On Friday afternoons, Tom Landry and his secretary used to work their way through hundreds of letters from Dallas Cowboy fans around the world, answering every one of them.
A few years before owner Jerry Jones shoved him out the door, Landry received a letter that left him shaken and speechless. A mother was worried because her 10-year-old son was still depressed, even though it had been weeks since the Cowboys failed to make the playoffs. Could the coach help?
"I really didn't know what to say," Landry told me, back in 1987. "That breaks your heart. ... Sometimes, things can just get out of hand."
Nevertheless, the coach also knew there had been times when his relentless, methodical approach to his work crossed the same line. The public saw the stoic general pacing the sideline, nattily dressed in office clothes and his trademark fedora. But sometimes, he admitted, his composure cracked after bitter losses and he wrestled with anger and depression. Landry learned to call this problem by its proper name.
"I know that's a sin," he said. "I learned that I could go home, get down on my knees and confess that to God. I mean, what is football next to God?"
Last week, the Hall-of-Fame coach lost a one-year battle with acute myelogenous leukemia. He was 75. Landry was the Cowboy's first coach and, in nearly three decades, turned his tacky expansion team into "America's team," winning two Super Bowls, five NFC crowns, 13 divisional titles and 270 games.
Along the way, the Texas native also became a legend in a state in which it is an understatement to say that football is often confused with religion.
Anyone who grew up in Texas in the 1970s knows why the Cowboys' stadium was built with that big hole in the roof.
Why's that, you ask? So that God would have an unobstructed view of his team.
Some fans called Landry "God's coach." Landry didn't like that. It's true that he was a leader in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. But he was not the kind of gridiron evangelist who claimed that God gave him the power, when he was an all-pro defensive back, to make game-saving plays. As a coach, he never hinted that God whispered game-winning plays in his ear.
There have always been players who, when facing reporters after the big game, stick in a plug for Jesus as the ultimate coach and teammate.
That was not Landry's style. While he never publicly criticized this brand of muscular Christianity, he went out of his way to promote another approach. Landry was, after all, a mainline Methodist and not given to emotional displays. The athlete with whom he was most closely identified was quarterback Roger Staubach -- a devout Roman Catholic.
Landry delivered a more sobering message.
Truth is, the bottom line for most people is the bottom line, said Landry, speaking in a Leighton Ford crusade in Charlotte in the early 1980s. Many people think that they worship God, but they really bow down to money, success and ego. This is true for all kinds of highly driven professionals -- not just athletes.
"We have to learn to look for higher things in life," he said. "Now, God does want us to use all our talents to the best of our abilities and, if you're a football player or a coach, that means you're supposed to do your best to win. I want to be a winner and I want to seek excellence. ... But I have had to learn to keep my priorities straight."
It was about the time that he took the Dallas job, said Landry, that he realized "football had been my religion." His faith and his family were getting the short end of the stick. After that, he prayed for God to deliver him from his obsession with football, not to deliver him victories on the field.
"It probably doesn't hurt for people to pray for their team to win, but that doesn't mean they'll win," said the coach, laughing. "Besides, there are much better things to pray about."