ARGYLE, Texas — Walt Garrison, the advocate of “just a pinch between your cheek and gum,” has been a cowboy all his life. He grew up Western to the core in nearby Lewisville, signed and played collegiately with Oklahoma State’s Cowboys, and — wouldn’t you know it — he later became a Dallas Cowboy running back.
He suspects that if he had been drafted by some distant team with a faraway address, he still would have ended up right where he is today — on his tree-lined ranch 40 miles from Dallas. He likes the way life has treated him and gets up every day with roping on his mind. Just go down to the coral and rope a steer. Much like many of us would head to the country club for a round of golf or organizing a game of tennis.
Football and roping have been his life. Even when he was a high-paid running back for the Cowboys, he roped on the side. He kept telling management that roping was safe. Tom Landry, the first coach of the Cowboys, showed up at a rodeo to see for himself and came away relieved that a steer wasn’t likely to sideline his durable running back. In the end, however, there was a rodeo accident and Walt’s career was over. “Didn’t really cause any problems,” Garrison drawls. I was done anyway.” Done after nine years with America’s team but what a time it was! Dallas made it to the playoffs for six years from 1966 to 1971, although a championship seemed to elude the Cowboys, bringing frustration to a franchise bent on winning titles. Then in 1971 there was that breakthrough. Garrison and others — from Roger Staubach to Dan Reeves — were champions. That would be the highlight of his career.
All along, Garrison, who will speak to the Touchdown Club of Athens in September, had a goal of saving his money and buying a small ranch one day. He got prize money for winning roping contests, but that wasn’t big. “Paid a few bills,” Walt smiles. He worked for American Tobacco on the side, doing commercials and making appearances. That was big. Smokeless tobacco was always his companion, even after tobacco commercials were banned from television. He was perfect for the tobacco company. He could have easily been the Marlboro man, both in lifestyle and looks.
When he greeted me at the door of his expansive log cabin — about the only thing on the premises that isn’t pure Texas — he was wearing jeans, a belt with a buckle as big as a saucer, boots, a checked shirt, and, of course, a Stetson. He looked as cowboy as a fellow could look and sounded like he might have slept the night before with a bedroll on the plains instead of his log cabin, which has a fireplace in the master bedroom.
It would be accurate to say that Walt lives alone, but you could also counter that when you visit his “whittling” room, where he spends countless hours carving images with humorous sayings etched into the woodwork. “Slim and Nun,” would be a carving of a tall, skinny fellow with a Catholic nun standing beside him. “Stool Samples” would be a flat base with three stools side by side. “Chain Smoker” is a Western-looking hombre with a pipe and a long chain. He carves a lot of walking canes. “Looks like I’m gonna be needin’ one pretty soon,” he cracked. There is a big pot-bellied stove in the middle of the whittling room. “That’s so I can burn my mistakes,” Walt said, a reminder that this colorful character is naturally a very funny man.
After a while the conversation, which segues from the Cowboys to roping to life after football, you quickly realize that this is one former player who found a way to use the money he made in the National Football League in a fulfilling and productive manner — to buy the property and build the home he always wanted. He used his sports celebrity to connect in business and his down-home personality to make friends who appreciate his genuineness.
Lately, he has developed a flourishing food business called Walt Garrison’s Foods. His company makes BBQ sauce, hot salsa, black-eyed pea salsa, and dipping sauce for marinating steaks. His company also makes the best of rubs and about anything you would need for an outdoor cookout. “You ain’t had salsa until you’ve had my salsa,” he said as he shared a recipe for his favorite rub. It is not uncommon for him to promote two of his products in the same breath.
Walt Garrison is one of those inspiring people who made the most of his football ability and of every opportunity that came his way — applying common sense, energy and the work ethic to succeed. Life after football has been as good as it was when he was an active player.
Loran Smith is co-host of “The Tailgate Show” and sideline announcer for Georgia football. He is also a freelance writer and columnist.