Walt Garrison, a Cowboy Three Times Over, Dies at 79

Walt Garrison, a hard-nosed running back for the Dallas Cowboys in the 1960s and ’70s and a member of the ProRodeo Hall of Fame who became a cult hero in Texas, his home state, as the rare Cowboy who actually was a cowboy, has died. He was 79.

The Cowboys announced his death on the team website on Thursday. The announcement did not say when or where he died or cite a cause.

A de facto mascot of his team as well an iron-willed ball carrier, Garrison, who was born in Denton, Texas, was as Texas as the blue star that covered the 50-yard line on the turf of the Cowboys’ stadium.

With a pinch of tobacco often between his cheek and gum, as seen in his long-running series of television ads for Skoal smokeless tobacco, Garrison spoke in an accent that twanged like a pedal-steel guitar; wore cowboy hats seemingly as wide as the Rio Grande; and carried a sharp knife in his back pocket for whittling sticks.

“I would have to describe myself as being a country boy; not a city slicker by no means,” he said in a documentary about his career. “I don’t like to live in town, I don’t like downtown Dallas with the crowds and the stoplights and everything. I like it out.”

Garrison in the Cowboys’ locker room after a practice in 1972. “I would have to describe myself as being a country boy,” he once said; “not a city slicker by no means,”Credit…Charles Bennett/Associated Press

As a football player, Garrison lacked flash. Selected by the Cowboys in the fifth round of the 1966 National Football League draft, he tallied only 40 carries during his first two years, and he later joked that in those seasons he was so anonymous that the storied Cowboys coach Tom Landry thought his name was Number 32.

“I don’t think Tom remembered my name until my third year in the league,” he said.

During his nine years with the Cowboys, Garrison never reached the 1,000-yard plateau in a season, generally considered the standard for a star running back; his best total was 818 yards on 176 attempts in 1969.

Even so, the six-foot-tall, 205-pound Garrison played in 119 regular-season games and 13 playoff games for the Cowboys and still ranks ninth in career rushing yards for the club, in part because he seemed to turn every attempted tackle into a wrestling match.

“He wasn’t really very fast, he wasn’t very big, he wasn’t very anything, really, I thought,” Landry said in the documentary. “But the thing we discovered about Walt Garrison was, he had a heart about as big as he was.”

Garrison maintained an admirable average of 4.32 yards per carry for his career, which according to one former teammate was about what he seemed to get on every carry.

“If you needed four yards, you’d give the ball to Walt Garrison and he’d get you four yards,” Don Meredith, his Cowboys quarterback and another colorful Texan, once said. “If you needed 20 yards, you’d give the ball to Walt Garrison and he’d get you four yards.”

Garrison carried the ball against the Cleveland Browns in a 1970 game in Cleveland. He once joked that in his first seasons with the Cowboys he was so anonymous that the team’s head coach, Tom Landry, thought his name was Number 32. That soon changed.Credit…Ron Kuntz Collection/Diamond Images, via Getty Images

Teammates considered him remarkably tough, even by the standards of a game known for its violence. During the National Football Conference championship game against the San Francisco 49ers following the 1970 season, Garrison fractured his clavicle and suffered a leg injury, but he soon rallied to come off the bench and catch a touchdown pass.

“That’s why they make Novocaine,” Garrison said in a 2017 video interview. “If you can’t feel it, it don’t hurt.”

Two weeks later, he fought through pain to start Super Bowl V against the Baltimore Colts, gaining 65 yards on 12 carries, although the Cowboys lost 16-13 on a field goal by Jim O’Brien in the waning seconds. Garrison got his Super Bowl ring the next year, when the Cowboys crushed the Miami Dolphins, 24-3.

Walter Benton Garrison was born on July 23, 1944, to William and Annie (Harris) Garrison. He grew up in nearby Lewisville, where he starred as a linebacker for Lewisville High School as well as in baseball and basketball. He was also a member of the rodeo team. (Information about survivors was not immediately available.)

Playing for Oklahoma State — a team fittingly called the Cowboys — where he was converted to running back, Garrison led the Big Eight Conference in rushing in his junior year, tallying 730 yards to beat the electrifying future Pro Football Hall of Famer Gale Sayers of the University of Kansas. He was on the all-Big Eight team after a senior year in which he ran for 924 yards.

When he entered the N.F.L., his $18,000 rookie contract entered Cowboy lore for its unusual signing bonus: a horse trailer, in lieu of money, so he could continue traveling to rodeos when not toting a football.

Garrison in 2013 before being inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in Waco. Credit…Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune-Herald, via Associated Press

“I wasn’t starting,” Garrison said in a 2007 interview with the Oklahoma City newspaper The Oklahoman. “I was returning punts and kicks and covering on the kamikaze squad, that’s all I was doing. And, hell, you could get hurt worse on them than you can rodeoing.”

Coach Landry eventually forbade him to take part in rodeos during the season, but he continued to do it during the off-season. Garrison became known for his skills in steer wrestling, also known as bulldogging, in which a horse-mounted rider chases down a steer and then leaps to grab it by the horns and wrestle it to the ground.

A close friend of rodeo stars like Larry Mahan, who was known as the Elvis of Rodeo, Garrison went on to leverage his fame in both football and rodeo to raise more than $4 million to benefit people with multiple sclerosis through rodeo charity events. He was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 2018.

As it happened, it was an injury at a college rodeo in 1975 that ultimately ended Garrison’s football career. But he expressed little regret.

“I did a match bulldogging against one of the college kids, and I tore my knee up,” he was quoted as saying on the Cowboys site. “But that gave me a good way to retire without someone saying, ‘Well, you’re too old and you’re too slow.’ I could say, ‘Well, I’d still be playing if I hadn’t hurt my knee.’”

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