The game was 20 years ago, yet Jim Garrett remembers it as if it happened last week. After all, his stroke sapped the strength from his legs, but it didn’t rob him of his memories.
A father doesn’t forget watching his son play quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys and lead them to victory on Thanksgiving Day.
That’s what Jason Garrett did in 1994, when he filled in for the injured Troy Aikman and Rodney Peete and beat the Green Bay Packers, 42-31. After a bumpy first half, Garrett directed five consecutive touchdown drives in the second to put the game on ice — not bad for a third-stringer from Princeton who seemed best suited for coaching.
“I was in football all my life and I knew what a good player Jason was, but he was really stepping up onto the main stage,” said Jim Garrett, 84. “I never expected him to play as well as he did. He rose to the occasion.”
Jason’s role has changed — he’s now in his fifth season as head coach of the Cowboys — and the expectations are much higher. Dallas plays host to Philadelphia on Thursday for first place in the NFC East. Just as they did on that Thanksgiving two decades ago, his parents will be watching every moment from their home in Monmouth Beach, N.J.
Jim and Jane Garrett, married for 64 years, are the loving architects of the quintessential football family. They had eight children in eight years — four girls and four boys — as they zigzagged across the country for the game, moving 12 times in 15 years.
Jim coached college football at the Coast Guard Academy, Lehigh, Susquehanna and Columbia; and had NFL assistant coaching and scouting jobs with the New York Giants, New Orleans Saints, Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills, along with three separate stints as a scout with the Cowboys. He first worked for Dallas as a scout under Tom Landry in 1969 and retired in 2005, having worked for every Cowboys coach except his son and Wade Phillips.
All those moves forged the family ever closer.
“We’ve been really close for a long time,” Jason said. “We moved around a lot, so whenever we went to a new place or a new school, we always had each other. So that’s the foundation of our upbringing.”
Never was the strength of the family more apparent than September of 2012, when Jim Garrett, a man who never missed a single day of running in more than 25 years, suddenly lost feeling in his legs. He had gotten up in the middle of the night and was standing by the side of the bed.
“He said, ‘Jane, I can’t move my leg. I can’t walk. I can’t walk,’” said Jim Jr., the Garretts’ eldest child and an English teacher at a high school in Cleveland. “This was maybe 11 p.m. My mom didn’t know what to do. She called my sister, and then she called an ambulance. They took him up to the hospital nearby.”
By daybreak after a sleepless night, Jane and her daughter had reached all the siblings.
“My two sisters and I, we got in the car and just drove,” Jim Jr. said. “We saw him that next afternoon. He was in the intensive care. We rallied. We got there.”
One by one, the Garrett children arrived from around the country, including Jason, John and Judd, who were all working for the Cowboys. Judd is still the team’s director of pro scouting. John, formerly tight ends coach in Dallas, is now offensive coordinator at Oregon State.
“Everyone rose to the occasion,” Jim Jr. said. “We have so much love and admiration and respect for him. He’s about the most generous person you could ever meet, most enthusiastic person about life.
“That’s what people say about him now. It’s remarkable. You know how people, when they get health problems, they get bitter? But it’s nothing like that. He’s up, he’s positive. It’s sort of the power of positive thinking. That’s how he would coach too. It’s mind over matter. Get the job done.”
The elder Garrett was in one hospital or another from September through February and his recovery was slow. His speech was slurred. He didn’t have good manual dexterity. He was in a lot of pain. He worked through those issues. The only thing he didn’t recover was the strength in his legs, and he’s now largely confined to a wheelchair.
“By February, my mother brought him home,” Jim Jr. said. “His speech was back. He was swallowing and drinking. To this day, he’s in bed, doing the weightlifting like he used to. ‘Would you find me that red weight?’ He has these little plastic weights. He does mini sit-ups.
“This is not a sad man. He has so many visitors. He coached at Susquehanna from 1960 to ’65 and those players come back, knock on the door. ‘Coach, how ya doing?’”
Jim Garrett’s toughness and determination is best exemplified by his dedication to running, which began, arbitrarily, on July 14, 1980, when he was an assistant coach for the Browns. He and his fellow coaches would go out for a jog now and again, and Garrett just decided to set a goal. He would run every day for the rest of his life if he could.
It became almost comical. He ran in the sweltering heat and the bitter cold, he scheduled hand surgery so he wouldn’t miss a day of running, he ran inside airports when he was on the road scouting. His kids cannot recall him ever catching a cold or flu.
“He started running and he never stopped,” his wife said. “One day, the weather was so bad, he started running around the dining room table. After that, the kids bought him a treadmill.”
Jim would hydrate by drinking iced tea by the gallon. He consumed so much of it, that he drank it straight out of a pitcher that he carried just about everywhere he went.
“You’d go to a restaurant and the woman would be pouring ice water into people’s glasses, and he’d be kind of eyeing the pitcher. ‘Oh, that’s a nice pitcher,’” Jason said.
“Before the ice-maker thing, it was always taboo if you were being too aggressive getting the ice. He’d say, ‘Hey, refill those ice trays!’ He’s by far the most generous person I’ve ever met in my life. There’s nobody even close. But be careful about taking his ice because he needs that for his iced tea.”
At Halloween in Monmouth Beach, the Garretts laughed when a trick-or-treater showed up at their door wearing a Cowboys T-shirt, running shorts, and a pitcher in hand. Nobody needed to ask. He was dressed as Jim Garrett.
Jason is cut from the same cloth.
“I wanted to be a quarterback, and I remember reading a story about how [former Ohio State quarterback] Art Schlichter threw 500 passes a day,” Jason said. “So I was bound and determined to throw 500 passes a day. Until you start to try to do that, it’s really hard to do. It was a ridiculous endeavor.”
So, beginning when his father coached running backs for the Browns from 1978 to ’84, Jason would knock out his 500 passes a day. On snowy days, he would throw in the attic of their three-story home on Berkshire Road in Cleveland Heights.
“I had a lot of contraptions to throw into over the course of my lifetime,” he said. “Whether it was throwing into a net, or a blanket, or a mattress or something. Up on the third floor, down in the basement, the backyard. More than anything else, it was with my brothers. When they were tired of doing it, I had different ways to get my throws in.”
John, Jason and Judd were born in that order during a 27-month span, the last of the Garrett children. They played together at University School in Cleveland, with John a receiver, Jason the quarterback, and Judd a running back. Later, they would play together at Princeton. They all spent one season together at Columbia when their father was head coach there. That experience didn’t last long, as Jim Garrett’s NFL approach was too gung-ho for the Ivy League types. He was fired after an 0-10 season, and his three sons promptly transferred back to Princeton.
Those three Garrett boys, whose brains and toughness made up for their physical limitations, were determined to make NFL rosters after college.
“There was a time when all three were either on a team, trying out for a team, or in a camp,” Jim Jr. said. “It was: John’s trying out for Buffalo, Judd’s trying out for Carolina, Jason’s in Dallas. My father brought that infectious love of sports to the family.”
The athletic high point for the Garretts culminated that Thanksgiving game in 1994, when Jason went from an obscure clipboard holder to a Cowboys folk hero. His big game came on the 20th anniversary of rookie Clint Longley replacing the injured Roger Staubach and leading the Cowboys to a thrilling Thanksgiving Day victory over Washington.
Judd, who had been in camp with the Cowboys that summer but didn’t make the 1994 team, was in the stands watching Jason play that Thanksgiving game.
“The first half, the team was kind of sputtering,” Judd said. “The guy sitting next to me didn’t know who I was, and I wasn’t going to tell him. The first half didn’t go as well, and at one point the guy was like, ‘Get him out of there! Bench him!’ And then by the middle of the fourth quarter it was, ‘Oh, it was great that he stuck with him. Smart move.’ I just sat there and didn’t say a word.”
Recalled Barry Switzer, Cowboys coach at the time: “That day when Jason had that game, it’s one of those games you just dream of. To come off the bench, didn’t get any snaps, and to go out and play and perform the way he did. He threw for more yardage [311 yards] than Aikman threw for in any game that year.
“After the game, when we had that thing won, I got to thinking that Jim wasn’t there, but I knew he was watching the game. I knew how proud he was as a father of his son performing like that. … So I called him. I remember that call. I was so happy Jim answered, and I told him, ‘I just wanted to tell you how proud I am, and I know you’re a beaming father. He played fabulous.’ It truly was a fun call to make.”
After Thursday’s game, win or lose, Jason will call home to check in with his folks.
“When you see your parents get to this point in their lives, it reminds you of how valuable these days are, and how valuable these relationships are,” he said. “How you can’t take anything for granted, and how you’ve got to maximize them as much as you can.”