On the 20th anniversary of Daryl "Moose" Johnston's first Super Bowl victory, one of the toughest players in NFL history is wearing dad jeans. He's in New Orleans for the 47th Super Bowl, but he's spending his Wednesday playing with his three-year-old yellow Labrador, flanked by the cutest family since the Tanners. It's so Rockwellian that you easily forget how intimidating he was as a player and struggle to see how he fit in with the notorious bad 'boys that won three championships in the 1990s.
He didn't, really. Neither did quarterback Troy Aikman. They were the good guys then and still are now. Along with Aikman, Johnston helped counterbalance a group that might have been too rogue to succeed without them.
I was invited to spend some time with Moose (the nickname no longer feels apt), his wife, Diane, his son, Aiden, his daughter, Evan, and their dog, Gunner, while the 46-year-old was promoting a quasi-mind-blowing mobile app called P5 that essentially digitizes the art of training your dog. Welcome to 2013, where cars park themselves and iPhones teach dogs to catch flying discs.
It's just the kind of wholesome product you'd expect the neo-wholesome Johnston family to represent. He's always been a dog guy and credits his last pup, Otis, for the role he played in keeping Diane and him grounded from the beginning of their relationship 17 years ago.
"It teaches you responsibility," he says. "It teaches you that, as a couple, you can't just take off on vacations all the time. You get a little bit of that responsibility that you're gonna have to have as a parent when you have your first child. So it kind of is an opportunity for you to learn what the challenges are and what the priorities are gonna be when you decide to start your family."
Juxtaposition time. The night prior to meeting up with Johnston, I arrive at my hotel in the French Quarter just before midnight. There, as if on cue, is Michael Irvin, who is truly Johnston's football antithesis in the virtuosity department. We say hello and then ride the elevator together, where a giggling (semi-unhinged?) Irvin finds a way to break the new world record for crude remarks per hotel floor traveled. Mike very well may be sober nowadays, but he still rubs some of those around him in a weird, unsettling way.
Hours later, I'm watching Moose as he watches 11-year-old Evan lead Gunner through a series of dog exercises at the Purina Pro Plan Canine Combine. I'm watching Diane as she watches Moose as he watches Evan as she watches Gunner and that Elton John song from The Lion King is on repeat. Or something like that.
It's cool because, even though Johnston is two decades older than me, I even feel as though I've watched him grow up. He was a 26-year-old bachelor when that first championship came in a blowout victory over Buffalo exactly 20 years ago. He and other key cogs from that era have transformed in unique ways since, and Moose just seems utterly happy.
Looking back on the kick-ass chapter that preceded this one, Johnston doesn't gush. He does tell me he believes that 1992 team was the best of the bunch, but that the emergence of the salary cap and free agency limited their success in the years that followed.
"If that team was allowed to stay together as long as we could have stayed together," he says, "with the old system in the NFL with the players getting drafted and staying on the same team, I think we could have done some things that have never been done before in the NFL."
He wishes they had taken more time to reflect on how special they were "because you're so programmed to move on to the next thing right away." But Jeff Pearlman did a ton of reflecting in his controversial book, entitled Boys Will Be Boys, which painted that Cowboys team as a "dysfunctional circus, fueled by ego, sex, drugs, and jaw-dropping excess."
To Johnston, that was an example of society's disdain for those who experience success.
"Nobody's perfect in this world and yet we expect everyone to be perfect," he tells me. "And when they're not, we want to splash it on billboards and throw it in headlines and take away from what people have accomplished. And that's what that book was about. You go back and look at the people who were quoted in that book, and that wasn't the inner circle."
He admits that the team had its problems off the field but suggests they've been treated unfairly in that regard. He confesses that "there were new lines drawn" when Irvin was suspended after pleading no contest to drug possession charges in 1996—"When your behavior impacts you as an individual, that's one thing. When it impacts the team, that's another thing"—but says he remains friendly with everyone from those days. Irvin still lives in Dallas, as does Darren Woodson. Johnston and Emmitt Smith are a 10-minute drive from one another. Aikman's kids go to school with Aiden and Evan.
"Everybody's still very close," he says. "And the reason that team had so much success is because we weren't just teammates, we were friends. We had some guys that made very poor decisions. That's really all there is to it. Does it take away from anything that we accomplished? Absolutely not."
I don't ask Johnston much about the current Cowboys because I fear the automatically-generated cliché that I'd be slapped in the face with. He reiterates, though, that he believes Jason Garrett and Tony Romo deserve more time together in Dallas, and he draws an interesting comparison to his incarnation of "America's Team."
"That group has to create their own legacy," he says. "The same way that the 1990s Cowboys had to create their own legacy to separate themselves from Roger Staubach and the great teams of the 1970s."
It's just as easy to forget that Johnston was once fierce enough to earn the nickname "Moose," as it is to forget that Moose and his peers also spent some time stuck in shadows cast from previous dynasties.
Twenty years ago this weekend, Johnston was rocking Buffalo Bills linebackers, paving the way for Smith and buying time for Aikman as the Cowboys crushed Buffalo to finally separate themselves from that Staubach shadow. Now here he is on a 30-yard makeshift mini-field, defenseless against the smile on his face as he tosses flying discs to Gunner and joshes with his family.
While he doesn't believe those Cowboys reached their ceiling, would he be as satisfied today if not for those rings? Wouldn't Romo like to know....