On This Sunday Morning, Pete Gent's Passing Reminds: Time to Re-Read North Dallas Forty

Pete Gent, No. 35 on the 1964 Dallas Cowboys roster
In 1997, an insurance company called Rushmore sued Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys in federal court, insisting that Jones owed close to $1 million in workers comp claims filed by former players -- among them Harvey Martin, Tony Dorsett, Billy Joe DuPree, Randy White and Bob Breunig. The suit stemmed from a contract bought in 1982 by Clint Murchison, which Jones insisted wasn't his problem; he said he bought the team, not its legal obligations. Injured Cowboys, paid an average salary of $90,000 just 30 years ago, had every right to collect workers comp; it was in their contract, fought for by the players' union. Jones disputed this, in court case after course case.

When I was writing about this battle, one of those to whom I spoke was a man who knew more than most about how owners felt about players: Peter Gent, whose book North Dallas Forty chronicled the "chronic pain" (an oft-repeated phrase in the book) suffered by the disposable heroes of Sunday afternoons. Chronicling his tenure under Tom Landry and Tex Schramm, the fictional tome was "a story of violence, drugs, racism, commercialism and hypocrisy," as Andy Barall neatly sums it up on The New York Times's Fifth Down blog this morning.

Gent, drafted by Dallas in '64, loved the game. But he couldn't stand how owners treated the men who played it -- as throwaways whose had it coming to 'em. "I've always believed there's an attitude toward ball players that they deserve to get hurt," he told me from his home in Michigan, which he then shared with his mother. "And whoever thinks that way doesn't have the faintest idea how we feel."

Gent died Friday complications from pulmonary disease; he was 69. North Dallas Forty remains one of the greatest books about sports ever written; the movie, one of the most honest ever made on a subject too often romanticized -- winning at all costs. (Just two months ago, we said farewell to actor G.A. Spradlin, who played its cold coach, B.A. Strother.) But it's not just a great sports book; it's also one of the few essential pieces of locally set lit. I started re-reading it again this morning. From Page 10 of the August 1974 paperback:
I accelerated into the main lanes of the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike, heading for Dallas at about ninety miles an hour, a high-speed island of increased awareness and stereophonic sound heading back to the future. The turnpike was twenty-eight straight miles of concrete laid on rolling hills, connecting the two cities for anyone with sixty cents and a Class A automobile. Factories, warehouses, and two medium cities smother the land the length of the highway. Back in the early sixties, five minutes past the toll gate, heading for either end, you were out in the West. That was when Braniff's planes were gray. Jack Ruby ran a burlesque house. And the School Book Depository was a place that kept school books.
"Smoke will rise
In the Dallas skies
Comin' back to you
Dallas Alice..."

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Pete had a life in Dallas after football. He was indeed a local character, but he did some very kind things, too.

In 1971 Pete was a salesperson for a local printing company. He met me (a just-out-of-college and barely employed newswriter) and my not-yet-employed college roommate for lunch at the Holiday Inn on Stemmons (just across from Cobb Stadium). When Pete found out that my former roommate was newly-married with a baby on the way and desperate for work, Pete offered to call Mr. Joe Haggar (of Haggar Clothing) on his behalf. By noon the next day my ex-roommate (who was hoping for even a delivery driver's job) was hired as a territorial salesperson for Haggar, the beginning of a lifelong career in the apparel industry.

Pete was a kind, kind man.

(Then there was the time later that year when Pete, thoroughly toasted, got us all thrown out of an Elm Street movie theater when he started talking back to Donald Sutherland on-screen during "Alex in Wonderland". Fortunately, no police were involved.)


People talk about the pre-Jerry Cowboys like they were perfect. Remember both "North Dallas Forty" and "Debbie Does Dallas" were loosely about those Cowboys, not Jerry's version.


"The Franchise" is also great and Jerry probably referred to it while scamming Arlington to build his stadjum. Peter Gent was a pariah with sports writers because of his honesty about professional football.

Lee Nichols
Lee Nichols

I still haven't read that book. But I'm going to correct that now — just pulled my beaten-up old copy from my bookshelf, and will start tonight. Nice post, Robert.


North Dallas Forty was one of several sports expose books of that era along with Jim Bouton's Ball Four and Gary Shaw's Meat on the Hoof.

Nice Doug Sahm reference by Mr Gent.Sir Douglas's various gigs spanned from performing with Hank Sr. to recording on Uncle Tupelo's last studio album.


Every time we say it's a game you tell us it's a business and every time we say it's a business you say it's a game.

That perfectly sums up pro sports.

Condolences to Mr Gent's family and friends.

Robert Wilonsky
Robert Wilonsky

Awful nice to see you here, Lee -- it's been ... forever. I wish I'd spent the day finishing the book, again, rather than putting it down to watch Gent's old team play the worst second half of football in the history of a storied franchise consistently setting "worst in the history of" marks.

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