Opinion: Pro Football Hall of Fame finally corrects a wrong by selecting Cowboys great Drew Pearson for induction

TAMPA, Fla. — How did Drew Pearson get the news that he was finally, after all these years, selected for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

Pearson got pranked.

And wouldn’t you know it,  Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Pearson’s old quarterback, Roger Staubach, were in on the ruse.

The phone call came not long after the Hall of Fame’s selection committee voted on Jan. 19 to crown Pearson and seven others — Peyton Manning, Charles Woodson, Calvin Johnson, John Lynch, Alan Faneca, Tom Flores and the late Bill Nunn — with football’s highest honor. A Cowboys official maintained that Jones wanted to meet with Pearson and Staubach to discuss a potential real estate deal.

That much wasn’t exactly a stretch. Staubach became one of the most prominent real estate developers in Dallas after finishing his Hall of Fame career and collaborated with Jones on a hotel adjacent to the Cowboys headquarters. And Pearson, 70, has proven to be a star entrepreneur in his own right in his post-football life. With that, he never suspected that the “meeting” had anything to do with the Hall of Fame.

He met Staubach at the team’s headquarters and engaged in small talk in the lobby before they were directed to a nearby conference room where Jones awaited. More small talk, led by Jones. Then came the knock on the door. It was David Baker, the Hall’s executive director, flanked by a camera crew.

At that moment, Pearson knew. And the tears flowed.

“I didn’t know what to expect coming here,” Pearson told Baker. “Not this!”

A member of the legendary No. 88 Club in Dallas now becomes a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Congratulations to Drew Pearson. pic.twitter.com/hPCWx4Z5Eg

Congratulations, Drew. This is long overdue. It’s taken 37 years since his career ended for this final football achievement.

In the words of sportswriter Gary Myers, who covered the Cowboys for The Dallas Morning News during the 1980s, “This was no Hail Mary.”

That’s a nod to Pearson’s signature moment, when he snagged a Cowboys victory in a 1975 NFC divisional playoff game at Minnesota by hauling in a 50-yard heave from Staubach in the final seconds. It was a prayer of a pass, and when asked afterward what he was thinking as he threw the ball, Staubach, a devout Catholic, replied, “Hail, Mary!”

The clutch, miracle catch became Pearson’s M.O. during his 11 seasons with the Cowboys. The “Original 88,” as Michael Irvin so often puts it — Irvin, then Dez Bryant and now emerging star receiver Cee Dee Lamb have followed in wearing No. 88 — retired as the franchise’s all-time leading receiver. He earned first-team All-Decade honors for the 1970s, and played in three Super Bowls (including a winning effort in XII). The numbers, including his career totals of 489 receptions and 48 receiving scores, pale when compared to the pinball numbers of today’s game.

Think about this: Pearson led the NFL with 870 receiving yards in 1977. This season, Stefon Diggs topped the league with 1,535 yards. In fact, besides that ’77 season, you’d have to go back to Raymond Berry in 1959 to find a receiving yards leader with fewer than 1,000 yards. 

When put in perspective, though, Pearson’s numbers were good enough as they reflected his impact on one of the NFL’s premier teams in his era. And hey, in 1979, the Cowboys were the first team in NFL history with a 1,000-yard rusher (Tony Dorsett) and two 1,000-yard receivers (Pearson and Tony Hill). 

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In any event, Pearson’s legend is best defined by his heart and determination. He entered the NFL in 1973 as an undrafted free agent from Tulsa, getting a leg up because he connected with Staubach during the offseason before his rookie training camp. While staying at a motel next to the Cowboys’ old dump of a headquarters in North Dallas, he got wind that the quarterback came later in the day for workouts. He made it his business to be there to catch the passes. And a connection was forged.

Pearson, too, never shied away from going over the middle for tough catches during a time when rules allowed defensive backs to head-hunt with impunity. Never mind that he was 180 pounds, soaking wet. I’ll never forget the mantra that Pearson, who grew up in South River, New Jersey, got from his father: “You may be a small leather, but you are well put together.”

Drew Pearson, seen here during an NFC championship game contest against Washington in January 1983, has been selected for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. (Photo: Anonymous, AP)

I broke into this profession in 1981, landing my first job writing for The Dallas Cowboys Weekly, the team-owned publication. The door was opened for me by my late first cousin, Larry Bethea, a defensive end selected by the Cowboys in the first round of the 1978 draft, who I followed to Michigan State, then followed to Dallas.

I met Pearson on the day I moved to Dallas, as I sat in Bethea’s car waiting to pick him up after practice. Well, Pearson’s car was parked next to Larry’s. We chatted, and next thing I know he’s inviting me to join him and Ed “Too Tall” Jones for a Monday Night Football promotion they were hosting that night at The Playboy Club.

“And if Larry doesn’t want to come, you just come!” Pearson instructed.

Of course, Bethea not only came. He drove.

It didn’t take long for me to notice the respect that Pearson, a team captain, commanded in a locker room full of stars. He was smart, tough, productive, disciplined, charismatic. And more. It left such an impression on me, assessing how team chemistry works (or doesn’t) at the highest level of competition.

It was Pearson who also moved me to tears. The only time I’ve ever cried at a press conference happened in 1984 when Pearson announced his retirement because doctors told him that he was at risk of bleeding to death on the football field because of a small hole in his liver.

The injury cut Pearson’s career short after 11 seasons, but he lost much more after falling asleep at the wheel and crashing into a semi-tractor that was parked along the shoulder of I-635. He lost his younger brother, Carey, who was riding in the passenger seat.

As Pearson recovered from the accident, he had a frequent visitor to the hospital: Tom Landry. The late Cowboys coach had a well-earned reputation for being distant with his players. But it tells you something about Pearson that Landry showed up at the hospital, over and over again.

The Hall of Fame selection is better late than never. As has been the case with many deserving candidates before him — and many more to come — the wait had to be excruciating for Pearson. But it’s official now as another clutch catch. Pearson, a small leather who is well put together, will be immortalized in his rightful place in Canton, Ohio, as a representative of class, resilience and excellence.

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