If there was ever a player who personified the Dallas Cowboys, it was Bob Lilly.
Before his 14-year career with the Cowboys, Lilly was born and raised in Texas, played most of his prep career in Texas, and even played college ball in the Lone Star state.
“Mr. Cowboy” arrived in 1961 when Dallas selected him with its first official NFL Draft pick.
Bob Lilly, “Mr Cowboy”, about to take down John Brodie of the Niners, early 70s pic.twitter.com/1MkQfyBeyX
— Sports Days Past (@SportsDaysPast) October 19, 2020
Lilly became a cornerstone of the organization and was part of the team’s notorious “Doomsday” defense that terrorized opponents for years.
Then, under the guidance of head coach Tom Landry, Lilly and his mates helped the Cowboys reach two Super Bowls by the end of the 1971 season.
In Super Bowl VI against the Miami Dolphins, Lilly sacked Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese for such a huge loss that the play became part of Super Bowl lore.
This was in stark contrast to the previous year when Lilly used his helmet as a shotput and hurled his headpiece several yards in disgust after losing Super Bowl V.
There was rarely an event or big game that didn’t involve Lilly in the Cowboys’ first decade of existence.
After all, Lilly only missed one game in his career and then rode off into the sunset as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
This is the story of Bob Lilly.
Robert Lewis Lilly was born on July 26, 1939, in Olney, Texas and he grew up in a family of farmers and ranchers.
Bob Lilly (81) pic.twitter.com/iRnEUc8hW8
— Texas Sports History (@TXSportsHistory) July 26, 2020
Hard work became the norm and Lilly used the chores he did around the family farm to prepare him for playing sports.
He learned to play the game of football from his father, John, who had been crippled as a teen but still found time to teach Bob the game’s finer points.
“He worked every day when I was growing up,” said Lilly. “And after work, even though he couldn’t run, he’d throw me that football and teach me the game—more importantly, taught me values and life.”
At Throckmorton High School in Throckmorton, Texas, Lilly became a talented sports star.
— Texas HS Football (@texashsfootball) November 17, 2020
Taking advantage of a huge growth spurt in three years, Lilly became a dominating 6’5” athlete who played football, basketball, volleyball, and track.
His long limbs and quick feet stopped ball carriers in their tracks on the gridiron and helped him score an average of 27 points per game on the basketball court.
By the end of his junior year, Lilly was an All-District and All-State honorable mention in basketball.
Move to Oregon
Just before his senior year of high school, the Lilly family farm was one of several in Texas that experienced one of the worst droughts in state history.
The conditions became so bad that Lilly’s parents realized they had to pull up stakes and leave Texas.
“We did have a big drought starting in 1950 and lasted through 57,” Lilly said in 2021. “So our farming business went downhill. We could foresee—Dad could—that we were going to starve to death.”
Lilly’s parents began calling extended family members to try and find a place to live and work.
A cousin was able to find Lilly’s dad a job in Oregon and the family packed up their car and headed northwest.
— EastOregonian Sports (@EOsports) July 6, 2017
Eventually, the Lillys settled in Pendleton, Oregon where Bob played his senior year for the Pendleton High School Buckaroos.
During his lone season at the school, Lilly picked up where he left off in Texas and became an All-State selection for football and received similar honors for the Buckaroos’ hoops team.
Lilly Returns to Texas
When it came time to pick a college, there was a varied selection of programs interested in Lilly.
He had an opportunity to play in the Pacific Northwest for the University of Oregon and the University of Washington.
However, neither choice suited Lilly because “every time I visited it just rained and rained and rained.”
Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas also expressed interest.
— AinsworthSports.com (@AinsworthSports) November 23, 2019
Allie White, who was the Horned Frogs’ line coach at the time, had watched Lilly play in a volleyball game when Lilly was at Throckmorton High.
“I never saw a big boy so quick,” remembered White years later.
The coach had kept tabs on Lilly and sent word that he wanted the former Texas schoolboy to play for him.
Excited for the opportunity to return to Texas, Lilly took the scholarship offer and made the trek to Fort Worth.
As Lilly later recalled, his mother “packed about sixty ham sandwiches and a few gallons of lemonade” for the drive south.
Lilly Makes an Impact at TCU
When he reported for preseason practice in the fall of 1957, Lilly was aware that he wouldn’t be able to play ball as a freshman due to NCAA rules.
So, when he wasn’t practicing with the Horned Frogs, Lilly immersed himself in water sports.
In particular, he took a class on water skiing for his physical education major and was immediately hooked.
He couldn’t get enough of the activity and his grades began to suffer.
Before he made himself academically ineligible to play sports, Lilly turned things around in time for his sophomore year.
In 1958, TCU had an 8-2-1 record that included wins over in-state rivals Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Baylor, Texas, and Rice.
Lilly started only one game that season, but helped TCU’s defense hold opponents to 19.8 points per game, good for 31st (out of 112 NCAA Division I teams) in the nation.
Wishing @TCU’s Bob Lilly a Happy Birthday! 🎂 When “Mr. Defense” was a Horned Frog, TCU surrendered an average of just 8 pts. a game! As a sophomore, Bob helped @TCUFootball to an 8-2-1 record which included a scoreless tie with @AF_Football in the @CottonBowlGame. #GoFrogs 🐸🏈 pic.twitter.com/Z0LLWC66RV
— College Football Hall of Fame (@cfbhall) July 26, 2020
The Horned Frogs played Air Force in the Cotton Bowl on January 1st which ended in a scoreless tie.
During the 1959 season, Lilly became an All-Southwest Conference member as the defense kept opponents to under seven points per game.
That average was surpassed when Clemson defeated TCU, 23-7, in the first-ever Bluebonnet Bowl.
Lilly and his teammates hoped to return to a bowl in 1960 and come away with a win.
Unfortunately, TCU struggled and won only four games during his senior year.
The poor record wasn’t the fault of the Horned Frogs’ defense.
Two of the losses that season were by seven points or less and there were two low-scoring ties as well.
As a leader on TCU’s defense, Lilly was dominant from his defensive line position and his wild play led teammates to call him “Tiger.”
— Texas Sports Hall of Fame (@TXSportsHOF) July 26, 2016
He slashed through double teams and made play after play to foil scoring attempts.
Lilly’s brute strength wasn’t only evident on the field, but also to the locals who parked in his assigned space on campus, who learned the hard way not to take his spot.
Returning home one day to find a Volkswagen parked in his spot, an infuriated Lilly simply moved it.
“I picked up the front end and moved it and then picked up the back end and did the same thing—at no time did I have all four wheels off the ground at once,” Lilly clarified.
Lilly’s accomplishments for the Horned Frogs football team did not go unnoticed and he was voted a consensus All-American and repeated as an all-conference player.
Then, despite the fact that TCU missed playing in a bowl game, Lilly played in four invitation-only all-star style contests after his senior year.
The games, which included the East-West Shrine Game and the College All-Star Game gave pro scouts even more opportunities to watch Lilly in action.
Lilly Chooses the Cowboys
In 1952, Dallas had a pro football team, called the Texans, that lasted for only one season.
Eight years later, the city had two new franchises.
An updated version of the Texans (owned by Lamar Hunt) would play in the AFL while the Dallas Cowboys would play in the NFL.
Since the Cowboys were an expansion team, and the NFL granted their expansion too late, Dallas was not able to participate in the 1960 NFL Draft.
Instead, the franchise picked unwanted players from the other NFL franchises in a special supplemental draft in March of that year.
With a band of castoffs, the best that Cowboys coach Tom Landry could do was coax a tie out of his 0-11-1 squad in 1960.
Looking ahead to the 1961 draft, Landry and his fellow coaches wanted to select Lilly.
They knew, however, that there was heavy interest in him from other NFL teams and made a trade with the Cleveland Browns to select earlier in the first round.
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) December 9, 2018
With the 13th overall selection in the 1961 NFL Draft, the Cowboys took Lilly.
Then, with the 14th overall pick in the ‘61 AFL Draft, the Texans also selected Lilly.
Lilly had a decision to make and he asked Abe Martin, his coach at TCU, which franchise he should play for.
“I asked my college coach which one I should pick,” Lilly recalled in 2019. “He told me he’d go with the NFL. Those other football leagues seems to fail. The NFL is more secure.”
Lilly picked the Cowboys and started every game for the team in 1961, collecting 5.5 sacks and a fumble recovery, and was named the league’s Rookie of the Year.
Dallas Builds Its Roster
For the next few years, the Cowboys continued to experience growing pains.
However, the team was slowly building its roster into a solid unit.
In 1962, Lilly’s second pro season, Dallas had such players as “Dandy” Don Meredith at quarterback, running back Don Perkins, and linebacker Chuck Howley.
Lilly had nine sacks that season (the NFL did not keep track of tackles at the time) and was named to his first Pro Bowl.
The following year, Landry moved Lilly from defensive end to defensive tackle.
Blasting through the offensive line from his four-point stance, Lilly responded with five sacks and a fumble return of 42 yards for a score.
— ᑭᖇO ᖴOOTᗷᗩᒪᒪ ᒍOᑌᖇᑎᗩᒪ 🏈 (@NFL_Journal) September 5, 2021
He continued to shine in 1964 when he recovered three fumbles and brought down opposing quarterbacks 10.5 times.
Lilly’s play led to his second Pro Bowl nod and a first-team All-Pro selection.
Meanwhile, Dallas continued to struggle and could muster only five wins in ‘64 and seven in ’65.
By the end of the ‘65 season, Lilly had intercepted his first NFL pass and returned it 17 yards to the house and added eight sacks and two fumble recoveries.
He was added to the Pro Bowl roster and named first-team All-Pro again.
The Cowboys may not have tallied many victories in the franchise’s first six years, but they were improving.
Dallas’ roster in 1965 included rookies Dan Reeves (future NFL head coach), receiver “Bullet” Bob Hayes, tackle Ralph Neely, defensive tackle Jethro Pugh, and veterans Lee Roy Jordan and Mel Renfro.
With that core of players, the losing ways would not last long.
Playoffs at Last
In the 1966 NFL Draft, Dallas selected running back Walt Garrison and guard John Niland.
At long last, the team started to perform to expectations and won the first four games of the year before ending the season with a 10-3-1 record.
Lilly played like a man possessed and harassed quarterbacks to the tune of 15 sacks, which netted him Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors.
Cowboys All Pro defensive tackle Bob Lilly (#74) brings down Bears runner Charlie Bivins. We think #67, the Bear player on the ground behind Lilly is Ted Karras, brother of Hall of Fame defensive tackle Alex Karras. pic.twitter.com/QwfSaFAnLw
— nflpastplayers (@nflpastplayers) February 3, 2023
The Cowboys reached the NFL Championship game against the Green Bay Packers and lost, 34-27.
Dallas returned to the title game in 1967 with a 9-5 record but would lose to the Packers again, 21-17.
In 1968 and 1969, the Cowboys lost only four times combined but couldn’t get past the Browns and lost in the Conference playoffs both years.
After the 1968 season, Meredith retired and the Cowboys drafted Navy quarterback Roger Staubach in the 1969 NFL Draft along with running back Calvin Hill.
On the field, Lilly was one of the best defensive tackles in the game and a perpetual Pro Bowl invitee.
“The competition is what I love,” Lilly once said. “That makes me a lot more intense. Personalities don’t enter into it at all. My objective is to get the man with the ball. Nobody better get in my way.”
Very few opponents got in Lilly’s way, as evidenced by his 12.5 sacks in ‘68 and five sacks and a fumble return for a score in ‘69.
“Doomsday” and Super Bowl V
In 1970, the Cowboys finally reached the goal every NFL team strives for.
Quarterback Craig Morton found receivers Hayes and Lance Rentzel and tight end Mike Ditka while linemen Rayfield Wright, Niland, Neely, and friends opened holes for Garrison and Hill.
The Cowboys’ defense had become a vicious machine nicknamed “Doomsday.”
— GSH (@gman416) May 23, 2020
Along with Lilly, Pugh, Renfro, Howley, and Jordan, cornerback Herb Adderley joined the squad from the Packers and Dallas drafted safeties Charlie Waters and Cliff Harris in 1970.
The Doomsday Defense was ranked fourth overall in ‘70 and helped the Cowboys achieve ten victories.
In the postseason, Dallas snuck past Detroit in the Divisional round and outlasted San Francisco in the NFC Championship game.
Their next opponent would be the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl V.
All the hype surrounding both teams before the game turned into disappointment as the contest unfolded.
Both sides squandered opportunities with penalties, blocked kicks, and turnovers (11 total).
Now known as the “Blunder Bowl,” the Cowboys alone committed ten penalties as a team—a Super Bowl record at the time.
Somehow, Dallas led at halftime, 13-6, before Baltimore came back in the second half to tie the game at 13.
Then, with nine seconds remaining, Colts kicker Jim O’Brien booted a 32-yard field goal to win.
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) April 19, 2017
As the Baltimore players celebrated their first Super Bowl victory, Lilly could be seen taking off his helmet and throwing it several yards in disgust.
Dallas Returns to the Super Bowl
Lilly wasn’t the only one upset about the Cowboy’s loss in the Super Bowl.
Landry and the entire Dallas organization made it their mission to return to the league’s title game and take home a championship in 1971.
Here are the PFHOF names on the Super Bowl VI #Cowboys player/coach roster:
Chuck Howley (currently a senior finalist)
Ernie Stautner pic.twitter.com/B6hZVN8rSf
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 17, 2023
However, by Halloween, they had a 4-3 record and were not playing up to their standards.
From then on, Dallas would not lose and ended the season on a seven-game win streak and an 11-3 overall record.
Lilly had five sacks and another fumble recovery for a touchdown while making life miserable for those who dared line up against him.
“He’s the greatest defensive tackle ever! He was the smartest, the coolest,” said Washington Redskins coach George Allen. “We tried everything against him, but could never confuse or contain him.”
Landry and his coaches delighted in the fact that their defensive tackle never met a challenge he couldn’t handle.
“He always broke through the initial contact,” remarked Dallas defensive coordinator Ernie Stautner. “Teams tried to double-team and triple-team him, but nothing worked.”
In their return to the postseason, the Cowboys displaced Minnesota and San Francisco in the first two rounds before facing the Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl.
Super Bowl VI
“The team was very serious about that game,” said Lilly years later. “We had lost the last year by three points to Baltimore. And we’d been runner-up, bridesmaids, and all kinds of things for years. We made up our minds after that game (Super Bowl 5). We were going to win the next one (Super Bowl 6).”
Dallas had no intention of playing as sloppily as they had the year before and planned a coordinated attack, as Miami soon found out.
During their third possession of the first quarter, the ‘Fins had the ball at their own 38-yard line.
Quarterback Bob Griese took the snap and dropped back to pass when he saw Lilly barreling down on him.
Panicked, Griese backpedaled until Lilly caught up to him and dropped the quarterback for a Super Bowl-record 29-yard loss.
Legends Ray Scott and Pat Summerall on the call for CBS.
51 years ago today. pic.twitter.com/Rl6f72G9jJ
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 16, 2023
Staubach (now the team’s starter) calmly led several scoring plays and found Lance Alworth and Ditka for touchdowns while Duane Thomas scored once on the ground.
The “Doomsday Defense,” led by several big plays from Renfro and Cornell Green, held a good Miami team to just three points.
That represented the lowest score at that point by a Super Bowl team.
Until better days. Here is a photo of Bob Lilly smoking a victory cigar after finally winning it all in Jan 1972. The long suffering is what makes winning that much sweeter when it happens. pic.twitter.com/2R5tjfBZ4J
— Gary (@Gman5711) February 8, 2022
After his team’s dominant 24-3 victory, Lilly held on to his helmet but grabbed a cigar in celebration.
“We were elated after the game was over,” he said. “Absolutely elated. It was like lifting a hundred-pound weight off all our backs that we had been carrying around for a long time and we finally got rid of it. That was the beginning of more to come.”
Cowboys Come Up Short
Anticipated return trips to the Super Bowl for Dallas were delayed by a few years beginning in 1972.
Sporting identical 10-4 records in ‘72 and ’73, the Cowboys lost in the NFC Championship game both seasons to Washington and Minnesota, respectively.
Super B-Day to Bob Lilly, seen here in a '72 preseason game between the Cowboys & a team of college all-stars. pic.twitter.com/IHFggIi4Qb
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) July 26, 2015
Lilly was absent from the 1973 NFC title game against the Vikings with an injury—the only contest he missed in his career.
Then, in 1974, Dallas missed the playoffs altogether for the first time since 1965.
Although he was getting long in the tooth, Lilly continued frustrating opponents, totaling eight total sacks during that period.
“His instincts were unreal,” remarked Atlanta coach Marion Campbell after a game. “He knew where the ball was going before it was snapped.”
The usually stoic Landry even heaped praise on “Mr. Cowboy.”
“A man like that comes along once in a lifetime,” Landry said in 1972. “He is something a little bit more than great. Nobody is better than Bob Lilly.”
Career Stats and Legacy
By the end of the ‘74 season, Lilly was hampered by a leg injury and retired after playing for 14 years.
During his career, Lilly had one interception for a touchdown, 18 fumble recoveries (three returned for scores), and 95.5 sacks.
The NFL did not actually keep track of sacks until 1982, but recent historical research has been able to give Lilly and his peers their due in that category.
Lilly played in two Super Bowls—winning one—and was an 11-time Pro Bowler, a seven-time first-team All-Pro, a two-time second-team All-Pro, and Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Bob Lilly is one of the 7 DTs selected to the #NFL100 All-Time Team!
🤠 11x Pro Bowler
🤠 Super Bowl VI Champion
🤠 NFL 1960s + 1970s All-Decade Team pic.twitter.com/i3Wktzkayb
— NFL (@NFL) November 30, 2019
Since his retirement, Lilly has been added to the NFL’s 1960s and 1970s All-Decade Teams, the league’s 75th and 100th Anniversary All-Time Teams, and was the first Dallas player to be placed in the franchise’s Ring of Honor.
Life in Retirement
Not long after hanging up his cleats, Lilly returned to Texas and opened a beer distributorship.
His company was successful, but Lilly was moved when he saw the impact of a car accident caused by drunk driving and eventually sold the company.
In 1980, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, becoming the first athlete to play his entire career in Dallas to receive the honor.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) May 1, 2021
The following year, Lilly was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
While he was playing in the NFL, Lilly took up photography and it became a passion.
After selling his beer company, Lilly began a career in landscape photography that he enjoys to this day.
Currently, Lilly and his wife, Ann, reside in Texas.