SUPER BOWL : Genuine Article : Tight End Jay Novacek Was a Cowboy Long Before He Went to Wyoming or Dallas


The only real Dallas Cowboy owns a brick cabin in this town, seven miles from the nearest paved road, three hours from the nearest big city.

There is a stuffed wild pig standing on the floor, a lasso hanging next to the fireplace and the Oregon Trail beyond the back porch.

Bodies are supposedly buried every mile underneath that trail, which speaks to the real Dallas Cowboy of familiar tears of perseverance. When he rides one of his horses along the rutted path that accompanies the Platte River westward, he is filled with awe.


“That would have been something, to be a pioneer, to be riding into new territory,” said Jay Novacek, All-Pro tight end. “I would go back and live during that time in a heartbeat.”

The real Dallas Cowboy fits well here on his 3,500 acres in the central Nebraska plains, a combination of pasture and rolling hills unaltered by its rich Western history. From where his 150 head

of cattle roam, there is an original Pony Express station a few miles east, and Buffalo Bill Cody lived about 20 miles west.

After Sunday’s Super Bowl, Novacek will probably be thinking not about Disneyland, but about those cattle.

His first phone call will not involve a President, but David and Glenda Walker of Eustis, Neb. (population: 480). The Walkers are the parents of Novacek’s wife, Yvette. They hoped to be in Pasadena this weekend with the rest of the family, they even had tickets.

But they must stay near their red ranch house and tend to something that is as special to the only real Dallas Cowboy as any football game.

While Novacek will be attempting to catch passes, some of his cows will be attempting to give birth.

“Back here, this is our Super Bowl,” Glenda Walker said.

“We just hope they hold off until halftime,” David Walker said.

Much of the wisdom in Gothenburg (population: 3,200), is contained in a tiny, unmarked room in City Hall, one door from the mayor’s office and down the hall from the police station.

It is a combination pinochle room and pool hall. It contains a concrete floor, one small window and usually enough memories to fill up the town’s three blocks.

The elders often spend their days sitting at one of the two card tables, throwing out nickels and calling each other liars.

These men grew up with sod houses and cattle drives. They talk about the old cowboys with the reverence that today’s young men talk about Michael Jordan.

On this winter afternoon, they sit underneath their feed store caps, burrowed deep inside a couple of sweaters each, slowly dealing pinochle and waiting for Jay Novacek to come home.

“We know Jay is playing in that Super Bowl, and that’s fine, but the best thing about that boy is what he’s done with his money,” said Jim Aden, 85. “We know that when he is done being a Dallas Cowboy, he is going to come back and be a Nebraska cowboy.”

What a journey it has been for their neighbor, from the fields of Gothenburg to the field at the Rose Bowl before a worldwide television audience of more than 200 million.

Lightly recruited out of his tiny high school, taken in the sixth round of the draft out of the University of Wyoming, left unprotected by the St. Louis Cardinals after five seasons, offered a contract by only the Cowboys, he has emerged as one of the favorites to become a hero in the biggest sporting event in the country.

And to think he really hasn’t gone anywhere.

The 6-foot-4 Novacek, who could play a big role against the Buffalo Bills because he is bigger and quicker than some of the men who will guard him, has become the symbol of the Cowboys’ turnaround by refusing to change.

He was undoubtedly the only player on either team this week to hear the acronym NBC and not automatically think of the network that will be televising the game.

He may instead be reminded of the National Brand Committee, which has approved the upside-down J and Y that he burns into his herd of cattle.

He is also the only player in this game whose physical attributes can be evaluated by a ranch hand.

“Quick feet, good balance, moves well for a big man,” Frank Pride said.

He was talking not about pass catching, but cow catching.

While many players spend their spring days on a golf course, Novacek will be busy roping, branding, tagging and castrating. He didn’t win the national NFL cutting horse championship last year by driving a cart.

“Jay is just as common as us,” said Matt Williams, president of Gothenburg State Bank, one of two banks in town. “He is more comfortable chasing a coyote than doing an interview.”

He carries this approach to the field, where he set a club record for tight ends with an NFL-best 68 receptions this season.

He still lives by an ethic that was reinforced when, as a wide receiver at Wyoming, he was forced to call home once with the bad news that he had broken his collarbone while diving for a ball.

“When I called my husband and the other three children to tell them the news, unbelievably, their first question was the same,” recalled Novacek’s mother, June. “They all said, ‘Did he catch the ball?’ Not, ‘How is he feeling?’ but, ‘Did he catch the ball?’ ”

Did you catch the ball? The answer back then was no. But that question has prodded him to become perhaps the Cowboys’ best third-down player.

“He is our go-to guy,” Dallas guard John Gesek said. “When we need him, he always finds a way to get open, a way to make the play.

“He catches balls nobody else can catch, and gets first downs that nobody else would get.”

And he does it without spiking the ball, without pointing his finger like a schoolyard bully, often without even talking.

True to the motto of a popular shoe company that would probably find him far too dull to hire, he does it by simply doing it.

“What is pressure? You can’t touch pressure or feel pressure,” Novacek said. “It doesn’t exist. “The way I figure it, either you do it or you don’t. You catch it or you don’t.”

And if you break your finger, as Novacek did earlier this season, you don’t tell anyone in your family. You let them watch you drop a couple of passes during a game before they figure out that something is wrong.

“It was three weeks after his injury before we knew he was hurt . . . three weeks!” June Novacek said.

Novacek shrugged and said: “Injuries are like pressure. They are both just excuses.”

Often this season, he would break open games by making difficult plays across the middle or near the end zone. But who would guess that he finished with six touchdowns, only one fewer than his more publicized teammate, Michael Irvin?

Many players think that with all the attention on Emmitt Smith and Irvin, Novacek could take over Sunday’s game as he did the one in Denver on Dec. 6.

With the Cowboys trailing in the fourth quarter, 27-24, Novacek caught 50 yards worth of passes during the Cowboys’ 78-yard, game-winning drive in the final minutes.

“I could very easily see Jay being the same kind of hero of this game,” Gesek said.

Just as easily, many can see him retiring from the game tomorrow and disappearing into the middle of Nebraska. He fits in there as easily as a character from “Lonesome Dove.”

Ed Kratzenstein, 99, sitting against a wall away from the pinochle table, watching his friends with wandering eyes, was asked about Novacek.

He answered by speaking of his days in the nearby Wild Horse Valley, when he would drive a wagon into town and meet those cowboys at the end of a drive that began in Texas.

At one point, his memories so overwhelmed him, he sobbed.

“People don’t understand, the cowboys were good people, quiet, did their work, never caused no trouble unless somebody caused it first,” Kratzenstein said. “But they were tough, understand see? Because they had to be.”

A promise is serious business in Gothenburg, which has a five-man police force but no jail because, well, it doesn’t really need one.

Since the Pony Express riders first came through here in 1860, pledging to abstain from liquor and bad language while nonetheless vowing to ride like hell, these people figure your word is your reputation.

If you say you will deliver, then you will deliver.

So, many figured that June Novacek had lost her mind in 1985 after her son Jay was drafted by the then-St. Louis Cardinals.

She stood inside their 115-year-old, small, brown frame house, with a deer curing in the garage and two yelping dogs out back, and announced that she would one day accompany her son to the Super Bowl.

To pay for that trip, she announced, she would collect aluminum cans and sell them to a recycling center.

“Why not?” she said. “It was the only way we could afford it. We’re still waiting for Ed McMahon to call us. That’s the only way we’ll get rich.”

Eight years later, she has saved $333 from those cans.

That was about enough to cover one $274 plane ticket and a couple of nights at a Los Angeles-area Motel 6, which is where the family will stay this weekend.

While working a paper route for her youngest son, she would even stop in the early-morning hours and pick up cans off the street.

“My mother taught me about a sense of purpose,” Jay Novacek said.

Hopefully, this year’s trip will be smoother than the only other time the family was in Los Angeles, to watch Jay compete in the decathlon at the 1984 Olympic trials.

They drove out in their motor home, parking it on the USC campus under the only tree they could find. They used electricity and toilet facilities at a nearby construction site while encountering their first bag ladies.

“We knew what they were, because we had seen them on television,” June Novacek said.

This survival ethic became the stabilizing force in Jay Novacek’s childhood as his family moved around the Midwest while his father, Pat, coached high school football in towns such as Martin, S.D., and Wyoming, Iowa.

Novacek saw his first game when he was 2, from the front seat of a Chrysler parked along the field at Bennett County High in Martin. His dad was coaching, and his mom, with two other children in the back seat, could not afford a baby-sitter.

During these early years, Novacek received his first exposure to hunting. But it was presented to him as more than just a sport.

“Back then, it seemed like the kids refused to eat anything that their daddy didn’t shoot. . . . That was how we got most of our meat,” June Novacek said. “Of course, a lot of times I would have to tell them that Daddy shot that tuna casserole.”

By the time the Novaceks settled in Gothenburg, Jay was in the seventh grade and learning more from his father than only hunting. He was already running and throwing a football as few in these parts had ever seen.

He was also so quiet, nobody was surprised by what happened a few years later when he won a game by deflecting an attempted two-point conversion pass.

While his teammates jumped on each other and ran around the field, Novacek sat in the end zone and talked with a friend on the other team.

Amid the thick haze of cigarette smoke that clouded Joe’s Western Restaurant the other day, retiree Bob Bullock explained that attitude.

“This town isn’t much for disturbing the peace,” he said. “That’s the way Jay is.”

Four years before his mother would make her now infamous promise, Jay did cause a ruckus once when he made an equally unique promise to attend the University of Wyoming on a football scholarship.

It was unique because when the mighty University of Nebraska called the next day and offered a full scholarship--the dream of almost every boy in the state--Novacek kept that promise.

“During the same phone call in which they offered the thing, Jay told them no, turned them down flat,” said Pat Novacek, pride evident in his firm voice. “He had given Wyoming his word.”

And after all, Wyoming’s nickname is the Cowboys. Novacek was comfortable there and has become as happy as a Cowboy in Dallas. Take Thanksgiving weekend.

After the Cowboy game against the New York Giants, he left his small ranch home in Sanger, Tex., to inspect a horse.

The next morning, he went hunting with his father. That afternoon, he worked out the horse that he had inspected. Saturday morning, he went hunting again.

Is it any wonder that, in his Gothenburg area cabin, he tolerates a television set that receives only one channel?

“I didn’t even know it got one ,” Novacek said. “Since when?”

On a recent afternoon on the desk of Gothenburg’s highest elected official, next to a coffee cup advertising the Hastings Casket Company, a proclamation sat before Mayor Rick Blase.

For the first time, Gothenburg is going to have a Jay Novacek Day. In fact, the city might be attempting to make up for lost time by having two days.

One is Sunday, and the second will be on Feb. 7, when Novacek will be the starting tight end for the NFC in the Pro Bowl at Honolulu.

“We have never had a day for anybody before, so don’t expect people to take off work or interrupt their lives or anything,” Blase said. “We are proud of Jay, but we aren’t in awe of him. He is just one of us.”

Perhaps this low-key approach would explain why, when reading the proclamation to a few businessmen in the city council chambers, Blase mistakenly concongratulated Novacek on appearing in Super Bowl “XXVI.”

“We’ve never had this happen before,” Wayne Bell, superintendent of schools, had said earlier. “We don’t know how to react.”

But true to their recognition as one of 10 cities to be named an “All-American City” by the National Civic League in 1991, Gothenburg is trying.

When members of Novacek’s family checks into their Motel 6 room today, they will be carrying with them a good-luck poster drawn by the town’s third-graders.

They will also have a large good-luck banner purchased by the Rotary Club and autographed by several dozen residents. An announcement on the intercom at school last week encouraged everyone to sign.

But still, there will be no Super Bowl-watching parties in Novacek’s honor Sunday, no formal town gatherings.

Williams, the bank president, will cut a hole in the ice at a nearby pond and briefly jump into the water with some friends, but let’s be honest here.

“We do that every year,” Williams said.

The problem is that because Jay Novacek is such a regular guy, they find it difficult to imagine that he is actually that person wearing No. 84.

They find it hard to look at the only real Dallas Cowboy as anything other than a cowboy.

“For many here, watching him on television is like watching Barbara Streisand or something,” said Tot Holmes, longtime youth baseball coach. “He is an entertainer from a different world.”

Roger Neujahr, the high school athletic director, said: “For me and a lot of others in this town, pro football . . . is not real. You just can’t get there from Gothenburg.”

If you do get there, the real trick is whether you will come home.

Novacek will do that again this spring, traveling the same route as the old cattle drivers, from Texas up through Oklahoma and Kansas to Nebraska.

He will be driving a truck, pulling a horse trailer, wondering about the days when the horse would be pulling him.

When he arrives in Gothenburg, he will be surrounded by friends and relatives who will ask him the same question about Super Sunday:

“So, how many calves did you have?”