Shatel: The Christmas Babe — finding the meaning of the holidays in an empty Dallas Cowboys’ press box

In 1990, an injury to Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman meant backup Babe Laufenberg would play — and Tom Shatel had the scoop.

Christmas means something different to everybody. But I didn’t understand what it meant to me until I spent Christmas alone in a dark locker room.

The story takes place in north Dallas, Texas, in a suburb known as Valley Ranch. Instead of a manger, there was the Dallas Cowboys’ complex. I’m not sure if there were three wise men, but Jimmy Johnson counted as one.

I was working for the Dallas Morning News, the No. 2 writer on the Cowboys beat, assisting lead writer Rick Gosselin. That meant I did a lot of grunt work, including work Christmas Day.

No problem. I was single, 32, and my parents and sister were up in Kansas City. It would have been great to go north, but it was more important for Rick, or “Goose,” to spend Christmas at home. He had just moved to Dallas, and his wife was back in KC trying to sell their house.

The Cowboys were in the second year of the Jerry Jones/Jimmy Johnson rebuild. They had gone 1-15 the first year, but now were sitting one win from the playoffs in year two. They had to beat the Falcons in Atlanta in the last game to sneak in.

Very doable. One problem: in the last game, on Dec. 23 in chilly Philadelphia, franchise quarterback Troy Aikman was knocked out of the game. He couldn’t play this week.

Tuesday was Johnson’s weekly news conference, but not this time. This week, Tuesday was Christmas Day. Coaches and players had all been sent home and would return Wednesday, Dec. 26.

But there was still a newspaper that day and it needed a Cowboys’ story. I had one ready to go, a player feature. It was filed. As far as The Morning News was concerned, I was free to spend Christmas Day at home, in my luxurious bachelor pad or trying to find an open bar and grill in one of the hundreds of strip malls in The Metroplex. But when the DMN said you were free to have a day off, that was always code for: "Of course we really expect you to work.”

No problem. I had an idea: What if Laufenberg, recognizing the big moment, came back early to watch film? I could be waiting for him at Valley Ranch. I might get a “scoop.”

I showed up at 10 a.m. To my surprise, another writer from one of the competing papers was there, too. There were three major papers in the DFW area, and each had two writers on the Cowboys. They put us in our own “press room,” which was a huge walk-in closet with three desks separated by partitions, and each with its own phone. That made it really interesting when you were doing a phone interview you didn’t want the other guys to hear.

Or forgotten. And the memories can lift you up, even when it’s not there, if only for a year.

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