An interview with Bob Lilly, first player ever drafted by the Dallas Cowboys

Hall of Famer Bob Lilly, aka "Mr. Cowboy," played for the Cowboys from 1961-74.
James Flores/Getty Images

By Jeff Magnia

The Houston DC Nation held yet another autograph session that brought one of the most legendary players in Dallas Cowboys history to the Houston area.  As we all watched the game at Pasadena’s El Rodeo (10531 Gulf Freeway, Pasedena, Texas), the atmosphere was electric not only because the Cowboys were playing the hated Philadelphia Eagles. It wasn’t just electric because of the fact that DeMarco Murray was playing his former teammates for the first time. The electricity was ignited by Bob Lilly, aka “Mr. Cowboy”.

Many of the older fans remember Lilly's playing days back in the 1960′s, including the tossing of the helmet, which traveled 50 yards after losing to the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl V, 16-13. They also remember the Texas-sized smile he had that included a cigar in his mouth after the Cowboys finally won the Super Bowl the next year against the Miami Dolphins.

Lilly was the first player in Cowboys history drafted in 1961 out of TCU. Some fans are probably scratching their heads, asking “1961? The Dallas Cowboys had their first season in 1960, right?” You are right, though in that first year Dallas wasn’t able to participate in the 1960 NFL Draft. That year, they had a supplemental draft and picked over the “leftovers” that teams didn’t want. It wasn’t until the next year that the Cowboys were able to pick from the college draft, and even then, it wasn’t their true first pick. Dallas had to trade their 1961 first pick to the Washington Redskins for quarterback Eddie LeBaron. Then-general manager Tex Schramm orchestrated a trade of their 1962 first round pick to the Cleveland Browns to select Lilly in the 1961 draft.

Either way, Lilly played fourteen seasons in Dallas and was one of the most popular players on the roster. Raised in Thornton, Texas, Lilly played football until his family moved to Oregon for his senior year of high school. The Pacific Northwest apparently wasn’t for Lilly as he chose TCU as his college, located in Fort Worth; literally in the backyard of Dallas.

Lilly was an 11-time Pro Bowl selection, selected to the All-Pro first team seven times, and holder of the longest sack in Super Bowl history, as he and Larry Cole corralled Miami Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese for a 29-yard sack in Super Bowl VI.

Lilly was the first player inducted into the “Ring of Honor” in 1975 and later, into the Hall of Fame in 1980. Incidentally, he has attended every single ROH function since his induction almost 40 years ago.

I had the great honor of asking Mr. Lilly a few questions at the autograph event. Below is a transcript of that interview:

Jeff: I’m here with “Mr. Cowboy,” Bob Lilly. Mr. Lilly, I always ask all the legends about their past. The question I always ask first is, how was it playing for Coach Landry even at those early days?

Bob:  It was wonderful, actually. He was a man of principle, he was consistent. He never shouted, never cursed at us. He worked us, I’ll tell you that. He was brilliant, a brilliant man. Everything was organized, we all knew where we stood. He told us what we had to do. We knew if we didn’t, we probably wouldn’t be around. It was delightful. I was there fourteen years. He was there twenty-nine years. Almost all the guys that played for him turned out really well. Probably about ninety-seven percent of them turned out to be good parents and good citizens. I’m really happy that I got to work for a man that long, as great as he was.

Jeff: In those early years, y’all experienced a lot of adversity in getting into the playoffs. Then once y’all got into the playoffs, y’all were the team that couldn’t win the big one. I saw your Super Bowl ring. Could you express how you felt immediately after the clock went zero, winning 24–3 over the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VI?

Bob: Immediately it felt like a 100 lb. weight had been lifted off of each of us, especially myself. We had come so close against Green Bay to go number one and two, and then we had been in the playoffs ever since. The year before we had gone and lost. It was unbelievable. We were ecstatic and we were very proud of our team. It was a long, difficult road. It was like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We didn’t get a pot of gold, but we got a ring. This ring is part of my life. In fact, I got married with it 43 years ago.

Jeff: Well, jumping forward to this year, what do you think of this year’s edition of the Dallas Cowboys?

Bob: Well, I think they’re going to be good. I think they’re already pretty good. I know Romo; in my opinion, he looks better than he has in several years. They have a lot of injuries right now, especially on defense. It seems like [defensive coordinator Rod] Marinelli, he always pulls these guys out of nowhere. I think they’re doing pretty well right now. Coach Marinelli is a great defensive coach who can take players that haven’t played a lot or maybe they came from another team or whatever, and incorporate them into our defense rather quickly. Last week I saw the defense played a great game without several of the starters.  Our offense played well except we had some … The ball got knocked out of the hands of a couple … One bad pass, but other than that our offense played a good game.

Jeff: Right now there’s been a unofficial tradition with the number 88, Drew Pearson wore it, and then Michael Irvin was given the number 88, and now Dez Bryant. In your opinion, if the Cowboys said, “Okay, Mr. Lilly, who deserves to wear number 74? Who would you say has that distinction on this current roster?

Bob: Probably a lot of them. I’d hate to pick out any one of them. They never have retired my jersey. I expect them to, ultimately. One of my teammates should be in the Hall of Fame, he’s not, it’s Joe Kelly. Randy White got his jersey and he was happy about it. Whoever they give it to, I just hope they try as hard as they can, and work hard, and have a leadership ability with the team. If they get the Hall of Fame, great, if they don’t, great. I’d hate to answer that question because I really don’t know.

Jeff: Right. Well, Mr. Lilly, I just wanted to ask a couple of questions. I know y’all are excited to watch the game and I do appreciate the time that you took in talking with me. This is managing editor, Jeff Magnia, Mr. Lilly, any final thoughts?

Bob: Well, I’m sure hoping that our team does well; I hope we hear that a lot. (as cheers proceed in the background)

Jeff:  It was a great pleasure and thank you so much.

Mr. Lilly and his lovely wife, Anne, stuck around to watch the game for a bit. She was a pleasure to speak with as well. Having been a former teacher herself, we had a great conversation. They have been married for 42 years and you see a great deal of pride in her husband’s accomplishments as she stated she only taught for seven years. After Lilly started playing professional football, the ability to travel was harder being a teacher, so she opted to leave the teaching field and join him.

It was a good day of football, minus losing Tony Romo. Dallas won the game 20-10. The big winners though, were the fans who were able to take pictures, get an autograph, and even shake hands with the man that was the first Cowboys hero.

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