The two sets of foes faced one another across the field of battle, prepared for the coming confrontation. Each side of the conflict had its supporters and detractors. Each had prepared for this day with physical training, studying the tactics of their enemy, and drawing up their battle plans. The conflict would last just sixty minutes, but the hated rivalry had reared its head over and over again for nearly sixty years, with each side having experienced the triumph of victory and the agony of defeat. These were cowboys and redskins, and today the cowboys won.
I'm talking, of course, about the NFL match on Sunday between the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins.
In the 118 meetings between these two teams since 1960, the Cowboys have won the majority of the games, with the record now standing at 71-45-2. It's telling that these two teams, this rivalry, has been routinely described as foremost football rivalry and indeed one of the biggest in sports. Western movies have perpetuated a version of history where Native American warriors and Texas cattlemen routinely came to blows on the American frontier. The reality is that by the time the cattle industry in Texas was at its peak following the Civil War, Native populations had been decimated by disease and largely relegated to reservations. Safe passage across Indian Territory in modern-day Oklahoma was purchased at the outset of a cattle drive, and a cowboy was more likely to die in a storm, stampede, or at the hands of a white cattle rustler than he was to ever encounter a hostile Comanche on the Chisholm Trail.
So why is the myth so persistent? So foundational to our image of what America is?
Here's an excerpt from Washington D.C.'s Evening Star newspaper from May 6th, 1873. "The rate at which Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack disposed of the red skins at Wall's Opera House last night would be very satisfactory if practiced in earnest at the lava beds, but from some mistake in the arrangements out there it is the Modocs who do the shooting and out men who do the dying...the audience last night seemed to greatly admire the dexterous way in which Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack handled their pistols and threw their lassoes..." 146 years ago, in the same city that would host the NFL game this weekend, Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack, the great hunter and the great cowboy, would demonstrate their ability to stand back to back and face any number of hostile warriors arrayed against them.
The image of Texas Jack the cowboy lassoing a Comanche brave and Buffalo Bill throwing the man bodily from the stage proved so powerful that it is replicated in a modern coliseum setting twice a year for hundreds of thousands of spectators.
This time the Cowboys came out ahead with a final score 31-21. If you don't think cowboys, hunters, and scouts from the 1870s impact modern sports, consider this. Before the season finishes, the Dallas Cowboys will face that team from New York, the Buffalo Bills.