Did you ever participate in the Punt, Pass and Kick contests when you were a youngster? If so, do you remember how there always seemed to be that one kid who could punt the ball higher, kick it straighter and longer, and throw it further than anyone else? He could do it all.
Danny White was that kid his whole football life. Unlike the other kids who eventually grew up and found plenty of others that could out-kick or out-throw them, White remained among the very best at both, even at the highest level of competition, the National Football League.
White was the Cowboys’s punter and backup quarterback for much of the Staubach era. When Staubach retired, White became the team’s starting quarterback while retaining punting duties through 1984.
With the two-time Super Bowl winner Staubach as his predecessor and the three-time Super Bowl winning Aikman as his eventual successor, White has been relegated to the footnotes in Cowboys’ history. He is largely seen by casual or uninformed fans as a general failure. In fact, in the Tony Romo debate, the question often asked by pundits and fans alike is whether Romo is to be another Aikman/Staubach or another Danny White. Such a question is born of ignorance and is patently unfair to White, whose football career and accomplishments are nothing to sneeze at.
It is true that White never won a Super Bowl as the Cowboys starting QB. It is also true that he took his team to three consecutive NFC championship games. If you are going to judge Romo solely based on success in the postseason, he has a long way to go to merit mention alongside White.
Of course, there are so many more factors that ought to be considered when judging a QB, but is always seems to boil down to postseason success in general, and Super Bowl success in particular.
On January 4, 1981, the Cowboys were matched against the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round of the playoffs. Going into the fourth quarter, the Cowboys were down on the scoreboard, 24-10. White lead the Cowboys to a 20-point fourth quarter, including two touchdown passes to Drew Pearson in the final three minutes. The final TD drive began with under two minutes left in the game and the Cowboys on their own 29 yard line. The drive culminated with a 23-yard TD pass from White to Pearson. Most Cowboys historians have this game in their top five Cowboys comebacks of all time.
It was, however, White’s misfortune to lose the NFC Championship game to the Philadelphia Eagles. The next year, he would lose the NFC championship to Joe Montana’s San Francisco 49ers. In the 1982-83 season, for the third consecutive year, White’s Cowboys would advance to the NFC championship. They would fall to the Washington Redskins.
After the loss to the Redskins, with the vaunted Cowboys team on decline and unknowingly stumbling towards the end of the Landry era, White would play in just two more playoff games and lose both.
And so the career of one of the most under-appreciated players in Cowboys’ history would come to an inglorious end. There would be no Lombardi trophies attributed to the man who broke so many of Staubach’s passing records. He would not get any cool nicknames like Captain America or Captain Comeback, despite having lead his team to an impressive 16 fourth quarter comeback victories.
The man who could either get you a first down or, if he failed to do that, pin the enemy deep in its own territory with a booming punt, the ultimate Punt, Pass and Kick king would simply be remembered as Danny White, the guy that followed Staubach and failed to fill his shoes.
That is unfortunate.
I ran across an archived article in People magazine from November 17, 1980. Written by Kent Demaret, the article was titled, After Four Years in Staubach’s Shadow, Danny White Flexes His Muscles as Dallas’ New Leader. The article captured the hope and expectations associated with White’s ascension to the Cowboys’ throne. It also outlined what phenomenal athlete the Cowboys signal caller was and how well prepared he was to take assume the position hallowed by one of the NFL’s all-time greatest legends:
Danny White was the sorcerer’s apprentice. The sorcerer, of course, was Roger Staubach, the premier quarterback in the National Football League and a wizard at pulling out last-minute victories for the Dallas Cowboys. As his understudy from 1976 to 1979, White could only suit up, pace the sidelines and look longingly toward the future.
For Wilford Daniel White, 28, the future is here. Staubach retired at 38 last March, and White took the helm. “I had been stagnant,” he says. “Now things are going my way.” With a 7-2 record a little more than halfway through the season, the Cowboys are almost certain to reach the playoffs for the 14th time in 15 years. Ranked the NFL’s third best quarterback (after L.A.’s Vince Ferragamo and Philadelphia’s Ron Jaworski), White is having a better year than Staubach did in 1979.
White seldom complained when he was a sub. “I’m like a turkey in the oven, waiting for the chef to say I’m done,” he would joke. But by the end of last season he was adding, “Coach [Tom] Landry must like his turkey well-done. I’m smoking a bit now.” He remembers “times when I was desperate to contribute. I would go into the locker room after a game and see everyone celebrating, and I couldn’t feel anything. I was empty, miserable.”
No longer. “My confidence is growing every week,” the poised White asserts. “I know I can play in this league.” Dallas general manager Tex Schramm agrees: “Danny is in the toughest position in football, trying to fill the shoes of a legend. So far he has handled it well.”
No one is more of a booster than Staubach, now a Dallas businessman. “Danny’s biggest asset is that he believes he’ll get the job done,” says the 11-year veteran. They were friends—and rivals. “We were competing constantly,” White acknowledges, “even if it was just at Ping-Pong.” One day Staubach returned from the showers to find a note taped to his locker. “Roger,” it read, “Danny needs your locker for next year. Please sign in your equipment as soon as possible—Coach Landry.” Of course, White was responsible for the gag. Another time he sent Staubach an anonymous gift, a T-shirt stamped “Old quarterbacks never die; they just pass away.”
Sports were a way of life in White’s boyhood home in Mesa, Ariz. His father, Wilford “Whizzer” White (no relation to the Supreme Court justice), was an All-America halfback for Arizona State and went on to play for the Chicago Bears. He now runs a private investigating and security firm in Phoenix and recalls how he and Danny would stand in the front yard “and throw the football at a lamp post 40 feet across the street for hours.”
In high school Danny was all-state in baseball, basketball and track but not nearly as interested in football, in which he played several positions. He went to Arizona State on a baseball scholarship but, turning out for football, he switched to quarterback and was soon starting for the Sun Devils. He set seven NCAA records in three years and led ASU to a 33-3 record. After college White was drafted by several baseball teams (as a utility infielder) and by the Cowboys. When the Memphis Southmen of the fledgling World Football League offered him twice as much money as the Cowboys, he signed and played until the league folded in 1975. White became the full-time punter for Dallas, but as backup quarterback played only six quarters until Staubach quit.