Now running charity All-Star Rodeo, Garrison remains Cowboys' cowboy

May 17, 1992|By Frank Luksa | Frank Luksa,Dallas Morning News

LEWISVILLE, Texas -- Henry is among the faces with places of honor inside the old Liberty Theater on Main Street. Henry (1957-77) is, or was, a pet goat.

Another face belongs to Don, former quarterback (1960-68) of the Dallas Cowboys. Meredith is honored in a photograph. What you see of Henry is his actual head.

People and animals hang out at the U.S. Tobacco Sales and Marketing Co. office. About 1,200 are fixed to the wall in photographs. Henry, a Longhorn steer and a buffalo are attached by their necks.

"It ain't bad if you're not used to much," says Walt Garrison, the most treasured artifact.

The decor is otherworldly, Old West by choice. Wooden floors. Mounted saddle. A vintage pot belly stove. Farm implements. Hand-carved wooden chains and flowers by a spit-and-whittle craftsman on display.

This could be a museum, and in a way it is. Yet jarring exceptions meet the eye. A barber's chair. A shuffleboard table. Computer and copying machine.

The inscription on Meredith's photo captures Garrison in a few words: "You've come a long way -- most of it in a circle. I guess we just like to travel."

Garrison's life does encompass a tight circle. It's as if he found truth from "The List," a compilation of phrases from country-western songs. He adopted the one that says, "There's no use running if you're on the wrong road."

He never strayed far from roads leading back to this, his hometown. His longest wander was to play football at Oklahoma State, and then only because no one nearby thought him a prospect.

Garrison cackles at the memory of chiding Darrell Royal for ignoring him out of high school. Royal then coached the University of Texas.

"I said, 'Coach, how come you didn't recruit me? Why didn't you look at my films?' " Garrison said. "And Darrell says, 'We did. You weren't that good.' "

Pro football returned Garrison closer to home. The Dallas Cowboys made him a No. 5 draft choice in 1966. His rookie signing bonus included a horse trailer. The transaction was a franchise first for a franchise original.

Garrison fit the cliche of the Cowboys' cowboy. He had ridden and roped as a child. He would continue even as a Cowboy in the off-season, adding the fearless pursuit of bulldogging.

Someone asked him back then the difference between contact from a bullish linebacker and a real bull. Garrison absolved the animal.

"You can't blame the bull," he said. "After all, you started the whole thing."

Garrison's cracker-barrel humor lies behind his Texas twang and lip full of snuff, plus a hard head that played fullback nine NFL seasons. He still ranks as the Cowboys' No. 5 all-time rusher with 3,886 yards.

The length and excellence of his NFL career drew the usual jibe from teammate Meredith.

"Don used to say, 'If you need 3 yards, give the ball to Walt and he'll get you 3 yards. If you need 12 yards, give the ball to Walt and he'll get you 3 yards,' " Garrison said.

Garrison differed from almost every off-field norm. For one thing, he never used an agent to negotiate contracts.

"Agents were charging 10 to 15 percent in those days," he said. "If you were gonna get a $1,000 raise, you had to get 15 percent more to break even. I could get five percent more and come out 10 percent ahead."

Closing the deal himself also made Garrison content and never left him feeling short-changed. "I never got what I asked for," he said, "but I always got more than I was worth."

Garrison is now of special value to the Multiple Sclerosis Society. His namesake event, the Walt Garrison All Star Rodeo on April 26 at the Mesquite (Texas) Arena, benefits MS research. Walt and former Cowboys teammate Chuck Howley have been involved since the rodeo's inception 16 years ago.

"Come on out," Garrison said. "You never know what celebrity you'll see. Or what gawd-awful outfit."

His affiliation with the U.S. Tobacco Co. dates to 1975, a year after his NFL retirement. He is vice president of Southwest promotions. The tasks are a pleasure.

"A job don't have to be work," he said.

Restoring the Liberty Theater for an office in 1977 was another labor of love. Garrison's parents watched movies there, as did he until the theater, built in 1902, closed in 1949. More likely, by the looks of a before photo, the place collapsed.

Garrison peers about and says the after is as he envisioned. He does offer one jesting complaint. The floor is unvarnished wooden. It expands and shrinks with changes in temperature.

"Ain't nothing in this place that's square," he said. "That shuffleboard table bends one way in the winter and the other in the summer."

Trust champ Garrison to know the weather and table curvature. A wise guy who didn't paid the penalty after being spotted 10 points in a game to 15. His $10 bills are thumbtacked to the wall opposite Henry. It sort of balances the house goats.

A story lingers behind every piece of memorabilia. Henry was a gift from Garrison's mother. It was supposed to be the other way around when Walt had the tame and beloved pet mounted.

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