We hear the mantra “faith, family, football” a lot these days. It’s used in movies and book titles. It’s printed on shirts and mugs. But how many steeped in the world of professional football truly live out their faith on a daily basis? The easy answer: Dan Reeves.
Reeves enjoyed 38 years in the NFL. He participated in a combined nine Super Bowls as player and coach, serving as head coach for 23 seasons, mainly with the Denver Broncos and the Atlanta Falcons. As a player, he spent his eight-season career with the Dallas Cowboys.
In this interview, we get a birds-eye view of a man of faith who loves his family, walks the talk as a Christian man, and thrived on the gridiron. Sit back, get comfortable, and listen in on our conversation with Coach Reeves.
MyEliteNetwork: Why did you choose to attend South Carolina?
Dan Reeves: It’s the only school that offered me a scholarship, so it was a real simple decision. I signed before they changed their minds. Then I played in the Georgia high school all-star game which was later than the signing date, and I got the MVP for that game. I had a bunch of offers to change schools, but I just felt like South Carolina took a chance on me when nobody else wanted me. And I’m glad I did because one of the great people in my life was in his first year as head coach; Marvin Bass. Coach Bass was a great mentor to me. He was one of the first people that I tried to hire when I became a head coach. He was on my staff until he passed away.
MyEliteNetwork: It’s very nice to have those kinds of people in our lives.
Dan Reeves: When you think about it—and that’s why I love the Fellowship of Christian Athletes—because other than my mom and dad, the people who had the most influence on me were my coaches. Coach Hightower when I was in high school, Coach Bass in college, and Coach Landry; all three of them are great Christian men, so I was very fortunate.
MyEliteNetwork: Please share any standout memories of your college days.
Dan Reeves: Well, when your best record is 4-5-1 there weren’t any standout records. I think the thing that stands out is that I was the youngest starting quarterback in the nation my sophomore year. I started the first game of the season that year against Northwestern, so I was at the right place and got a chance to play as a quarterback for three straight years at South Carolina. It was just a great experience. You learn a lot from winning that’s for sure but I think you also learn an awful lot about yourself and the people around you when you’re in a desperate situation and you’re trying to fight to get on top.
MyEliteNetwork: What are your first memories of walking into the Dallas Cowboys locker room in 1965?
Dan Reeves: Oh gosh. Well, we played a preseason game for the first time in Los Angeles because we trained in Thousand Oaks, California. I don’t know that I can explain it, it was just an unbelievable thrill. I had played quarterback through high school and college, then all of a sudden I’m playing running back and on special teams. Because I was a quarterback, I was never involved on special teams except for holding the ball for field goals and extra points.
I remember vividly being in the first playoff game, and I looked on the other side of the line, and there was the Baltimore Colts, and my favorite player, Johnny Unitas, was their quarterback. It was a dream come true, and it was also exciting to be in the same locker room with so many great athletes. Really when I think about it, it was the first time I had played with African-American players. I had played against black players a couple of times in college, and now my locker was right next to Cornell Green who became a good friend and who I hired as a scout when I was the head coach of the Denver Broncos. We became very good friends as with a lot of the African-Americans on the team, including Bob Hayes. When I boarded the plane to fly from Atlanta to Los Angeles, on one side of me was Bob Hayes and on the other side was Jethro Pugh. We were rookies together in 1965, and we had all made the team. So that was a great experience.
People talk about the improvement or advancement that has been made; it probably is not where we would like for it to be, but I guarantee it’s a lot better than it was back in the ‘60s. I think football has had a lot to do with that. Football has brought the races together.
Another great memory from that Cowboys locker room was Tom Landry; he touched an awful lot of people. He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. That’s what good coaches do. I tore my knee up, and I knew my career was coming to an end. I got beat up by Calvin Hill after I had my knee surgery and Coach Landry asked me to be a player/coach. I had never thought about coaching, but I ended up becoming a player/coach, and we went to the Super Bowl; got beat by Baltimore in the last seconds. The next year we ended up beating Miami, so my first two years as player/coach, we went to the Super Bowl. I thought I was in the greatest profession in the world.
MyEliteNetwork: How did the locker room receive you when you became a player/coach?
Dan Reeves: I roomed with Walt Garrison who was a high draft choice the year after I arrived. He and I were good friends, but I all of sudden became a player/coach, and now I’m coaching my roommate. They accepted me, and that made my player/coach role much more manageable. The players that I coached, the running backs; they accepted me, and I was able to help them, and they could see that. The experience gave me a chance to see if coaching was what I wanted to do. I got out of coaching around 1970, after about three years because I decided I needed to spend more time with my kids. I went into the real estate business and subsequently found out it wasn’t so much the quantity of time that you spend but the quality of time you spend with your kids.
However, I really missed the game, and I was fortunate to get back in it the next year when Coach Landry hired me as the special team’s coach. I knew then that was what I wanted to do; there wasn’t any question in my mind about being successful at something else. I knew coaching was what I wanted to do so I set my goal to try and be the best I could be.
MyEliteNetwork: Do you have any specific memories of Tom Landry or any particular circumstances that stick out?
Dan Reeves: Yes, when he first asked me to be a player/coach. Then he gave me some advice when I was interviewing for the head coaching position with Denver. He called me in and said; I’ve got two pieces of advice for you. Just be yourself. People will pick up on phony quicker than anything. I knew what he was saying: don’t try to be him, be myself and that’ll be good enough. The second thing he told me, Always tell the truth because if you don’t tell the truth how are you ever going to remember what you said? And that is so true. What he told me are two great pieces of advice. I learned a lot about the X’s and O’s of football, but those two things helped me do what I needed to do. I had to be myself and always tell the truth. And when you’re a head coach there are a lot of times you might not tell all the truth, but you’ve got to tell the truth because you get asked questions over and over and over again.
MyEliteNetwork: Yes, it’s better to be honest; sometimes, as they say, the truth hurts, but you have to do it. It’s all in the delivery.
Dan Reeves: Exactly. And like I said, you don’t have to tell all of it. Sometimes you don’t talk about all the nitty-gritty details. For example, Phil Simms, when I was coaching the Giants they had an injury report we had to complete. I wrote in the report that Phil had questionable rib injuries. Phil came to my office and said, Coach, you don’t have to put on there what it is, you can just put questionable injury. You don’t have to say ribs; why do you think those people are coming after me and where do you think they’re going to aim their hit? I said, you know, I never thought about it that way Phil, but it’s a good idea. So I learned you don’t have to tell the whole truth, especially when it’s going to hurt someone…literally.
MyEliteNetwork: What are your memories of the Ice Bowl?
Dan Reeves: Well, certainly the heartache of coming so close to winning. I threw a touchdown pass the first play of the fourth quarter which put us ahead, but the field was in such bad shape it was hard to maintain a drive. We had to do something like a halfback pass to score. Bart Starr had a different idea. He drove them down, scored, and won it on a quarterback sneak with very few seconds left to go in the game. The most memorable thing was just how cold it was. You try to explain to people and you can’t. I grew up in the South, and I thought when ice froze, how much colder can it get? Thirty degrees is cold.
It was 15 degrees above on the day before the game, and we worked out when the sun was shining, and the field was in great shape. That was the same forecast for the next day, but when we got up the next morning, Walt Garrison and I walked outside to get a pre-game meal, and it was like, whew…we better get an overcoat. We went back in to get our overcoats, and then we started walking, then jogging and then sprinting to the restaurant for the pre-game meal. We went inside and said, Dang, it’s cold out there. The waitress said, Well it ought to be, it’s 17 below zero. It had dropped thirty-two degrees overnight, and I tell people all the time you can relate 70 degrees to 102; how much hotter that is. And you could feel all 32 degrees going the other way. During the game, I got hit, and it busted my face mask. I felt to see if there was any blood. I didn’t have any blood but I had a tooth knocked through my upper lip, and it wasn’t bleeding. I never had a busted lip that didn’t bleed. The blood wasn’t coming out until I got over in front of the heater. It was just unbelievable how cold it was.
MyEliteNetwork: John Niland has said that since the weather was so beautiful the day before, the grounds crew watered down the field, so it was basically an ice skating rink.
Dan Reeves: It was. You couldn’t stand up. In fact, when I got my face mask broken, I slipped down trying to cut-back, and I was laying on the ground, but nobody had hit me yet. As I started to get up I saw a guy coming at me; I spun around on the ground to see an opposing player coming straight for me. We hit face to face, helmet to helmet. As far as the weather, unless you were there, you just can’t explain it. And why people were in the stands, I do not know. We had to be there, they didn’t, but they were there anyway.
MyEliteNetwork: You’ve had a very illustrious career. Sometimes you fall into your destiny.
Dan Reeves: Yes. No question. The Lord has a plan for us, and sometimes we don’t understand it or see it, but thank goodness he showed me what he wanted me to do. As I said, I don’t know that I would have ever been successful if I hadn’t gotten out of the league that year so I could realize that I missed it and to understand that that was what I wanted and needed to do. I think had I just stayed in coaching; I would have always thought I could be doing something else and do so much better for my family and me.
MyEliteNetwork: So what are your thoughts on Tom Landry or how Tom Landry handled Craig Morton and Roger Staubach?
Dan Reeves: Well that was a complicated situation. Both were extremely talented. Both came out the same year although Roger was in the Navy they both graduated from college the same year. Personally, I had a lot of confidence in Craig because we were rookies together and had played and been through a lot of things before Roger ever came on the scene. When we would talk about it as staff, it was maybe six to four as to who you thought should be the starting quarterback. The coaches were more for Craig than they were for Roger. But the one who made the final decision was Coach Landry. He saw something in Roger from a leadership standpoint, from a competitor standpoint, and from a discipline standpoint. He saw those intangible things in Roger that he didn’t see in Craig. Coach Landry’s decision certainly ended up being the right decision (and the right choice for Craig too because he was traded and ended up playing against us in the Super Bowl when he was in Denver).
Both quarterbacks were very gifted and talented in different ways. Craig was a pocket guy; he stood in the pocket and threw the football exceptionally well. He was very knowledgeable about football. Roger was such a scrambler. He’d create so many problems for defenses; it drove other teams crazy. Plus, he could throw the football as well as anybody. But his legs made the difference. He made our running game open up because the other team had to contain him. It opened up things in the passing game because defensive backs would go crazy.
MyEliteNetwork: When you were the head coach of the Falcons and played the Vikings in the championship, do you think that was your best coaching performance?
Dan Reeves: Well, that whole year was a great one. We had always used the silent count when we were in the shotgun because I felt like the quarterback’s voice couldn’t be heard by the line being five yards back. But when he was under the center, I felt like they could hear him, so we had done it under the center. But looking at film, people kept jumping offside with the quarterback under the center, so I decided to use silent count all the time. I turned the noise up in our practice facility as loud as I could get it and guys were going crazy, saying, Coach, we can’t hear. This is terrible. In the pregame warm-up, we went out, and I said, we don’t want to use the silent count because I don’t want them to know we have it. So we have to use our regular warm-up going under the center and use the snap count. We ended up using the silent count and they jumped offside a couple of times, and I think that was as big a coaching decision that I ever made. It was emphasizing how we had to handle that if we were going to have a chance at all, and our defense played great. They made some good plays. That was one of the more exciting games. Now, let’s go back to when I was in Denver. The same thing happened when we went to our first Super Bowl when we ended up beating Cleveland in Cleveland. So those two games without question are the two most satisfying victories we had when I was head coaching.
MyEliteNetwork: Who’s the greatest competitor you’ve ever been around, either playing or coaching?
Dan Reeves: No question about it. Probably Lee Roy Jordan. Lee Roy and I lived about 50 yards from each other, we were great friends, and I ran a trap play up the middle. He hit me, busted my face mask, and I was like, Dang Lee Roy, what are doing? This is an inner squad game. He said, If my grandmomma put on a helmet, I’d hit her too. I mean pound for pound, there’s nobody any better than he was. He was very knowledgeable and a great competitor. There are so many great competitors, but if I had to name one, I would say he would be one that sticks out. He always had the defense and made all the calls; he was always prepared.
MyEliteNetwork: You have two minutes left in a game, who’s your quarterback, Staubach or Elway, and why?
Dan Reeves: I would alternate them. I’d send them in one play after another. Whoever started that first down, I would send the quarterback in with the next play. No I mean that is such a tough question. From a coach’s standpoint, I coached Roger as an assistant coach, but I coached John as a head coach. I think we became a better football team with both of them, but I don’t think we could’ve had the success we had in Denver without John. So to me, that would make the difference is the fact I coached John as a head coach and I couldn’t have done without him. I was an assistant coach with Roger, so I will use that as an excuse.
MyEliteNetwork: Share your fondest memory of your coaching career?
Dan Reeves: The first one would be the Super Bowl when I was with Denver. The other one would be with Atlanta since it was the first time they had ever been to the Super Bowl. I think those two games meant so much. We were on the road which makes it more difficult to win a championship game. If you look at what the record is of visiting teams winning the ride to Super Bowl on foreign territory, there aren’t a lot of them. Those two stick out because they meant so much.
MyEliteNetwork: On a personal note, you married your high school sweetheart, Pam, and you two have been married 53 years. How did you first meet, and then manage to be a successful husband and father during your years in the NFL and the grueling schedule of being a head coach?
Dan Reeves: The Lord put her on that practice field. When the cheerleaders walked across the field, I thought, Dang, that’s a good looking girl. I tried to prove to her how good a player I was in high school because there were a lot of guys who wanted to date her too. Another gal, the head cheerleader, lived six miles out in the country as I did so we rode the school bus together. One day she said, you know we have a cute freshman cheerleader named Pam White that you ought to date. So I called her and asked for a date. Pam was a freshman, and I was a sophomore when we started dating. We dated through high school and got married before my senior year and her junior year in college. We dated for seven years before we got married, so we have known each other for about 60 years.
Pam has been a great wife who always understood the fact that I was going to the office to work when all the other wives’ husbands were coming home as soon as practice was over. She was great with our three children——she was a mom and a dad to all three of them. It takes a special woman to be all of that. Pam has been a driving force for me for 53 years without question and still is. She works out twice a week. She’s in great shape. Now I’m working out trying to keep up with her. We are very fortunate that we found the Lord along the way.
MyEliteNetwork: Yes, absolutely! You have seven grandchildren. Do you see any future NFL players in your grandchildren?
Dan Reeves: We’ve got one grandson and six granddaughters if that tells you anything. He loves playing lacrosse. One of the things that help is he’s got good hand/eye coordination. But the bottom line is only if he wants to. I’ve never said this is something I want you to do. Lee, our son, has never pushed him about it either. You want your kids and grandkids to be involved in sports, but you want them to love it too. I know this: Decker has big hands. He was 9.5 pounds at a month early so who knows, he might play someday, but it will be up to him.
MyEliteNetwork: What are you doing these days and are there any non-profits you support?
Dan Reeves: I do a lot of speaking; more for FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) than anything. Coach Landry got me involved in FCA back when I was with Dallas, and I’ve been very involved with the organization. I speak at a lot of banquets every year for them. I also do some motivational speaking for companies as well as a local radio show during the football season since I got fired here in Atlanta. They tell me I have a good face for radio.
MyEliteNetwork: My final question Coach Reeves is, how has your faith been woven throughout your career in managing everything on your plate?
Dan Reeves: You know, I don’t see how in the world people do it who don’t have faith. I’m just so glad I have it. I mean, He’s always there. I can always get on my knees. I can always talk to Him. I ask for guidance and wisdom, and I couldn’t have handled any of my life or career without being a Christian. I was fortunate to have three coaches who were great Christian men and mentors for me.
There are so many ups and downs. I’ve been fired three times. You’ve got to learn to handle those things, and I don’t know how one does it successfully without faith. God knows what’s best for you and He’s got a plan for you. Sometimes you don’t see it, you don’t like it, but you look back and say, man, He really did know what he was doing.
MyEliteNetwork: God sees the big picture. We just see what’s happening in front of us sometimes. But it’s trusting that bigger picture. We often ask, is this part of your plan? It doesn’t seem like the best way. But you know what? He knows!
Dan Reeves: Yes, you look back on your circumstances several years later and think, Gosh, He did know what he was talking about. He did know what I wanted. I’m glad He’s on my side.
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