This happened during a spring practice-field moment at Valley Ranch, long before most of us could put Cowboys jersey numbers with Cowboys faces. Coach Bill Parcells approached a newcomer, wrapped an arm around him, and whispered a sweet something into his ear.
"I'll die before I let you fail,'' the usually hard-ass coach told rookie sixth-round pick Rob Petitti.
To Parcells' credit, he saw something in the silo-sized offensive-line kid that others did not. Next thing you know, training camp in Oxnard arrives. And two offensive-line draftees from '04, Jacob Rogers and Stephen Peterman, slip into obscurity while Petitti gets better. And better. And better, to the point where he's now established as this team's right tackle of the present and future.
Peterman still gets a uniform; he's just never allowed to get it dirty. Rogers fell down in camp and, amid snide insinuations from within the organization that he's a "wussy,'' was never invited to get up.
Rob Petitti today represents a lot of what the Cowboys are.
Good news: He's a heckuva quality guy, a diamond in the rough, getting valuable experience now that will pay off in the future. And for the present, he's part of an offensive line that is beleaguered in part because of the fat salaries paid to Larry Allen, Marco Rivera and the injured Flozell Adams -- but one that deserves acclaim for awaking Dallas out of a playoff-run slumber.
Cowboys 31, Chiefs 28 on Sunday was large enough to provide heroic elbow room to many of the usual suspects, like Drew Bledsoe, who threw for 332 yards and three TDs, including the game-winner with 22 seconds left. And receivers Jason Witten and Terry Glenn, who combined for 13 catches, 231 yards and two scores. And rookie back Marion Barber, whose downhill running will almost certainly have Cowboys fans this week wondering again whatever happened to Julius Jones.
And then there are the "unusual'' suspects. Backup tight end Dan Campbell, the team captain, who caught that last TD pass. And linebacker Scott Fujita, the former Chief, who forced a key Chiefs fumble.
But in avoiding a third straight loss, a costly home defeat, and a possible ouster from playoff contention, the Cowboys largely rode their allegedly suspect offensive line. Petitti and Company. They did allow four sacks. But they also plowed KC for 129 yards, an accomplishment against a Chiefs defense that was ficth-ranked against the run. They maintained lengthy drives throughout: 15 plays, 73 yards, 9:16; 11 plays, 84 yards, 4:50; and the clincher, a 14-play drive that moved 68 yards in 3:33.
And yes, Rob Petitti was a key. The Chiefs threw a grab bag at him: sometimes they'd line up opposite him speedy rookie playmaker Derrick Johnson, the University of Texas linebacker. Sometimes it would be the other end, hard-working vet Eric Hicks. Lots of times it would be Jared Allen, his motor always running.
Petitti won way more than he lost.
"I took all that stuff everybody was saying personally,'' Petitti said of the criticism that had focused on him, left tackle Torrin Tucker and the rest of the line. "So I felt pretty good about what I was able to do.''
Not to overstate it, but if Rob Petitti wasn't able to survive these moments, wasn't able to hold his own, it would serve as a condemnation of sorts of this organization's foundation, it's base belief. He was designated privately by the coach as a pet project. The coach cannot be wrong about too many of these things.
The defense is in place. It is championship-caliber. And it's not enough.
The receiving corps is, by reputation, Pro Bowl-level. And it's not enough.
The quarterback is a blue-chip talent and was hand-picked for this situation. And it's not enough.
The running back was the focal point of an entire draft strategy. And it's not enough.
And we damn sure know this isn't the head coach's fault, right?
"I'll die before I let you fail,'' Parcells told that kid. It was a commitment to the kid. It was a commitment to the offensive line. It was a commitment to the promise Parcells believes this team has -- and believed it had way back in the spring.
"I like my team,'' Parcells said, summarizing the win, and doing so more emotionally that he was letting on. "I like the players on it.''
He should. Because right now, from the offensive line on down, where are the Cowboys?