As the Dallas Cowboys surged back into NFL prominence during the 2016 season, there was a lot of talk about the franchise’s past glory when it was winning Super Bowl titles under Tom Landry and Jimmy Johnson with star players like Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irving.
Russell Maryland can certainly appreciate that history. After all, he played a significant role on the dominant defense that helped the Cowboys win three Super Bowls in four years. In this CSJ Conversation with managing editor Chad Bonham, the former Pro Bowl selection talks about his playing days at the University of Miami, the pressure of being a #1 draft pick, playing alongside some the legendary “triplets,” and how his faith has kept him grounded every step of the way.
Chad Bonham: What led you to play for the University of Miami?
Russell Maryland: I grew up in Chicago’s Southside. I really didn’t have much of a choice. I wasn’t highly recruited in football at all. My only scholarship offers were from Indiana State and the University of Miami. Miami offered me a scholarship after the signing date. They were starting to develop a reputation as an up-and-coming national contender. Apparently it was the last scholarship they had to offer.
Bonham: How much pressure did you feel being the top pick in the 1991 NFL Draft?
Maryland: Everybody was expecting the world of me and here I was just thinking of myself as just another average football player. It was a lot of pressure but I guess it wasn’t just pressure everybody else was putting on me. It was pressure I put on myself. I didn’t want to let myself or my family members down.”
Bonham: In Dallas, what do you remember most about playing for Jimmy Johnson (your college coach) and with some of the era’s biggest NFL stars?
Maryland: When I got there in 1991, they were at the end of their growing pains. We had gotten a lot of great players. The Cowboys had gotten a lot of great picks from the Hershel Walker draft. They were able to get a lot of young, up-and-coming, future Hall of Famers. To be picked number one in the draft and then go to the Super Bowl the next year was great. The major part of that of course was “the triplets” – Troy (Aikman), Emmitt (Smith) and Michael (Irvin) – super athletes, super people. Those were the guys that we looked to, to make big things happen offensively. As defensive players, we said, “Well, hey, these guys are going out there putting on a show day in and day out. Let’s try to match that effort.” That’s the reason why we stayed winners, because we had that competitive edge. We tried to compete with the exploits of those guys on the field. That year, I remember guys gelling and really coming into their own. I was on team that had a mission. We had a lot of great players like Charles Haley and Tony Casillas that came from other teams to contribute. There were guys like Jim Jeffcoat, one of the last remnants of the old Cowboys days who was there to teach us defensive line guys how to do it. So I remember guys just coming together saying, “Hey, we can be winners.” And we had Jimmy Johnson reinforcing that and that Super Bowl game was just outstanding.
Bonham: After easily defeating Buffalo in that first Super Bowl, I assume there were high expectations going into the 1993 season.
Maryland: People were saying the Cowboys couldn’t be beat. It was added pressure, but we were accustomed to it. We had great players that made great plays. We took that as an impetus to work that much harder so we wouldn’t fail.”
Bonham: What was the environment like after winning a second consecutive Super Bowl?
Maryland: It was pretty much a circus. After winning two Super Bowls, the Cowboys were a worldwide name. The cities that we went to play in, the people were coming to see the home team but they were really coming to see the Cowboys. They were coming to see the cast of characters—the triplets plus Deion (Sanders). Our mission was to limit the distractions. There were so many people that wanted to get to know the Cowboys. They wanted to see if these guys were really real.
Bonham: What led to your departure for Oakland?
Maryland: I was one of those salary cap casualties. A lot of that was because Dallas had guys like Deion and other players that required high salaries. When I retired, I wanted to make sure to sign with Dallas. Jerry (Jones) and I got together and even though I hadn’t played for the Cowboys in five years, they still knew who I was and respected what I had done for the Cowboys during the Super Bowl years. We just decided that, as a gesture, I would retire as Cowboy. It was only fitting that I retired as a Cowboy and the Jones family was gracious enough to let me do it. Emmitt (Smith) followed in my footsteps and retired as a Cowboy after ending his career in Arizona. That’s the only thing that I ever showed Emmitt how to do. Everything else he did himself.
Bonham: Tell me about your faith journey.
Maryland: Faith has played an important in my life. As a fat kid from the South side of Chicago all the way to playing in not one, not two but three Super Bowls, I didn’t get there by myself. It was only by the grace of the God and the ability for my family to make right decisions and with the help of my faith in God and Christ. A lot of athletes I’ve seen along the years get to this level and think they’ve done it all by themselves without any help. But I’ve always realized where my strength and where my help has come from. I realized that back at 17 and I realize it now. I can say the same thing and it doesn’t stop here.
Bonham: What was the key to staying on track spiritually throughout your career?
Maryland: In the kingdom of God, you always need accountability. It’s awfully hard to do it all by yourself. It’s the same as in the team setting. It’s very hard to get out there in the hundred-degree weather and start getting a great workout in. But if you’ve got two or three other buddies with you, it makes it that much easier. It’s the same with spiritual things. It’s hard to go at it yourself. You can read the Bible all you want to, but sometimes it takes a different perspective to get a greater understanding, to get a deeper understanding of what it all means. That’s why it’s good to live here (in Dallas) with a lot of Christian athletes, both current and former. We have not only sports in common but we have our faith in common also.
Bonham: If you could meet anyone living or dead, who would that be?
Maryland: I’d like to meet Martin Luther King Jr., and Jesus. I’d like to sit down and talk with them and make them dinner.
(Photos: Courtesy of The Dallas Cowboys Football Club)