Fifty years ago today, Six Flags Over Texas – the original Six Flags – opened its doors a mere 20 miles west of the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, bringing amusement to the Metroplex. The Dallas Cowboys were absent, instead sequestered far to the north under the substantially less amusing supervision of Tom Landry.
Staging their own Wild West show at Howard Wood Field in Sioux Falls, S.D., the second-year Cowboys dispatched the expansion Minnesota Vikings by a 38-13 count in what was the purple gang’s first-ever game, albeit a preseason affair.
Minnesota came to South Dakota reeling from substantial injuries to three top draft choices – No. 1 overall Tommy Mason, a running back from Tulane, linebacker Rip Hawkins and defensive back Ed Sharockman – each of whom were felled on Soldier Field’s muddy turf one night earlier during the 28th Annual All-Star Football Game between exiting college stars and the defending NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles. Even Vikings fullback Mel Triplett, while not injured, had cause for distraction; his wife had given birth to their ninth child two days prior.
With Mason unavailable, Triplett fumbled on the game’s opening play from scrimmage and Dallas recovered. Two plays later, Cowboys running back Louis George Dupre plunged into the end zone for a touchdown. It would be the first quarter’s only score.
Dallas quarterback Don Meredith played in the second and fourth quarters, dazzling the crowd of 4,954 with two touchdown passes. The Upper Midwest also caught an early glimpse of Scramblin’ Fran Tarkenton, who threw his first professional touchdown pass in the fourth quarter for Minnesota. His 36-yard strike to Don Ellersick gave the Vikings their second aerial score of the contest. Bob Lily, another eventual hall of famer, played his first professional snaps on the South Dakota sod as well, beginning his Cowboys career at defensive end prior to becoming a Doomsday defensive tackle two years later.
Because the teams’ opening preseason game was played just 12 miles west of the Minnesota state line, both Dallas and Minnesota pragmatically held their 1961 training camps in the North Star State. Chet Anderson Stadium on the campus of then-Bemidji State College hosted the Vikings in northern Minnesota, while the Cowboys trained in southern Minnesota at St. Olaf College. Tarkenton, raised in Georgia, recalled the shores of Lake Bemidji as a chilly host – “I thought I had landed in the Klondike,” he said in a blog post – and Lily recalled St. Olaf as a “beautiful campus” but the unfortunate bearer of 386 steps down which he had to walk from dormitory to field, according to Landry’s Boys by Peter Golenbock.
The teams’ uniquely intertwined foray into the NFL continued during the regular season with meetings in Week 2 and Week 4, both won by Dallas. Through the years since, Dallas and Minnesota have remained almost cosmically aligned, with Dallas emerging as a force in the mid-1960s followed by Minnesota’s reign in the 1970s, a rich history of playoff showdowns, three Thanksgiving Day wins for Minnesota and of course a one-sided trade that fueled Dallas’ dynastic 1990s.
– Jayson Hron