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History of football in Dallas could have been much different

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What if things had worked out in the 1950s?

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at New York Jets Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Peyton Manning. Tom Matte. Reggie Wayne. Art Donovan. Johnny Unitas. Dallas Clark. T. Y. Hilton. Raymond Berry. Mike Curtis. Eric Dickerson. Ted Hendricks. Andrew Luck. Dwight Freeney. Lenny Moore. Adam Vinatieri. Bob Sanders. Bubba Smith.

What do all of these National Football League (NFL) players have in common? First, each is - or was – an exceptional player of the Indianapolis or Baltimore Colts. Secondly, if pro football had succeeded in Texas in the 1950s, each of the aforementioned players would have played for Dallas.

The Dallas Texans that is.

In 1952, the first-ever major league team in any sport to call Dallas home was the Dallas Texans of the NFL.

The Texans did not begin as a pro football team in Dallas. This franchise began their journey as the Boston Yanks from 1944-48. What was odd about this club was that the NFL awarded this new franchise right in the middle of World War II at a time when existing teams were struggling to find enough bodies to field a team each week. From there, the club moved to New York. The team was renamed the New York Bulldogs for the 1949 season where they shared the Polo Grounds with the New York Giants. After the NFL’s merger with the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) in 1950, the Bulldogs changed their name to the New York Yanks after a move into Yankee Stadium.

With the AAFC-NFL merger, the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts were admitted into the NFL; whereas all the other AAFC teams disbanded. After only one season in the NFL, the Colts were dissolved after a one-win season averaging just 15,000 patrons per home contest. The Colts players were then dispersed among the other teams. Supporting groups such as its fan club and marching band remained in operation and worked for the team's revival. In response, the City of Baltimore filed a lawsuit against the NFL.

Meanwhile, the Yanks were having problems of their own after a paltry 1-9-2 season in 1951 while the cross-town Giants turned in a stellar 9-2-1 record. After years of operating in the red, Yanks’ owner Ted Collins sold his team back to the league for $100,000. A mere 6,658 fans had turned out to witness the Yanks’ final game.

With the Yanks in limbo, the league was left with an unbalanced 11 teams encased within two divisions. So in the winter of 1952, then-NFL Commissioner Bert Bell invited prospective investors from Baltimore to the NFL owners meetings to discuss the possibility of another team settling in Maryland. But the majority of the NFL owners were not convinced that a new team would ever succeed in Baltimore and declined. Still, a 12th club was needed.

The Southwest looked as good a choice as any. The entire state of Texas already had a love affair with college football as witnessed by packed stadiums throughout the state. And within the City of Dallas, there already stood the magnificent 75,504-seat Cotton Bowl.

A group in Texas, headed by brothers Giles and Connell Miller, was awarded the franchise on January 24 after they bought the assets to the Yanks from the NFL. The Miller brothers were young Texas millionaires after their father built the Texas Textile Mills into an empire. They were assertive, aggressive and exuded the customary Texas swagger and ego. And with that, the Yanks became the Dallas Texans.

Oddly enough, the Yanks’ colors were royal blue, silver and white—the current colors of the Dallas Cowboys.

The Millers were also determined to show the rest of the NFL that the State of Texas - through their new team the Texans - was as grandiose and ostentatious as its reputation offered.

They also purchased the Yanks old roster, equipment, uniforms - and losing disposition. An instant problem was the fact that there were three black players on the roster. Dallas was still segregated and an integrated team suddenly became a highly local hot topic. The entire area still maintained Jim Crow laws which mandated racial segregation at all public facilities - including hotels. This meant that visiting NFL teams would be required to seek separate accommodations for their own black players at black-only boarding houses.

The Millers netted Jimmy Phelan as head coach and hired Tex Maule away from the Los Angeles Rams to work publicity for the new team. Maule would later become one of Sports Illustrated’s most well-known pro football writers.

As head coach of a team, Phelan was overwhelmed. His practices were less than organized with very little contact. Often, while the offensive backfield would practice, the linemen would use the goalposts as an impromptu volleyball net. Phelan also frequented horse racing tracks and often cancelled practices in order to bet on the races.

The Texans’ opening game was a gala affair at home against the Giants which had on their roster two former local SMU players in Kyle Rote and Fred Benners. Dallas was expecting a huge crowd, but the Sunday pro football contest would be the third game for the weekend at the Cotton Bowl as SMU played Friday night and Texas A&M had a game on Saturday.

In the inaugural game on September 28, 1952, the Texans scored first after they recovered a punt fumbled by a Giants’ defensive back. Two plays later Dallas scored, but missed the extra point. The DB, by the way, was a fellow by the name of Tom Landry. The Giants bounced back and took home a 24-6 victory. The paid attendance was a mere 17,499.

The Texans then lost to the San Francisco 49ers twice, and would gain losses against the Los Angeles Rams, Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. With an 0-6-0 record going into the November 9th home game against the same Rams team that had earlier drubbed the team 42-20, the contest attracted less than 10,000 fans. Even the local media had given up on the team as evidenced by the fact that one neighboring paper assigned Bud Shrake, then a college student, to cover games.

The lack of attendance caused major cash flow problems with management. With five games remaining, the team could not meet payroll. The Millers contacted the Dallas Citizens Council and requested a bailout of $250,000 to continue operations but were denied. The next step for Giles Miller was to call Commissioner Bell and tell him that they could no longer operate the team.

On Thursday, November 13, the players practiced for the last time in Dallas. The team then boarded a plane for a game against the Detroit Lions and said goodbye to Texas. In half a season, the Millers had lost $225,000.

After a 43-13 loss to the Lions, the league took control of the Texans and based the team out of Hershey, Pennsylvania. The remainder of their schedule was played on the road.

After losing their next game to the Packers 42-14, the 0-9-0 Texans next game was against the Bears set to be played in Akron, Ohio. Bears’ head coach George Halas was so convinced the Texans were an easy mark that he started his entire second string. After Dallas built a 20-2 lead, Halas put his starters back in but lost the game 27-23 in front of 3,000 patrons. That would become the Texans one and only win for the season as they finished 1-11-0.

For the season, the Texans’ offense averaged 15 points per game while the defense gave up around 35 points. Twice the team allowed over 500 yards of offense for their opponents. In seven games they failed to score more than 14 points and were unsuccessful on every field goal attempt. Rarely did the home crowd exceed 15,000 paying fans.

At the conclusion of the 1952 season, over half of the roster simply gave up playing professional football. The lone bright spot was an oddity. With all the fuss about black players their halfback, George Taliaferro, was the only Texan selected to the Pro Bowl.

At this point, everyone assumed that pro football would never go over in the state of Texas.

As Commissioner Bell was trying to decide what to do with the Texans, the pending lawsuit with the City of Baltimore loomed. Texas oilman Clint Murchison, Jr. attempted to land a deal for the Texans and keep the team in Dallas. As an attempt to solve two problems at once, Bell announced that Baltimore would inherit the franchise provided they could sell 15,000 season tickets. The city went wild with excitement holding numerous forms of fund raising drives. Soon, Baltimore had sold 15,753 season tickets sold and raised over $300,000. Murchison would later own the Cowboys.

In the past, an NFL franchise was granted to an owner - or a group of owners. A team was more or less an entity that belonged to someone to do with as they saw fit. But with the situation in Baltimore, the city convinced the NFL that a team can become the very essence of supporters and define their identity.

Bell enlisted millionaire Carroll Rosenbloom to become new owner of the team and just like that Baltimore was back in the business of pro football. The nickname was changed to “Colts” as the result of a contest. The new name was because of the tradition and history of horse racing/breeding in that area of the State of Maryland.

During cold weather games in 1953, the Baltimore Colts’ players wore huge capes over their uniforms on the sidelines. These the very same ones as those adorned on the sidelines in Dallas with one exception: a Colts patch was sewn over the words “Texans.” In 1958, the Colts would win the NFL Championship in what is tabbed as the “Greatest Game Ever Played.” The club repeated that distinction in 1959 with another title.

Just think: if the 1952 Texans had been a success, Peyton Manning, Johnny Unitas and Andrew Luck would have been the starting quarterbacks for the City of Dallas.