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How Cowboys greats delivered Hall of Fame news to Chuck Howley

The moment was a very long time in coming, 45 years, to be exact.

That’s how long Cowboys linebacker Chuck Howley had been eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But despite a one-of-a-kind career that saw him soaring to the pinnacle of the game, leading one of the great dynasties in the sport’s history, and achieving a singular honor that not another soul who has ever played can lay claim to, Howley had never even been a finalist for Canton.

So for the moment when one of the Cowboys’ very first stars was to be finally added to the permanent constellation of football immortality, it would require an assemblage of the legends who had shined alongside him.

Roger Staubach, Bob Lilly, Lee Roy Jordan, Mel Renfro, Cliff Harris, and Charlie Waters all took part in telling their former teammate that he would be a member of the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2023. (Click here to see the full video.)

For Howley’s family, his friends, his teammates, and his fans of a certain age, last week’s announcement finally set right a long-overdue omission. But for Howley himself, it’s sadly not clear if the news of his enshrinement is even fully understood.

Howley, now 86, suffers from late-stage dementia. It’s why he wasn’t in Phoenix last week when his name was called at the NFL Honors ceremony. It’s why Howley’s son Scott took his place on the stage with legends like DeMarcus Ware, Joe Thomas, and Darrelle Revis. It’s why he wasn’t on the field at Super Bowl LVII to be recognized by the crowd.

And it’s why so many of Howley’s teammates gathered to first bring Howley the news. The more of his friends, the more gold jackets in the room, the better the chances of the message being received.

Even though it’s a message Howley had long hoped for.

“Even after all these years, my dad never gave up his dream of making the Hall of Fame,” Scott said.

He certainly always had the credentials: six Pro Bowls and five first-team All-Pros nods over 13 years with the Cowboys. Two Super Bowl appearances- a win in one, and a two-interception, forced-fumble performance that earned him MVP honors in the other. He was so dominant in that 16-13 defeat that he remains the only Super Bowl MVP ever from the losing team.

And he was the early leader of the iconic defense that dominated the 1970s and forever changed the way football is played.

“There wouldn’t have been a ‘Doomsday’ defense without Chuck,” Lilly said.

None other than Coach Tom Landry said when Howley retired, “I don’t know that I’ve seen anybody better at linebacker.”

And yet Howley fell through the Hall of Fame Selection Committee’s cracks for nearly five decades.

By the time the recognition finally came and he was named a senior finalist for the first time in August 2022, Alzheimer’s disease had already knocked on Howley’s door, eight years prior. The onetime athletic dynamo who lettered in five sports at the University of West Virginia showed no comprehension of what he was being told.

But there are still good days mixed in with the bad days. And every once in a while, a ray of sunshine pierces even the darkest clouds and fog of late-stage dementia.

Shortly after that visit last fall, Howley’s round-the-clock caregiver was talking about the possibility of making the Hall… and something happened.

“My dad looked at him and said, ‘Well, I’m going to need a new suit,'” Scott recounted. “There was a moment of clarity where he appeared excited about it.”

When the contingent of Cowboys greats arrived en masse on Jan. 24 to deliver the news of Howley’s induction, Staubach knew better than to have similar expectations.

“His dementia makes me sick when I think about it,” Staubach said. “It’s a major thrill to go into the Hall of Fame, and I am praying that he will understand. But it’s going to be tough.”

Surrounded by family and friends and teammates, Howley got the news from his former quarterback.

“Oh. Thank you,” Howley said, with a nod that one wants to believe came with crystal-clear understanding of the moment.

Staubach and his mates would gently repeat the news to Howley several times over the course of their visit. And with everything that comes standard with a Hall invitee- from gold jacket fittings to bust-sculpting sessions- he’ll no doubt be reminded often between now and August’s ceremony.

“We’re going to make sure we record every moment,” Scott said, “so that he has every opportunity to live as much of it as he can.”

But just as with the official announcement last week in Phoenix and the public curtain call at Super Bowl LVII, Howley likely won’t be in Canton to be enshrined in-person.

“It would be very difficult for him,” Scott said, as per Mickey Spagnola of the team website. “He can’t handle of lot of sensory input; the crowd and the regiment of the schedule would be hard.”

So it will fall, once again, to Howley’s family, friends, and Cowboys teammates to see No. 54’s place in football history finally solidified.

“I’m so proud to be able to tell Chuck he’s in the Hall of Fame,” Staubach said, according to columnist John McClain. “It’s an honor that’s well-deserved. He was a fantastic linebacker. He did everything. He could run, hit, drop into coverage, rush the passer. It’s such a thrill because it brings back so many memories.”

One hopes that the memories have come back- even if only in fleeting moments- for Howley, too.

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