It was 1960. The word was out that the National Football League was coming to Big D.
The Dallas Rangers, who changed their name a few months later to the Cowboys, were admitted to the league too late to participate in the 1960 NFL Draft. No matter, they still needed to build a team somehow and they knew the best place to start was at the quarterback and running back position. They picked up Don Meredith, a quarterback out of SMU, through a personal-services contract. Shortly after, they set their eyes on a halfback named Don Perkins.
Perkins was already on the Baltimore Colts, but luckily for the newborn team they also signed Don Perkins to a personal-services contract (for a $10,000 salary) months prior, before the ‘Boys even existed. And since Dallas didn’t go through a draft process, the league made the Baltimore Colts honor the services contract and hand Perkins over to this new expansion team in Texas.
Don Perkins and Don Meredith were picked up by the Cowboys through personal-services contracts that were signed before the team was even a glimmer in the NFL’s eye. The league honored those contracts – even though they were signed months before a Dallas team existed – to compensate Dallas not having the luxury of a draft to build a team from. If the Dallas Cowboys, I mean Dallas Rangers, had been born a month or two earlier, they could have picked the franchise’s first players through the draft and may never have known Meredith and Perkins.
That is why they kick off our Beyond the Clock series, where we dive into the wonderful careers of undrafted Cowboy greats.
Not to mention, they were the first faces of the franchise.
Perkins sat out for the 1960 season due to a broken foot but received the Rookie of the Year award when he played his first full season in 1961. He became the first Dallas Cowboy to rush for 100 yards in a game when he rushed for 108 yards on 17 carries against the Minnesota Vikings. Perkins became the Cowboy’s primary ball carrier in a budding offense constantly shuffling new rushers in and out.
That is not to say Perkins didn’t struggle. The Cowboys wanted him to switch from playing halfback, like he did in college, to fullback, a position he wasn’t used to. Coach Tom Landry mandated a mile run at the beginning of every season and Perkins struggled to meet the six-minute time. According to Perkins, what hurt him the most was disappointing his coach. But that was Perkins, a player who cared more about the club than himself.
He was kind and generous to his teammates and instilled a sense of camaraderie among the infant franchise. For example, at almost every game or practice, Perkins would show his backup, Walt Garrison, new techniques. He would teach him how to read linebackers and explain the ins and outs of being an effective fullback.
One day Garrison asked Perkins, “Don’t you realize I’m trying to beat you out for playing time?”
Perkins told him that he only cared about winning a championship and that if Garrison was better, then Garrison ought to be starting over him. To Garrison, Don Perkins was his hero and the best fullback in the history of the Dallas Cowboys. The Garrison and Perkins relationship represented that of many on the team, those who came together and shared character and a singular goal.
Staying true to the strong bond forged between his teammates, in 1968 Perkins helped end the Cowboys practice of segregating players when traveling to hotels. He is currently a member of the Northwest Mesa Branch of the NAACP.
Don Perkins unexpectedly retired at age 31 coming off arguably his best season in 1968, saying he thought it was Garrison’s time to shine. He finished his career with 1,500 attempts, amassing 6,217 yards and 42 touchdowns. Even though he played fullback at 5’10”, 205 pounds, his ten career 100-yard games ranks fourth in club history. He led the Dallas Cowboys in rushing through six of his eight seasons, and touchdowns through four.
He ranks third on the Cowboys’ all-time rushing yards and rushing touchdowns lists behind Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett. He was selected to six Pro Bowls, to one All-Pro team, and was later inducted into the Ring of Honor with Don Meredith in 1976.
Don Perkins was the Cowboys first leading rusher, one of the first faces of the franchise, and one of the first great Dallas Cowboys.