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October 23, 2013

Loran Smith: Lee Roy Jordan played bigger than his size

Any seasoned football fan is generally familiar with the resumé of Lee Roy Jordan, the University of Alabama All-American who became a Dallas Cowboys hero in the Tom Landry era, which was initially a hard-luck period that segued into rejoicing when America’s team finally won a championship in 1971.

Lee Roy Jordan looks like a football player ought to look. He has rugged features, with a chiseled visage that would resonate if he joined the granite foursome at Mt. Rushmore. If you were casting for someone to fit the image of the Marlboro Man, you couldn’t do better than Jordan.

Some people have credentials worthy of ongoing review. There’s nothing wrong with restating the facts when there is such overwhelming credibility, as is the case with Jordan — the Excel, Ala., farm boy whom Paul “Bear” Bryant idolized as much as the farm boy idolized his coach. It was the Bear who said that if the runners stayed between the sidelines, Jordan would “get ’em.”

Take the 1963 Orange Bowl, for example: Alabama versus Oklahoma in the days before advanced technology. They didn’t keep statistics on such things as tackles for loss, assisted tackles, tackles while standing on your head or any of the other media-spawned superlatives of today.

However, somebody went back and checked the Orange Bowl film and discovered that Jordan made 31 tackles during a time when players saw time on both offense and defense. If you consider that Oklahoma ran 60 offensive plays, Jordan made more than half the tackles.

Weight training was not fashionable in Jordan’s day. If it had been part of the regimen, there’s no doubt he would have weighed more than 220 pounds when he became an All-Pro middle linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys. In his day, there were middle linebackers with heft — Ray Nitschke (6 feet, 3 inches, 235 pounds) of the Green Bay Packers, Tommy Nobis (6-2, 240) of the Atlanta Falcons, and the stud of the lot, Dick Butkus (6-3, 245) of the Chicago Bears. Sam Huff, who glamorized the position with the New York Giants — Landry coached the defense — was 6-1, 230.

How accomplished would Lee Roy have been if he were bigger? Well, there was never a middle linebacker his size to perform with greater success than Jordan.

“The way he went all out,” said Gil Brandt, a former Cowboys vice president of personnel, “he probably weighed 200 pounds by the end of the game.”

Jordan’s achievements in the golden era of the old Cowboys, those who established the Dallas dynasty, are as noteworthy as those of his Alabama career. He made 21 tackles in a game. Once against the Cincinnati Bengals, he intercepted three passes — one of which went for a touchdown — in the space of five minutes.

For 14 years with the Cowboys, Jordan was not only a performer, he was a leader. He was the player who showed up with the attitude that he was going to practice as hard as he played. You never had to worry about him sloughing off or missing curfew.

In fact, Landry asked him to room with the free-wheeling Don Meredith to make sure the Cowboys quarterback made bed check the night before a game. Jordan learned discipline from his parents down on the farm and from his coach at Alabama. He has the highest regard for disciplinary concepts, which he applies today in his very successful business, Lee Roy Jordan Lumber Company.

There is something extraordinary about Jordan. He loves his alma mater. Most former players who go on to success in the NFL are not drawn back to the campus very often. Jordan is. When there is a big game in Tuscaloosa, he and his wife Biddie pack up and make the nine-hour drive back “home.”

Archie Manning goes back to Ole Miss, Roger Staubach returns to Annapolis, but few former players have that passion for alma mater like Jordan has for Alabama.

As tough as he was on the field, he remains the consummate gentleman away from competition. He is polite and engaging. On a two-day swing to speak in Atlanta, Athens, and LaGrange, he took time with people — even those who saw him play a certain game and recalled details with which he was not familiar. He was also pleased to visit former Georgia safety Pat Hunnicutt, who is stricken with Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Alabama obviously appreciates him. And despite the ever-lessening importance of being a goodwill ambassador in this bottom-line era, he remains one for the Cowboys — even though it is probably not sufficiently appreciated by the Dallas ownership. He is a kindhearted and generous person whose hallmark is loyalty.

A university and a pro franchise become champions when they build their teams around the leadership of players like Lee Roy Jordan.

On the field, it was an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

Away from the demands of competition, the shirt off his back was yours if you needed it.

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu.

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