Now running charity All-Star Rodeo, Garrison remains Cowboys' cowboy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LEWISVILLE, Texas -- Henry is among the faces with places of honor inside the old Liberty Theater on Main Street. Henry (1957-77) is, or was, a pet goat.

Another face belongs to Don, former quarterback (1960-68) of the Dallas Cowboys. Meredith is honored in a photograph. What you see of Henry is his actual head.

People and animals hang out at the U.S. Tobacco Sales and Marketing Co. office. About 1,200 are fixed to the wall in photographs. Henry, a Longhorn steer and a buffalo are attached by their necks.

"It ain't bad if you're not used to much," says Walt Garrison, the most treasured artifact.

The decor is otherworldly, Old West by choice. Wooden floors. Mounted saddle. A vintage pot belly stove. Farm implements. Hand-carved wooden chains and flowers by a spit-and-whittle craftsman on display.

This could be a museum, and in a way it is. Yet jarring exceptions meet the eye. A barber's chair. A shuffleboard table. Computer and copying machine.

The inscription on Meredith's photo captures Garrison in a few words: "You've come a long way -- most of it in a circle. I guess we just like to travel."

Garrison's life does encompass a tight circle. It's as if he found truth from "The List," a compilation of phrases from country-western songs. He adopted the one that says, "There's no use running if you're on the wrong road."

He never strayed far from roads leading back to this, his hometown. His longest wander was to play football at Oklahoma State, and then only because no one nearby thought him a prospect.

Garrison cackles at the memory of chiding Darrell Royal for ignoring him out of high school. Royal then coached the University of Texas.

"I said, 'Coach, how come you didn't recruit me? Why didn't you look at my films?' " Garrison said. "And Darrell says, 'We did. You weren't that good.' "

Pro football returned Garrison closer to home. The Dallas Cowboys made him a No. 5 draft choice in 1966. His rookie signing bonus included a horse trailer. The transaction was a franchise first for a franchise original.

Garrison fit the cliche of the Cowboys' cowboy. He had ridden and roped as a child. He would continue even as a Cowboy in the off-season, adding the fearless pursuit of bulldogging.

Someone asked him back then the difference between contact from a bullish linebacker and a real bull. Garrison absolved the animal.

"You can't blame the bull," he said. "After all, you started the whole thing."

Garrison's cracker-barrel humor lies behind his Texas twang and lip full of snuff, plus a hard head that played fullback nine NFL seasons. He still ranks as the Cowboys' No. 5 all-time rusher with 3,886 yards.

The length and excellence of his NFL career drew the usual jibe from teammate Meredith.

"Don used to say, 'If you need 3 yards, give the ball to Walt and he'll get you 3 yards. If you need 12 yards, give the ball to Walt and he'll get you 3 yards,' " Garrison said.

Garrison differed from almost every off-field norm. For one thing, he never used an agent to negotiate contracts.

"Agents were charging 10 to 15 percent in those days," he said. "If you were gonna get a $1,000 raise, you had to get 15 percent more to break even. I could get five percent more and come out 10 percent ahead."

Closing the deal himself also made Garrison content and never left him feeling short-changed. "I never got what I asked for," he said, "but I always got more than I was worth."

Garrison is now of special value to the Multiple Sclerosis Society. His namesake event, the Walt Garrison All Star Rodeo on April 26 at the Mesquite (Texas) Arena, benefits MS research. Walt and former Cowboys teammate Chuck Howley have been involved since the rodeo's inception 16 years ago.

"Come on out," Garrison said. "You never know what celebrity you'll see. Or what gawd-awful outfit."

His affiliation with the U.S. Tobacco Co. dates to 1975, a year after his NFL retirement. He is vice president of Southwest promotions. The tasks are a pleasure.

"A job don't have to be work," he said.

Restoring the Liberty Theater for an office in 1977 was another labor of love. Garrison's parents watched movies there, as did he until the theater, built in 1902, closed in 1949. More likely, by the looks of a before photo, the place collapsed.

Garrison peers about and says the after is as he envisioned. He does offer one jesting complaint. The floor is unvarnished wooden. It expands and shrinks with changes in temperature.

"Ain't nothing in this place that's square," he said. "That shuffleboard table bends one way in the winter and the other in the summer."

Trust champ Garrison to know the weather and table curvature. A wise guy who didn't paid the penalty after being spotted 10 points in a game to 15. His $10 bills are thumbtacked to the wall opposite Henry. It sort of balances the house goats.

A story lingers behind every piece of memorabilia. Henry was a gift from Garrison's mother. It was supposed to be the other way around when Walt had the tame and beloved pet mounted.

"Mama said she couldn't bear to look at him every day," Garrison said. "She said it was like seeing one of her kids stuffed."

The barber chair was a special purchase. Garrison can't recall the name of the man who sold it. "The guy was either going to prison or coming out, I forget which," he said.

Employees seldom come and go. Annice Burkhalter has been Garrison's secretary since '77. "She can't quit until I do," he said.

Garrison's photo collection includes bull riders and calf ropers, movie stars, coaches, players, song writers and song singers. Images of ex-teammates are still referred to by their period nicknames.

He spoke of Dan "Frog" Reeves and Ralph "Rotten" Neely. There was mention of Craig "Curly" Morton and Dave "Mad Dog" Manders. All belonging to the Talbert clan remain one of the "Varmit Brothers."

Meredith's mug stirs the most memories. Garrison and his second wife, Debbie, visited Don and Susan last year in Sante Fe, N.M. Song writer Roger Miller dropped over one day.

"Ol' Roger had written a new song called, 'She Missed My Heart But Broke My Collarbone,' " Garrison said. "He's a sick man. So is Meredith."

Then there was a years-ago time Garrison saw Meredith at Lake Placid during a Winter Olympics. They agreed to toast the accidental occasion. Garrison began to rush the reunion at a rapid pace.

"This was Meredith's greatest line ever," Garrison said. "He looks at me and says, 'Walt, let's not drink 'em until they bring 'em.' He ain't changed a bit."

Nor has Garrison. He's 47 but doesn't look or act middle-age. He remains part humorist, part philosopher and all parts a cowboy. And maybe the toughest-ever Cowboy.

Whittling in his room the night before a game in Philadelphia, he cut a finger to the bone. A hotel doctor used 19 stitches to close the wound.

Garrison played the next day and even caught a touchdown pass with those 19 stitches. He always played.

The most famous episode occurred in the 1970 NFC title game against San Francisco. He performed with a numbing set of injuries and now says that is why he went on. He actually was numb.

"They had this great drug called novocaine," he said. "If you don't feel it, it don't hurt. I had a cracked collarbone, and they broke my ankle. But with novocaine, it's like, what's the sound of one hand clapping?"

Garrison maintains few ties with the present Cowboys. Everyone he played with or for has been fired or retired. He might attend the annual reunion of former players but no other games at Texas Stadium.

Football is a memory, no longer a passion.

"How many retired bricklayers do you see who watch somebody lay bricks?" he said. "Especially on Sunday."

Garrison quit when he was ready. He had fun playing. He didn't feel a play-again pang. A later visit to the Cowboys' locker room convinced him he had chosen wisely.

"I never noticed before," he said, "but sweat stinks."

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