DONUT 1: Occupations and avocations ...
As you may know, my first love was football. It was that way as a boy growing up in Minnesota, my brothers and I pretending we were Fran Tarkenton and Alan Page (and me, possessing a self-awareness regarding my athlete skills, also pretending I was slowish tight end Stu Voigt or plodding runner Dave Osborn). It was that way when I became a newspaper beat writer covering John Elway's Super Bowl Broncos, and then the Montana/Young Super Bowl 49ers, and then, in 1990, the Dallas Cowboys -- and by the time they qualified for three Super Bowls, I jokingly imagined myself a journalistic NFL rabbit's foot.
DONUT 2: Paying the light bill ...
Thirteen years later I would stumble upon the opportunity to found DallasBasketball.com. Covering the Dallas Mavericks is now more avocation that occupation in that this website is the
"job'' I would do without compensation. ... the job I will do regardless of compensation after I "retire'' (meaning, after I am old and grouchy and immobile and otherwise unemployable.)
I'm fortunate. The Premium Mavs Subscribers help me pay the electricity bill at DB.com. (Thank you, thank you, thank you!) Our arrangement with Fox Sports Southwest does the same, a triangular agreement that puts my Mavs coverage on the front page at Fox Sports and puts my mug on TV during Mavs telecasts, all of which drives readership back here to DB.com.
And this past year, the opportunity to return full-time to the radio with 105.3 The Fan allows me to pay more bills. With this opportunity comes a chance to reconnect with football.
DONUT 3: My "no-infiltration'' rule ...
My "no-infiltration'' rule has been heeded and obeyed. With the grand help of The 75-Member Staff -- that's YOU, plus Michael Dugat, Chuck Perry, David Lord and more -- we still provide the widest and deepest coverage of the Mavs anywhere ... a 14-year standard that continues to be my challenge and my pleasure to meet.
Meanwhile, I get to sneak away on occasion to balance "occupation'' with "avocation.'' Such was the case on Saturday at noon as I boarded the Dallas Cowboys chartered plane bound for Cincinnati with the knowledge that the club had assembled players for an early-Saturday meeting to inform them of what I knew to be an "incident'' involving what I was told was "a practice-squad player and a part-time defensive starter.''
We made that first break in the story by reporting that on Twitter, and by staying on top of the story. Elation in getting credit for that? None. There is no joy to be found in covering this story.
Brent was selected in the 2010 NFL Supplemental Draft after leaving the Illinois as a junior. He’s been effective this year for the Cowboys while playing in place of the injured former Pro Bowler Jay Ratliff. Brent, generally a happy-go-lucky presence in the Cowboys locker room at Valley Ranch, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor DUI in college.
DONUT 4: An empty seat in 27F ...
Josh Brent -- who was scheduled to start for the Cowboys in Sunday’s game against the Bengals -- was listed on the flight manifest with assigned seat 27F.
But as I boarded, Brent was not in his seat and would not be in his seat as a result of the tragic circumstances involving the death of practice-squad newcomer Jerry Brown Jr. and the intoxication-manslaughter arrest of Brent.
Brent was arrested at 4:14 a.m. after the 2:20 a.m. one-car accident in Irving, Texas, in which Brent’s flipped his 2007 Mercedes after apparently hitting a curb at a high speed.
Irving police say they came upon the scene and found Brent, 24 and a third-year pro, attempting to drag Brown, 25, from the burning car. We broke another aspect of the story as the pair, teammates at the University of Illinois, apparently joined a dozen teammates who spent Friday night at Privae, a Dallas club where comedian Shawn Wayans was appearing.
I joined other non-team staffers in being asked to leave the plane before takeoff -- an unprecedented scene for us as the Cowboys conducted a second team meeting just after noon aboard the team charter at DFW Aiport. Non-team employees deplaned for about 10 minutes as players and coaches remained on the aircraft. Coach Jason Garrett led the conversation. Also on the plane were Cowboys staffers with expertise in counseling and backgrounds in law enforcement.
The club said there was no immediate press conference scheduled and that seems prudent. Some of my media brothers bemoaned that decision. But what, exactly, would we like Brent buddies like classy veteran defensive lineman Jason Hatcher to say?
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones issued a statement saying he is "saddened by news of the incident and the passing of Jerry Brown."
The statement in full: “We are deeply saddened by the news of this accident and the passing of Jerry Brown. At this time, our hearts and prayers and deepest sympathies are with the members of Jerry’s family and all of those who knew him and loved him.’’
That's what you get. That's what was appropriate. Not a live, unscripted Jerry press conference. God no. And not a mention of Josh Brent in that statement, either. Just a mention of Jerry Brown.
DONUT 5: The job of news gathering ...
News gathering began: Brent's absence. The way he and Brown fit the profiles of those in my "incident'' information. Their college association. Why is cornerback Brandon Carr not aboard? (His excused absence is unrelated; Carr would join the club in Cincinnati after having attended a funeral ... a funeral for Kassandra Perkins, the murdered girlfriend of Javon Belcher, Carr's former Chiefs teammate and the subject of last weekend's horrible NFL headline.) And then some official word, as police say they determined at the scene that Brent was the driver of the vehicle and that he failed a sobriety test. Brown was found unresponsive at the scene and was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.
Consider Carr's weekend for just a moment. A former Chief, he was friends with Belcher and with Perkins. He leaves DFW for Austin to attend Perkins' funeral, exits that service and then, as soon as he turns on his phone, learns that life-and-death has touched him in his new NFL city, Dallas.
DONUT 6: Aboard that plane ...
A running gag for me when aboard the team plane this year features me actually putting great effort into being the first to learn what the in-flight movie will be and then tweeting the info.
Nope. Didn't bother with that this time.
The Cowboys plane ride was a joyless one. While our media section of the plane buzzed with the chase for more information, the coaches and players section were silent. One team staffer with an expertise in psychology moved from first class (coaches) to the rear section (players) and engaged in small-group conversation. Those whispers were all that broke the somber emptiness, which continued at the team hotel, where on Saturday night we all trudged into the Hilton, the Cowboys going about their business preparing for Sunday’s game against the Bengals, the rest of us in no mood to visit Skyline Chili or watch the Heisman Trophy telecast.
DONUT 7: Brent's statement ...
The Cowboys, as a franchise, had no desire to speak officially about Brent. Brent, however, eventually gathered himself at the jail in Irving to issue a statement through his agent.
“I am devastated and filled with grief,” Brent said in the statement. “Filled with grief for the loss of my close friend and teammate, Jerry Brown. I am also grief-stricken for his family, friends and all who were blessed enough to have known him. I will live with this horrific and tragic loss every day for the rest of my life. My prayers are with his family, our teammates and his friends at this time.''
I had just spoken to Brent, very briefly, at Valley Ranch on Friday. Fourteen hours later, he was upside down in a Mercedes. Twenty-four hours later, he was issuing a jailhouse statement.
DONUT 8: Follow Fish and the Mavs on Twitter ...
DONUT 9: The real punishment ...
I am told the third-year pro Brent was allowing his former University of Illinois teammate Brown live with him as a houseguest. It causes me to feel sympathy for Brent, to imagine the scene of him attempting to remove Brown from the burning vehicle, to wonder whether those facts make up real punishment, much more than the charge that is punishable in Texas by two to 20 years in prison and a fine up to $10,000.
Also worthy of factoring in to the equation: Brent spend a month in jail in college and was suspended from school for a 2009 drunk-driving charge.
DONUT 10: “Split-second decisions'' ...
The Cowboys signed Brown to their practice squad on October 24; he is not well-known to most of his teammates -- Brent was the Cowboy who knew him best -- but is being mourned by the club.
“Split-second decisions … smh,’’ tweeted Cowboys safety Barry Church at mid-afternoon on Saturday, before adding an hour later, “Please keep Jerry B and Josh B in your prayers.’’
“Split-second decisions.'' We all make them. We are angry at Josh Brent. Even if we are Mavs fans with no real interest in football, we are angry at Josh Brent. And yet our only course of action here is to take our anger out on ourselves so we can avoid our old ill-fated “Split-second decisions.''
DONUT 11: The respite ...
The Saturday night respite came to me late. A day of covering the story for Fox Sports and for 105.3 The Fan. A sneak-away moment to try Skyline Chili (absolutely awful; it's more like spaghetti soup) while watching the Heisman presentation at the same time. ... as there were not enough hours in that day two accomplish the two goals separately.
And then back to the Hilton in Cincinnati to get caught up on the Mavs' win at Houston. Some writing and editing of our complete coverage of the game, with Michael Dugat leading the Mayo-driven All-Access story and our First Impressions piece featuring how Dallas coped without Trix.
That was the respite. Occupation and avocation married for a late night about nothing but fun and games.
DONUT 12: The Final Word ...
There are dozens of branches, with questions and only some answers, to this tragic tree. A foremost one: Is there a hotline for NFL players to call to avoid drinking and driving? There is. (There is a hotline for all of us, really. A taxi service is that hotline.)
Another: How would the team respond on the field? The Human Condition makes many behaviors predictable. But this? There's a pretty small sample size for this.
Cowboys 20, Bengals 19, in one of the most notable sporting events I've ever been involved in.
“Honestly, I couldn’t do it myself,’’ Carr told me through postgame tears when speaking about the emotional burden of two of the NFL’s most tragic events ever. “Teammates have had my back since Day 1. And they stepped up even more with what’s transpired last week and this week. … Whew … Carpe diem.’’
Carr made one of the big plays in the upset victory over Bengals, an interception and 37-yard return that contributed to a win that pushes Dallas to 7-6 and keeps it in the playoff hunt. Carr did so despite an emotional devastation that was essentially doubled over the course of the week – devastation he spoke about with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones as they traveled together to Cincinnati about Jones’ private plane.
“It was a hard day for Brandon, a real hard day,” Jones said. “It was a hard day for him on the plane. … For him, I can tell you just firsthand because I spent the time that I spent with him (Saturday). It was fitting that he got the big play he got for us.”
But as Carr said, he was not alone. Not alone in devastation and not alone in support. Coach Jason Garrett offered moving presentations in his postgame press conference and privately in the locker room as well, as he announced that the game ball would be presented to Brown’s grieving mother. Defensive lineman Hatcher, a quiet leader, was in charge of Brown’s No. 53 jersey, which spend the afternoon resting on the Cowboys’ team bench.
'Everybody on a team is family,’’ said Dan Bailey, who made the 40-yard game-winning field goal at game’s end. “We did a great job leaning on each other.’’
“Life crept into the arena with us,’’ said big-play linebacker Anthony Spencer.
“Can you imagine what it's like,’’ said another leader, fullback Lawrence Vickers, “to have to wipe away tears between every play?’’
The Cowboys now can. And one Cowboy can imagine what it’s like to do it two games in a row.
“It falls back to take advantage of the time you have and love harder than you’ve ever loved because you never know when, where, how, whatever,’’ Carr said, eyes still welling with tears. “When your time is up, there’s no getting it back. That’s why every day you live it to the fullest and you just take advantage of every chance you get.”
When is it appropriate to mix avocation with occupation, to let football occupy a space promised to other things?
It is appropriate now, I think. And yet in a sense, I haven't broken my no-football pledge. A large segment of the DFW sporting community is in shock, including a group of men who shared with me another joyless plane ride out of Cincinnati. That doesn't transcend basketball for all of us, but we can certainly all agree it belongs somewhere on the same page.
And besides, at its core, the Brown/Brent Cowboys tragedy isn't really about football, anyway. “Life crept into the arena with us,’’ as Spencer said. It's about life-and-death, so it fits. Uncomfortably and solemnly, it fits.