did have two good young quarterbacks: Steve Walsh, who played for Johnson when they won the national championship at the University of Miami, and their No. 1 draft pick out of UCLA, Troy Aikman.
But the offense was really built around Walker, so when Shula and quarterbacks coach Jerry Rhome heard about the jog, they were not happy. "They were pretty upset," Johnson says. "But I knew we couldn't wait to build the team with our regular picks in the draft. We needed a lot of picks."
Says Wannstedt: "After the jog, we thought Jimmy might let the idea pass. But at dinnertime, he comes up to us and says, 'I got the deal in the works.'"
The team Johnson had contacted that day was the Cleveland Browns because their GM, Ernie Accorsi, had expressed interest in Walker. Working with the approval of Browns owner Art Modell, Accorsi offered a player, two future No. 1 picks and three number No. 2s.
It was a fair deal, thought Johnson, but he wanted to get another team involved to at least sweeten the pot, so on Wednesday, he called Mike Lynn of the Minnesota Vikings, who had mentioned Walker earlier in the season.
Johnson spelled out a complicated deal involving draft picks, players and conditional draft picks tied to the players. According to the book "The Greatest Team Ever" by Ron St. Angelo and Norm Hitzges, Johnson also put Lynn on the clock, saying he needed a response by 6:30 p.m. or he would make the deal with Cleveland.
The Vikings were 3-2 at the time and bent on making the playoffs, and Lynn felt that Walker would help put them over the top. But while the two teams were coming to an agreement over the details, they also needed someone else's approval: Walker's.
That's when Jerry Jones came in. Although they would later have a falling-out, the two JJs were like Lennon and McCartney in the Hamburg days, feeding off each other's talents.
The Cowboys had every right to trade Walker, but his leverage was simple: retirement. So Jones had to reach out to Walker and his agent, Peter Johnson. The result of the overnight negotiations was that Jones would pay an exit bonus of $1.25 million and the Vikings promised: (1) a free house in Minneapolis comparable to his digs in Dallas, and (2) the Mercedes-Benz of his choice. At 6:15 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 12, 1989, Walker arrived at Valley Ranch to clean out his locker. As it happened, the NFL owners were in the Dallas area to select Paul Tagliabue as their new commissioner. There was more than a little irony to the name of the town they were meeting in: Grapevine.
In the course of the next few hours, the world would find out about the largest -- and most complicated -- trade in NFL history. As New York Giants general manager George Young put it, "The trade agreement may be longer than the Magna Carta."
'The Great Train Robbery'
The basic terms were that the Cowboys would give the Vikings Walker, their third and 10th picks in 1990, and their third pick in 1991. In return, Dallas would get linebackers Jesse Solomon and David Howard, defensive end Alex Stewart, running back Darrin Nelson, cornerback Issiac Holt and Minnesota's first-, second- and sixth-round picks in 1990. But each of the players the Cowboys got from the Vikings also had a conditional pick attached to him should he be cut before Feb. 1, 1990. That's where the deal got complicated -- and Johnson got what he really wanted.
"What was my reaction? I asked Jimmy, 'After you do that, do you think you could get the Texas A&M job and take us with you?'"Dave Wannstedt on Jimmy Johnson's plan to trade Herschel Walker
"Jimmy was an ocean current thinker," says Bruce Mays, his assistant at the time. "By that, I mean he was seeing things below the surface, which was where the Vikings were thinking. Jiminy Christmas, he was smart."
"We didn't know it then," Wannstedt says, "but Jimmy was turning his one ace into a full house."
Before Johnson could do that, though, Mays had one small chore. "I was the one who had to come up with a new security code," he says.
Johnson bragged to the media that he had just committed "The Great Train Robbery," but the reaction in Dallas was shock -- and aw shoot. "The Vikings got Herschel Walker," Randy Galloway wrote in The Dallas Morning News. "The Cowboys got nothing more than a huge handful of Minnesota smoke. And who knows if there'll ever be another fire."
Frank Luksa of the Dallas Times Herald agreed, likening the Cowboys' take to "a bag of beans and a cow to be named later."
The lone voice of support from the media came from Galloway's esteemed colleague, Blackie Sherrod, who wrote: "There will be those saying the Jaybirds got taken like a couple of rubes at the carnival. But here again, there is suspicion there is more to the trade than the announced face value that may be where the 'conditional draft choices' enter the picture."
If Cowboy fans weren't happy when they heard the news that Thursday, they certainly weren't the following Sunday, when they watched kick returner Darryl Clack replace Walker and rush for 32 yards on 12 carries in a 31-14 loss to the 49ers at home. On the same day, Walker returned a kickoff for 51 yards the first time he touched the ball in a Minnesota uniform and ran the ball for another 148 yards in a 26-14 win over Green Bay.
One of the players the Cowboys got from the Vikings, Nelson, refused to report, got traded to San Diego and became two draft picks: a sixth-rounder in 1990 and a second-rounder in '91.
Stewart was lazy, Johnson thought, so he cut him to claim the second-round pick in the 1990 draft that was tied to him. The coach kept the others around, but he instructed his coaches not to start them.
Says Wannstedt, "I told him, 'Jimmy, these guys are better than we what we've got.' And he said, 'I know, but I've got something else in mind.'"
By not starting the players, Johnson was making it clear to Lynn and the rest of the league that he didn't really need the baggage and that it was really the draft picks he wanted.
"I actually wanted to keep them," Johnson says, "but Mike wasn't answering my calls. Finally, I had to notify the league of my intentions to cut them all before he called me back." Lynn and Johnson worked out another deal that lessened the draft cost for the Vikings and allowed the Cowboys to keep Solomon, Howard and Holt.
In retrospect, it's hard to believe so many people underestimated Johnson. But back then, many people saw him as just a college coach with a drawl and a haircut.
But that college background -- and those of acolytes such as Wannstedt, Wise, Butch Davis and Dave Campo -- proved to be the key to spinning those draft picks into gold.
"The Rams tried to do the same thing when they traded Eric Dickerson to the Colts two years before," Johnson says. "But that didn't work out for them because they chose the wrong players.
"The advantage we had was that we had seen the players we were drafting. We had relationships with other assistant coaches, so we knew who to call to get an honest assessment. Why do you think Pete Carroll and Chip Kelly have been so successful in the pros? Yes, they know how to teach and motivate, but they also know how to get the information they need to find talent."
Indeed, with only 56 days to prepare for the 1989 draft after he was named to replace Tom Landry, Johnson had taken Aikman, Syracuse fullback Daryl "Moose" Johnston, Pittsburgh center Mark Stepnoski and Texas-El Paso defensive end Tony Tolbert -- all of whom would make Pro Bowls and help Johnson rebuild the Cowboys.
'Fantasy football before there was fantasy football'
Johnson never stopped working the picks he collected in the Walker trade. In his five years in Dallas, he made 51 trades, almost all of them involving draft picks. "I was playing fantasy football before there was fantasy football," Johnson says.
"You know what it was like?" Mays says. "It was like he was sitting at a blackjack table and playing every hand. Which is something I've seen him do."
The end result of all that wheeling and dealing was that Johnson got the shifty back he always wanted, Emmitt Smith of Florida, in the first round of the 1990 draft; defensive tackle Russell Maryland of Miami in the first round in '91; cornerback Kevin Smith of Texas A&M in the first round in '92; safety Darren Woodson of Arizona State in the second round in '92; and cornerback Clayton Holmes of Carson-Newman in the third round in '92.
Walker would help the Vikings make the '89 playoffs, where they lost to the 49ers in the first round. But he and Lynn could only look on as Johnson & Co. sped past them to Super Bowl championships in '92 and '93.
Alas, Johnson and Jones let their egos get the best of them after the '93 season, although the Cowboys did win another Super Bowl in '95 with many of the players from the Johnson years. "I really think if Jimmy had stayed," Wannstedt says, "he would've won five Super Bowls." (Wannstedt and Johnson are once again on the same team: Fox Sports.)
That lunchtime jog led to other things besides Lombardi trophies. Wannstedt and Shula went on to NFL head-coaching jobs. Wise became one of the most respected offensive line coaches in the game. O'Neill followed Johnson to Miami when Jimmy took the Dolphins job in '96 and stayed there until last year, when he became collateral damage in the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito scandal. Mays remained with the Cowboys until his recent retirement. But they'll always have that mobile staff meeting at Valley Ranch. "Those were the best times," Wannstedt says. "We weren't winning, but even then, we knew we were headed somewhere."
"You know," Wise says, "if Jimmy knocked on my door tomorrow and said, 'Let's go for a jog,' I would."