Mattress Mack (left) and Chuck Howley
John McClain: Mack and Mack experience once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with Cowboy greats Howley, Staubach, Lilly, Renfro, Harris, Waters, and Jordan
The invitation to a once-in-a-lifetime experience came from Scott Howley: Would I like to come to Dallas and be present when his father, former Cowboys linebacker Chuck Howley, was informed that he finally had been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame 50 years after he retired? It was an invitation I couldn’t resist.
As a die-hard Cowboys’ fan growing up in Waco, I never missed a game until I started working for the Waco Tribune-Herald going into my junior year at Baylor. I watched every game from 1960 through the 1972 seasons, meaning I witnessed the best 12 years of Chuck Howley’s 15-year career after Chicago traded him to Dallas in 1961.
I told Scott I’d be honored to be with Howley and his family when they received the news they dreamed about during his 45 years of Hall of Fame eligibility, the last 25 as a senior candidate.
The 15-year-old me, who celebrated every Cowboys’ victory and suffered through every defeat, never could have imagined the extraordinary opportunity I received to visit Chuck Howley’s home in the exclusive Preston Hollow neighborhood of Dallas and hang out with Roger Staubach, Bob Lilly, Lee Roy Jordan, Mel Renfro, Cliff Harris, Charlie Waters, and Mattress Mack.
Yes, Mattress Mack.
Jim McIngvale grew up in Dallas as a devoted Cowboys’ fan and seldom missed watching his favorite team and players. I asked Scott Howley if I could bring a friend, and he said of course. I had presented his father to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Senior Committee, and then the 48-member Selection Committee, and the Howley family has been incredibly grateful and generous.
“Even after all these years, my dad never gave up his dream of making the Hall of Fame,” Scott said.
Howley’s dream became official on Thursday night when the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2023 was announced on the NFL Honors Show two days before Super Bowl LVII.
Everyone who came to Howley’s house on Jan. 24 was sworn to secrecy. Howley’s election couldn’t be disclosed by those who were present for the presentation created by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, Chuck suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and requires round-the-clock care, but he’s able to live at home. Scott had no idea if his father would realize the momentous moment that was taking place.
Because so many family members, friends, former teammates, Hall of Fame executives, and a film crew from the NFL Network would be at Howley’s house, I asked Scott again if bringing a friend would be an imposition, and he said no. I mentioned that my friend’s name was Jim McIngvale, and Scott responded, “Mattress Mack? Mattress Mack’s coming to my parents’ house? We love Mattress Mack. Can you come early so we can meet him?”
Well, of course, we could be there early. The Hall of Fame had scheduled the occasion for 10 a.m. We wanted to be there by 9. Thank goodness Mack suggested we take his private plane, which took 45 minutes, rather than make a drive that would have started in the Gallery Furniture parking lot around 4:30, taking into account morning-drive traffic in Dallas.
Until this year, Howley had never even been a finalist for the Hall of Fame. Some players and coaches just seem to slip through the cracks, and Howley was one of them.
“There wouldn’t have been a Doomsday Defense without Chuck,” Lilly said.
Howley, 86, was 6-3, 228 when he played on the weakside of Tom Landry’s 4-3 defense during his first two seasons with the Cowboys (1961-62) and the strongside for the last 11 seasons (1963-73). He’s still tall, strong, and fit for a person his age, and he gets around well enough that his caregivers have to keep an eye on him because he likes to roam around his house.
“Chuck was a great athlete,” said longtime Cowboys’ personnel director Gil Brandt. “He’s still the only athlete in West Virginia history to letter in five sports – football, track, wrestling, swimming, and gymnastics. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do on the field.”
Chuck was sitting at his dining room table devouring donut holes when he was introduced to Mack. When a person suffers from Alzheimer’s, you never know what registers with them. Chuck gave Mack and me a firm handshake.
Mack and I got to Howley’s house at 9. It was raining like crazy, just like it had been when I was invited by Scott to meet his father after he was one of three senior nominees for the Hall of Fame. When we arrived, Scott met Mack and introduced him to his family members, who were preparing for the celebration to begin.
Mack and Scott disappeared into Chuck’s impressive trophy room. His most impressive award was being voted the Most Valuable Player in Super Bowl V, even though the Cowboys lost 16-13 to the Colts. Howley, who intercepted two passes and forced a fumble, is the only player from a losing team to be voted Super Bowl MVP.
When the Cowboys finally won their first title a year later – a 24-3 victory over Miami in Super Bowl VI – Howley might have played even better. He returned an interception 41 yards to set up a touchdown and recovered a fumble to set up a field goal. Staubach was voted MVP, an award that just as easily could have gone to Howley.
Howley was a terrific player who could do everything Landry demanded from a strongside linebacker playing next to Lee Roy Jordan in the middle. He was voted first-team All-Pro five times (1966-70) and second-team once (1971). He also made six Pro Bowls.
Howley had an extraordinary knack for forcing turnovers. He recorded 43 takeaways — 25 interceptions, and 11 fumble recoveries. Among outside linebackers, only Pittsburgh’s Jack Ham has more. In 1968, he intercepted six passes, still second in history among linebackers. Howley was at his best in big games, and the Cowboys played plenty of them. In six playoff games, he had four interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anybody better at linebacker,” Landry said once about Howley.
As the clock ticked down to 10 a.m. at the Howley house, family members scurried around making last-minute preparations for the crowd that was about to arrive. Scott helped his dad stand just inside the front door with children and grandchildren scattered around the room with their cellphones up to record the moment.
A few minutes after 10, the doorbell rang. The door was opened. Staubach, Lilly, Jordan, Renfro, Harris, and Waters, the NFL Network crew, as well as Pro Football Hall of Fame president Jim Porter and Hall of Fame chief communications and content officer Rich Derosiers came into the foyer. They were all soaking wet making the walk from Staubach’s home next door to the Howley.
Mack and I stood in the back, taking in this most magical moment for Howley and his family. Staubach shook Howley’s hand and told him several times he’d made the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His former teammates took turns shaking his hand and congratulating him for becoming part of pro football history – the 22nd player, coach, or administrator who spent all or part of their careers with the Cowboys and are enshrined in Canton, Ohio.
“I’m so proud to be able to tell Chuck he’s in the Hall of Fame,” Staubach said later. “It’s an honor that’s well-deserved. He was a fantastic linebacker. He did everything. He could run, hit, drop into coverage, rush the passer. It’s such a thrill because it brings back so many memories. Chuck was very good to me. I’m so glad the selection committee put him in the Hall of Fame.”
After a few minutes of congratulatory handshakes in the foyer, Howley and his former teammates moved into the living room. Chuck sat in one easy chair with Lilly and Staubach seated beside him and Jordan, Renfro, Harris, and Waters across from him. They took turns telling stories about Howley on and off the field. The film crew used cameras and boom mikes to record everything that day.
“I’m just thrilled Chuck finally made it,” said Lilly, the first Cowboy to be inducted into the Hall of Fame (1980). “Chuck was such a great player. He studied a lot of film, but he had great instincts, too. Instincts mean being very observant, and he was.
“There are some things you can’t memorize, but Chuck had a sixth sense on the field. He was a lot more advanced than most of us. He had a mind that was extremely well-trained, and he could do things physically a lot of other players couldn’t do. He was so fast and athletic. He had great ability and great instincts. He knew where the ball was going, and he was fast enough to get there and stop them.”
Howley was unable to be in Phoenix for Thursday night’s announcement. Scott represented his father. The family hopes Chuck will be able to attend the induction ceremony in August at Canton.
“That would really mean a lot to my dad and our family,” Scott said.
A West Virginia native, Howley grew up in Wheeling and was so good at the University of West Virginia that the Bears drafted him seventh overall in 1958. After playing his rookie season at Chicago, he suffered what was thought to be a career-ending knee injury in September of 1959. He went home to Wheeling, took a job running a gas station, and prepared for life in the real world.
After missing the 1959 and 1960 seasons, Howley got a call from Brandt. He asked Howley how his knee was and if he was staying in shape. Howley told Brandt his knee felt good and that he was very active every day. Brandt went to check him out, and liked what he saw enough to engineer a deal with the Bears to acquire Howley for the 1961 season. Lilly arrived as the top draft choice that same season, and the rest is part of Cowboys’ history.
“I’ve been touting Chuck for the Hall of Fame for a long time, and I’m so excited it finally happened,” Lilly said. “Chuck was such a student of the game. He seemed to have an extra dimension for recognition. He had an ability to diagnose where the ball was going. As soon as the ball was snapped, he knew where they were going, and he was there. That’s why he was able to make big plays all the time. And that’s why he’s in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”
After Mack and I left the celebration to head back to the private terminal in Addison, the weather was awful. When we got on the plane, a pilot told us how bad the weather was in Houston, so the flight would be longer, possibly two hours. Not only was it a two-hour flight, it was the worst turbulence I’ve experienced in 48 years of flying. Mack agreed. On the afternoon when the Houston area had tornadoes, we couldn’t land at Hobby or Ellington and had to finally put down in Galveston.
At one point during the flight, when the jet was going up and down like the Texas Cyclone roller coaster, I opened my eyes and looked at Mack sitting across from me. His head was down and his eyes were closed. Somehow we survived, and I asked him later how in the world he was able to take a nap during that flight?
“A nap?” he said. “That wasn’t a nap – I was praying!”
Mattress Mack’s prayers were answered, and I’m able to share our once-in-a-lifetime experience with Chuck Howley and some of the greatest players in Cowboys’ history.
(John McClain writes four columns a week for GallerySports.com. He can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on Sports Radio 610 and Thursday on Texans Radio. He does three weekly Houtopia podcasts for 610. He also can be read three times a week on SportsRadio610.com).
Awesome story!!! After all these years covering the NFL, you’re still a fan just like the rest of us!
Well done John. 57 years after we met. Well done.
Amazing! I too grew up a huge Cowboys fan. Did not realize that Mack was a fan. Well deserved for Chuck. I met him a few times at his business in Dallas. He was an imposing figure. Thank you, John for helping this honor happen! Well done! The Cowboys of the 60’s and 70’s were special and some of my earliest sports memories involve watching their games on TV.
Wow, John made me feel like I had participated with him in being around all of those legends and reminded of the great Chuck Howley’s career. And he can still write like The Hall of Famer that he. Not bad for a septuagenarian!
OMG Mr. McC! This story made me cry! What a thrill and honor it would have been, to have been in the presence of and to meet all those Cowboy Greats! Especially on such a special occasion! I’ve been a staunch Cowboys fan since moving to west Texas as a ten-year old in ’64, and a follower of yours since I moved to Houston in ’76. Many times I’ve been envious of your exploits, as I was once an aspiring sports journalist, but bailed on it for the money in the oilfield. But I’ve never been more envious than now. I’m sorry to hear about Chuck’s condition, but hope he can realize what a momentous achievement it is for him. Thank you for sharing this and for all your lobbying on behalf of the Cowboys players for their HOF worthiness. Let’s get a few others in like Lee Roy Jordan, Charlie Waters, and Too Tall Jones! TY again, I’m off to find that NFL Network film!
Thanks so much for sharing this. My childhood revolved around these guys. Growing up in the metroplex I was a die hard Cowboys fan and the guys you talked about were hands down my hero’s. Thanks so much for writing this article and putting it out for all us old timers to enjoy.
Reading John’s excellent piece on Chuck Howley’s selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame makes me remember why I was a big Cowboys fan growing up. Now, not so much.
Thank you John for this amazing behind the scenes story on Chuck Howley. As a kid growing up in Texarkana, and then moving to Houston in 1973, I was a die hard Cowboys fan and stayed that way until Luv Ya Blue and Bum and his boys won me over! Remembering watching these Cowboy greats play has made my day. And a BIG thank you to you for your efforts in getting Chuck Howley into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. You are to be commended for your work!!