The story of a cowboy who made good and proved you really can go home.
Editor’s Note: Walt Garrison passed away October 11, 2023 at the age of 79.
Walt Garrison is still one of the most recognized players in the history of pro football, even though his 9-year career with the Dallas Cowboys ended in 1974. Through the years, he has also been a part-time rodeo cowboy who was particularly adept at steer wrestling, and still enjoys team roping.
When Walt quit football, he went to work for U.S. Tobacco Company, and today he is vice president of southwest promotions with the company, which has long been involved in a promotional sponsorship supporting the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association with student scholarships.
So far, $2 million has been contributed to colleges and universities, for books and tuition, and at $200,000 per year, the total will rise to $3 million in 5 years. Students win the scholarship money for their schools through college rodeo competition.
The company also contributes more than $100,000 per year to professional contestants through its Copenhagen/Skoal Pro Rodeo Championship Awards.
U.S. Tobacco is involved in many other sports that aren’t related to rodeo, but Walt Garrison was the company’s first link to sports promotions, and it came about accidentally.
“The year after we (Dallas Cowboys) won the Superbowl in 1971,” Walt recalled, “some folks from the company saw me in an NFL film called The Hunters. It was about three guys who played football, and had what might be considered unusual off-season activities. In my case, I was rodeoing.
“The film crew went with me to a rodeo at Mineral Wells, Texas, and did about a I0-minute segment on me, and during this interview at some point I took a dip of Skoal, and they thought that was interesting, so they did about 30 seconds on snuff. At that time, U.S. Tobacco had never done a television commercial, but they saw that film and called me up to do a commercial. That’s how it all started.”
Walt wrote some of the commercials, but says a lot of the scripts originated from a New York City advertising agency. “Those Yankees up there wrote a lot of commercials and we’d have to change all of them,” he said. ‘They’d write a 30-second commercial and it would take me about a minute and a half to get through it. We had to change the scripts to fit me.”
Understand that Walt is a native Texan with a natural drawl, and rapid, hard-sell speech is not in him. He grew up in a small town not far from Dallas and Texas Stadium, and his is a story of a local boy who made good and proved you really can go home.
His office is on Main Street of Lewisville, a few blocks from the modest frame house in which he and two brothers and one sister were raised, and where his mother still lives. It is also close to Walt’s old high school, where he played football for the Lewisville Farmers, and was graduated with a class of about 40 in 1962.
In his office is a picture of his late dad, William Lloyd Garrison, wearing jersey number 31, and posing with his football teammates. A sign proclaims them to be the 1938 District Champs.
“He and mother came to every football game I ever played in high school and college,” Walt said. “In college, Daddy would get off work at 5 o’clock and they would drive all the way to wherever the game was, and I’d get to see them for about 30 minutes afterwards, then the team would get on a bus or plane, and they had to drive back home. Mother would help drive so Dad would get some sleep, and he would be back to work on Monday. While I was playing for Dallas, they came to all the home games.”
Number 32 Walt Garrison became one of the toughest running backs in pro football history. In high school, however, he was a good player, but not one of the stats. “I was honorable mention all-district, which was like being third string in a district that wasn’t very good.”
He had a part-time job in those days, working for the American Nut Company. “I’d play football on Friday night, then go to the dance in the gym, and then I had to leave before it was over to go to work unloading boxcars of peanuts-130-pound sacks of fresh peanuts. They roasted ’em and made peanut butter.”
Walt landed a scholarship at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, and had his sights on becoming a veterinarian. But he became a very good college player, and in his senior year was courted by the Los Angeles Rams, who said they planned to take him in the sixth round of the draft. Dallas surprised everyone, however, by taking him in the fifth round, and he negotiated a first-year contract while sitting in the bleachers next day in the OSU gym.
There was a bonus in the deal: “I got ’em to give me the best in-line horse trailer on the market at that time, a Miley with everything on it-$2,280.”
Walt had competed in high school rodeo, but couldn’t get involved with college rodeo until after football season in his senior year. In the years that followed, he continued a balancing act with football and rodeo. The Dallas Cowboys generally looked the other way when the subject of rodeo was broached.
“They never really told me to quit rodeo,” Walt said, “except during the football season.”
Walt’s best buddy, from high school rodeo days, was the late Billy Robinson. Walt and Billy were rodeoing every Saturday night one summer, and well into football season, at the Kow Bell arena in Mansfield. Walt would have dinner with his teammates at 6 p.m., at their pre-game headquarters in a Holiday Inn, then drive to Mansfield and find Billy with the horses ready for steer wrestling. Walt would compete and arrive back in Dallas before the 11 p. m. curfew, then play in a home game the next day.
This worked well until the Cowboys’ office got a phone call: “Do y’all know that Walt Garrison’s over here bulldoggin’ right before a game?”
Coach Tom Landry watched Walt in a team tying event one day during the off season. Team tying, an event virtually extinct in rodeo today, was a variation of team roping, in which the header dismounted and ran back to tie the two hind legs of the steer.
“Is this a dangerous event?” Landry asked Walt ahead of time.
“Heck no, Coach,” Walt replied. “There’s nothing to it.”
Actually, there was a major hazard associated with team tying, and it involved being “caught in the V.” This occurred when the header arrived to make his tie on the ground only to discover that the action was faster and less precise than he wanted it to be. The result was a rapidly moving steer traveling sideways through the air in the direction of the man, who in this instance, was Walt.
“I jumped as high as I could, trying to get clear of the steer, but he hit my feet and I turned a flip and landed on my head,” Walt said.
Landry told him, tongue-in-cheek, “Well, Walt, I can see how that’s not a dangerous event.”
“While he was coaching,” said Walt, “people never realized what a sense of humor Tom Landry really had, off the field anyway.”
Another time, during the off season, Landry phoned Walt and asked if he could find a beginner’s barrel racing horse for the coach’s daughter, Lisa. “Billy and I bought a good, safe horse for her for $600, and you know the first thing Coach asked? He said, ‘What’s the trade-in value on these horses?’
“I said, ‘Coach, for $600 you’re not gonna get hurt.’ I told him the main cost would be in boarding that horse in Dallas. We bought Lisa another horse, later on, when she was ready for something with more speed.”
Walt stays in touch with a lot of his old teammates, including quarterback Don Meredith, who Walt says had a great sense of leadership as well as talent, and handled it all in a very laidback style.
“We would huddle up on the field after a play, and he might be singing ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart,’ or something like that. At a home game, we were in the huddle and Meredith says, ‘You all know Walt here is a hometown boy, and there’s a lot of folks in this stadium that would sure like to see him carry the ball. Well, this time, let’s just give the ball to Walt.'”
Another off-season vignette: Meredith asked Walt to teach him how to ride-in one day-because he had a bit part in a movie the following day.
“It was a western movie, and he said all he had to do was ride a horse into town, get off, and walk into a saloon, then come back out and ride out of town.”
The lesson lasted all day, unfortunately, and Meredith wound up with legs that were rubbed raw. “They were just plain bloody,” Walt recalled.
Nonetheless, Meredith turned to a bystander, Bill Weston, foreman of the B.F. Phillips Ranch, and said, “Well, what do you think?”
“I think,” said Weston, “you should let Walt Garrison double for you. Either that, or do a war movie.”
A lot of Walt’s horseback activity in those days took place at the nearby B. F. Phillips Ranch. He was married for 17 years to the Phillips’ daughter, Pam, and they have two sons from that marriage-Ben, 17, who lives with his mother in Plano, and Marty, 21, who lives with Walt and Debbie Garrison at Lewisville when he isn’t in school.
Marty played football for Colorado State University for a year, then quit the game and transferred to Southeastern Oklahoma State University. He wants to be either a veterinarian or a pilot, and his hobby is rodeo. He has become very competent in steer wrestling.
“I never pushed him into football or rodeo,” Walt said. “He played that one year and just didn’t like it, and I told him, ‘Well, you better find something else, because you’ve got to love football to be any good at it.’ So he went to bulldoggin’ and roping, and it has been great for all of us, because when we’re all together at home, we all enjoy the same thing. I rope, Debbie ropes, he ropes … it’s a family activity.”
Walt and Debbie were married in 1986. She’s the former Debbie Johnston, Miss Rodeo America of 1979.
“Our hobby is horses,” said Debbie. “Any spare time we have, this arena is where we spend it.” Invariably, she will have the horses saddled when Walt arrives home from the office.
The Garrisons live on a secluded acreage that includes a unique house/ barn and a 300 by 175-foot arena.
“We had our priorities straight,” Walt said. “We built the barn and arena, and then we got the house built over the barn.”
Debbie started team roping a couple years ago, and has already enjoyed a lot of success in the event at all-girl ropings. Walt says he likes accompanying Debbie to the women’s events. Most of the time, they’ll have a mixed roping as well, so they can rope together.
Walt makes a lot of business trips to rodeos, but that isn’t all he does. The Copenhagen/Skoal promotions take him and others in his office to events like tractor pulls, fairs and festivals, and auto racing. His office staff includes Darrell Barron, who is also a respected rodeo chute boss, and Randy Vaughn, a former NFR steer wrestler, plus Kenny Schribner, Sue Teague, and Annice Burkhalter, Walt’s secretary for the past 15 years.
The office building was a movie house in days gone by, and Walt refurbished it in a rustic, Old West sort of way, with wooden plank floors and a boardwalk out front. Framed photos — mostly mementos of football and rodeo — cover the walls, and it makes an old Dallas Cowboy who is still a cowboy feel right comfortable at work.
Walt Garrison wrote an entertaining account of his years with the Dallas Cowboys, Once a Cowboy.
This article was originally published in the April 1991 issue of Western Horseman.