John Dutton was so large when he arrived in 1979 that Dallas Cowboy tackle Larry Cole did not know what to make of him.
"Corn fed Nebraska cattle," Cole said. "He's one of them."
Partly true. Dutton is from Nebraska and played for the Cornhuskers. But Cole was only kidding.
There was a time, however, when Dutton was the biggest man in pro football. He arrived at Baltimore's training camp in the summer of 1976 weighing close to 315 pounds.
By the time Dutton reached Dallas, his weight had crashed to 285. But he was still ahead of his time. He was a huge defensive end before National Football League linemen became giants, before the 300-pounders became a common sight.
Cole, who departed in 1981, might not recognize Dutton today. He is a slim 260 pounds, and he looks more like a National Basketball Assn. forward.
"I wouldn't call him skinny," Randy White said. "He's going to be big regardless of what he weighs. He's just got those big bones and long arms."
So much about Dutton has changed during his seven years in Dallas and 12 seasons in the NFL. Before, he was a barbell junkie whose goal was to bench press the tallest building in downtown Dallas.
He loved beer and food and being the biggest guy on the block. That is why Cole might not recognize him today.
An off-season running program accounts for Dutton's weight loss. He ran three to four miles every morning at the old Cowboys practice field. When his knees became sore, he would switch to a stationary bicycle.
The result is a new John Dutton.
"I think it will extend my career," he said. "It has made me a lot more solid, and my cardiovascular system is just so much better. After a game, I am not as drained. As a matter of fact, I'm not as drained during the game."
Like many of his teammates, Dutton has a passion for off-season conditioning. Arriving at the practice field at 6:30 a.m., he was the first to greet equipment manager Buck Buchanan. From there, he would hit the streets.
It is the same approach that Alan Page pursued during his final years in the NFL. Page started jogging as he neared 40, and his weight started dropping. He finished his career in Chicago and played some of his final games weighing 220 pounds.
But Page played until he was 41. Not many players have done that.
"I think that Page went to the extreme because he got too light," Dutton said. "We've got big linemen nowadays, and if you're too light they will take you and throw you around like a puppy dog. I consider myself to be right between Page and the really big guys. I'm never going to be a marathon runner, but I don't mind running three or four miles a day to keep my weight down."
By being lean and having more stamina, Dutton is better suited for today's defensive line. The Cowboys are playing a more aggressive defense, and linemen are stunting more.
It is no longer rare to see Dutton and Ed Jones criss-crossing in the line, trying to cross up opposing blockers. When Dutton and Jones criss-cross in the line, it is called a limbo. When Dutton and tackle White do the same stunt, it is called a cha-cha.
"In the defensive line, we are moving around a lot more and we are making more tackles from sideline to sideline," he said. "We have been so stereotyped as being big guys who just make tackles at the line. It used to be that you had to worry about the run first in the flex defense. But we've added so much more to the flex. We have many more stunts, and you just need to be more mobile."
Furthermore, Dutton is playing more on passing downs. In recent seasons, he was replaced in the 4-0 defense by Don Smerek, who is now on the injured reserve with a hurt arm.
At age 34, Dutton is moving into the second phase of his career and getting a second wind. Playing in the option year of his contract, he is negotiating another one that would take him through age 36.
Only two years ago, Dutton was talking about retiring. He, in fact, did not know how long much longer his career would last when he was traded from Baltimore to Dallas early in the 1979 season.
"I thought maybe when I got this far I wouldn't enjoy it any more," he said. "But I still really like playing, even during the practices. I think that I've made it a little more enjoyable for myself by letting myself catch this second wind.
"When I first got to Dallas, football was still a drudgery," he said. "I had a hangover from Baltimore, which was a bad experience. I thought it might be over pretty quickly. But it got better. I really never thought I would be playing football at this age."
Unlike many of his teammates, Dutton does not beat the drums during contract negotiations. But he also makes it clear that his future may hinge on the club's offer.
"I would like to play a couple of more years if possible," he said. "But a lot will depend on them."