The story of how the Dallas, Texas football team ended up in real cowboy territory
PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — On September 24, 1960, the Dallas Cowboys football team played their first-ever NFL game in Texas, taking on the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Cotton Bowl. It was the start of what would become a legendary team.
But before they ever set foot in the Cotton Bowl — before they ever played an NFL game in Texas — the Dallas Cowboys first came to Oregon.
Chuck Kearney in high school
Chuck Kearney was a 17-year-old star athlete at Pendleton High School when he was chosen to take care of the Dallas players before and during the game. He took home videos back then and as he watches the film today, the memories of that time come flooding back.
With film never before seen by the public, these home videos show the Dallas Cowboys playing the Los Angeles Reams in a place befitting for any cowboy: Round-Up Stadium in Pendleton, Oregon, home of the world-famous Pendleton Round-Up.
“It was really the talk of the town,” Kearney said. “Round-Up is big in Pendleton, but this hit us sideways.”
His first job for the team, Kearney explained, was to go out and buy more than 60 bars of Dial soap because all the players wanted their own.
“I had to go to three stores to buy 60 bars,” he laughed.
The Pendleton game was an NFL preseason match and one of the first NFL games ever played by the Cowboys. It was played on a field reserved for horses and bulls, but Kearney was very familiar with the ground, as it’s where Pendleton High played their own home games.
Summer of 1960
Leading up to the game, Pendleton was gripped with excitement. A newspaper article reported on a TV camera set up on a bullshot to broadcast the game to Rams fans in Los Angeles.
As for accommodations, one team stayed at the town’s Let ‘Er Buck Motel, while the other team stayed at the Maverick Motel. The night before the game, it was Kearney’s job to show the players the lights and sights of Pendleton. So, they all piled into his car.
“They got in that car and it went right down to the ground,” he said. “I mean, it was just like being in a stagecoach — cause that was on axle just hitting.”
The question of where to go was the problem. It was 1960 — black and white players socializing together? The concept was not one welcomed at most places.
“So I say, ‘Where do you fellas want to go?’ and they said, ‘Well give us some ideas.’”
Kearney ran through a list of the usual places, such as the Eagles Club, the Elks Club and the Rainbow Cowboy bar — but knew none would be accepting of their diverse group. Finally, they settled on George Hooker’s bar.
Photo of George Hooker from A Portland Family Album – 1995 exhibition at Blue Sky Gallery. (Multnomah County Library)
George Hooker had been a successful Black businessman in Portland before moving out to Pendleton. Once there, he opened up an establishment called Hooker’s Place.
“So we walk into George Hooker’s and the place just went up in excitement,” Kearney said. “We took two tables because the guys were so big they couldn’t fit around one table! We pulled two tables together and just started talking football and just had a great time.”
The next morning was the day the town had been waiting for — game day. Before fans arrived, Kearney was busy in the Cowboy’s locker room.
“I’m putting equipment on the shelves, [doing] the laundry, I put the t-shirts and all that business back on their shelves,” he said. “…The locker room is a real step down from, I’m sure, Cowboy Stadium where they live — it was pretty primitive.”
As the game started, Kearney was on the Rams’ sidelines with his camera. From that angle he could capture the field and grandstands on film. All the while, he was wearing a Dallas cowboy tee shirt — which the Rams coach noticed.
“Their head coach — I forget his name right now — but he said, ‘You don’t belong over here!’ So I said, ‘No sir, I think I’m with them over there.’ That was the end of my movie taking, but I got some anyway,” Kearney explained.
What Kearney got that day are the only known images that exist of the game.
You may be wondering, of all the places to hold an NFL game — why in the world did the Dallas Cowboys choose Pendleton? The answer: they were already here.
“It started here in 1960 at Pacific University,” Emily Johns said. “The Dallas Cowboys in their first year ever came to Pacific University for their training camp.
Watch: Pendleton Round Up Parade & Rodeo, 1950
Emily Johns is an archivist for Pacific University in Forest Grove. Documents and newspaper articles show the Cowboys arrived in July of 1960 with legendary coach Tom Landry. Landry reportedly liked forest grove because of the cooler weather, plus there was only one bar and movie theater — so the players couldn’t get into any trouble.
So, throughout the summer, players slept in Pacific University’s dorm rooms with their feet hanging over the beds.
Local sportswriters that summer tracked the Cowboys’ every move in practices and scrimmages. Well-known players and coaches from around the region would come out to Pendleton and players would sign autographs as part of the general hubbub of the summer.
Jack Patera, a former Oregon Duck star, was one of the NFL veterans selected by the new Cowboys team. He’d go fishing between practices at a neraby lake. Later on in life, he’d become the Seattle Seahawk’s first coach.
The town of Forest Grove welcomed the Cowboys, going so far as to give Coach Landry and owner Tex Schram the key to the city.
There are receipts and canceled checks showing Pacific University charged Schram $11.50 per player each day during training camp. The school had done this before — hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns for training camp as well.
“When I went through the collection and I saw the names Unitus and Jim Brown and Don Meredith, I was really surprised these teams came here and other great nfl players walked on the campus and slept in our dorms,” Ms. Johns said.
As September approached, the Cowboys stay in Forest Grove came to an end — but not before taking their very first team photo.
Team at training camp at Pacific University in Forest Grove in Sept. 1960
Before they left, there was one more Oregon stop for the Cowboys: earlier in the summer, team executives signed a deal to play a preseason game in Pendleton — a place known for real cowboys.
“You know these are cowboys. These are kind, tough-minded people and I’m proud to be from there,” Kearney said. “It was a really exciting time to be in Pendleton.
As for the game, the Cowboys were stampeded — losing to the Rams 49 to 14. Looking back, Kearney wonders if his hometown pride got in the way of why the Cowboys chose to play in Pendleton:
“[I think] why wouldn’t they have it here… but then I think later they wanted to hide the game, get it away from the major market and hide it in Pendleton,” he laughed.
After graduating from Pendleton High, Kearney got a full-ride football scholarship to Mississippi State University. While walking with a Black friend — they were the targets of racist taunts and insults.
“He looked at me and he said ‘Man, I’m sorry,’ and I said, ‘You don’t have to apologize for those jerks, I mean, I’m sorry,’ and right there I knew I had to go.”
Kearney then came back to Oregon, playing football and graduating from Linfield. He went onto become a beloved teacher, coach and artist. He ended up marrying his high school sweetheart and raised three sons surrounded by love and friends — and a memory of being part of that day 60 years ago when the Cowboys took the field in Pendleton.
“It set the course, for I knew that things were possible [after] talking to those fellas there in the bar and they had their stories,” Kearney said. “One was from Georgia, one from Kentucky and other places and they came out of high school very much like mine — and they just made their mind up that they’re gonna work hard.”
With home movie film and stories of an NFL game played on the famous rodeo grounds and old newspaper clippings and photographs recalling that special summer when a legendary team got its start on the field of a small Oregon university — and a boy from Pendleton, who was part of it all.
It’s the story of when the Cowboys came to Oregon.