For these gridiron greats past and present, there’s more to life than pigskin — like cowhide and saddle leather.
A star wide receiver for the NFL’s Green Bay Packers chooses to spend his offseasons getting his hands dirty on a family farm. A TV analyst with four Super Bowl rings has traded quarterbacking for quarter horses. And a tight end who played (a couple decades later) on the rival team of that QB-turned-anchor has returned to his ranching roots after retirement. They play or played at separate positions in different eras for a variety of franchises, but these five football pros are on the same team when it comes to sharing a love of horses, cattle, and the outdoor life. Here are a few of the NFL’s other cowboys, with a lowercase C.
Quarterback, Pittsburgh Steelers (1970 – 83); Fox NFL Sunday analyst and cohost
As the quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers throughout the 1970s and into the ’80s, Bradshaw completed 212 career touchdown passes and passed for 27,989 yards. He was the first quarterback to win three Super Bowl championships — and followed that up by becoming the first to win four — and he is the only NFL player with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Drafted in 1970, Bradshaw went on to become one of the most successful quarterbacks in the history of the game and a four-for-four Super Bowl winner. Suffice to say, Bradshaw knows about winning, and he’s taken his success off the playing field and into the broadcast booth. He has been the cohost and analyst for the pregame show Fox NFL Sunday since 1994, earning three Sports Emmy Awards. In addition to an ongoing career in broadcasting, he’s tried his acting chops, earning a role in Failure to Launch with Matthew McConaughey, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Bates. He also voiced Broken Arm Bot in the animated film Robots and had a heck of a lot of fun with Burt Reynolds in The Cannonball Run.
There is however, another love in Bradshaw’s life: horses. He owns a 750-acre ranch in Thackerville, Oklahoma, near the Texas border. “My uncles were cutters and ropers, and I started out riding and raising roping horses — but I got hurt and the Steelers wouldn’t let me rope anymore,” Bradshaw explains. “So I started reading the Quarter Horse Journal and saw all these beautiful horses, deciding to turn part of my cattle ranch into the breeding, raising, and showing of halter horses.”
Bradshaw set out to put together the best brood mare band that money could buy and took it to a whole new level following a dispersal sale in 2012, in which they sold more than 80 head including world champion stallions and world champion and world champion-producing mares. “And that was when it really got fun,” Bradshaw says.
The year before, his office manager, Connie Mason, had received a photograph that caught her attention. She told her boss to get down to the office, where she showed him the photo of a beautiful bay roan yearling colt, Initials Only, and advised him that the horse was worth taking a chance on if he looked anything like the photo.
“Initials Only arrived two months later, and when he got off the trailer, Connie said ‘Oh, my!’ ” Bradshaw says. “He was a bay roan, and we did not know then what kind of a champion stud he would become. Ted Turner — no, not Jane’s former husband, a quarter horse trainer here at the ranch — parked him in a training barn and started working with him to see how he would develop. A year later I had conflicting opinions — I liked him on Monday, didn’t like him Tuesday, and thought about selling him on Wednesday.”
Initial doubts aside, Initials Only proved a great investment, and in 2013 Bradshaw began buying mares to build a breeding program around him. Initials Only also won the Aged Stallions championship at the 2014 AQHA World Championship Show. “He is now our No. 1 — actually, our only stud stallion,” he says, pride evident in his voice. “We now have 13 active horses that are showing in the quarter horse halter class.”
Bradshaw goes on to say that “at the top of my bucket list is owning 100 good brood mares.”
Mason, his office manager and “right arm,” smiles and gives a lighthearted eye roll as he says so. A lofty goal? Sure, but then again, so is winning four Super Bowls.
Wide receiver, Green Bay Packers (2008 – present)
Where does the star wide receiver for the Green Bay Packers relax during the off-season to regenerate and reconnect with his family? For 32-year-old Jordy Nelson, it’s not about luxury getaways or even rest and relaxation at home. When football’s done, Nelson can be found in Kansas on his family’s farm, helping with the harvest and working the cows.
“Working cattle is my favorite farm duty,” he told ESPN The Magazine. “It’s interactive, and you’re on your feet all day. I probably identify more as a farmer,” he says. “Around here, I’m just the farm kid that they have always known.”
As quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ favorite target in the end zone, he signed a four-year contract with the Packers for $39 million in 2014. Nelson made a remarkable return to football after a torn ACL the following year sidelined him for the entire season, and the Pro Football Writers of America named him the 2016 Comeback Player of the Year after he rebounded with 97 catches and a league-high 14 touchdowns.
Nelson married his high school sweetheart, Emily, whose family also has a farm nearby in Kansas. “Farming was my life for my first 18 years before going off to college,” Nelson told Wisconsin Agriculturalist. “I like going back to Kansas during the offseason because it gives me a chance to work on the farm, get away from football and be with my family, as I so appreciate what this kind of life has done for me.”
Running back, Philadelphia Eagles (2002 – 09); San Francisco 49ers (2010)
Running back Brian Westbrook retired in 2010 with 6,335 career rushing yards on 1,385 carries. A lifelong animal lover, Westbrook fell in love with horseback riding when he first experienced a long and leisurely trail ride, where he found the peace that he sought away from the football field. Soon after that experience, he bought a horse stable in 2006, named it Westbrook Horse Farm, and started a boarding, training, and riding facility for horse owners in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
“We strive to foster a family atmosphere where boarders can relax and enjoy the peaceful, laid-back feel of the farm ... whether they are training for an event, or just relaxing with their horse by the pond and taking in the scenery,” Westbrook boasts on the farm’s website. “Westbrook Farm is a place where both horse and rider feel at home.”
Tight end, St. Louis/Phoenix Cardinals (1985 – 89); Dallas Cowboys (1990 – 95)
A star player at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Jay Novacek was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1985. Hampered by injuries and subsequently overshadowed by the performance of the teammate who replaced him following a broken elbow, he started only six games in five years for the franchise. Arguably the most noteworthy event during his time on the Cardinals was the team’s move to Phoenix.
Then the Dallas Cowboys signed him as a Plan B free agent for the 1990 season, following a woeful 1-15 season for America’s Team. Novacek would go on to have a breakout year, becoming one of the league’s top receiving tight ends, registering 59 receptions for 657 yards and four touchdowns.
The march to the Super Bowl had begun. “We were a young team and coach Jimmy Johnson started to make us responsible for what we were doing on the field,” Novacek says. “He brought in quarterback Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and a new offensive coach, Norv Turner, and we turned the corner in 1992, winning Super Bowl XXVII.
“It was a very special time to be a Cowboy, winning three Super Bowls in just four years. It was a pretty big deal to play on a team that had such a great turnaround during that time.” In 2014, he was inducted into the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Novacek’s father was a high school coach, and during Jay’s childhood, the family moved from small town to small town in Iowa, South Dakota, and Nebraska. “My whole life was sports, playing and working outdoors, and being a cowboy,” Novacek says. “I always had summer jobs irrigating or working cattle, and that love of being outdoors has never left me.”
He retired in 1997 and now spends much of his time riding and training cutting horses and breeding and raising a small herd of cattle. Novacek, wife Amy, son Blake, and daughter McKinley also breed and raise cutting horses on the ranch, and horse competitions have become a family tradition.
The last two decades have seen Novacek channel his competitive spirit with those cutting horse events. When asked about being a full-time rancher, he laughs.
“When you love something you do, it’s more of a lifestyle and hobby than it is a job. I am busy with speaking engagements, endorsements, and hosting executives from an oil company in Midland, Texas, to support my ‘lifestyle.’ But I love what I do, all of the animals — horses and dogs — and baling hay and even planting.”
McKinley competed in the American Paint Horse Association youth Western pleasure world championship in Fort Worth, Texas, this summer, and Amy will head back to Cowtown in September for the adult event.
Novacek, on the other hand, won’t be pleasure riding anytime soon. “I can walk faster than they can lope,” he quips.
Last year, Nocavek worked with PBR rider Tyson Durfey, helping him physically and mentally prepare for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. “Tyson gave me the saddle he received for winning the tie-down roping competition, a beautiful piece with no silver embellishments,” Novacek says. He prefers a basic saddle and pokes fun at the flashy versions his wife and daughter show with. “No gaudy silver for me,” he says.
Fullback/running back, Dallas Cowboys (1966 – 74)
Walt Garrison grew up in the North Texas town of Lewisville and was deep in the Western lifestyle early on. He got bit by the rodeo bug before he became a teenager. But Garrison had talents in another arena — he ended up playing for the Dallas Cowboys as their star fullback in the late ’60s and early ’70s during an eight-year playoff run that included winning Super Bowl VI in 1972.
He’d been tapped in the fifth round of the NFL draft in 1966 after a successful run at Oklahoma State University (his signing bonus included a horse trailer), and he capped off his pro career high in the Cowboys’ rushing and receiving records.
It’s no surprise that Garrison’s teammates got a big kick out of his cowboying exploits. And he certainly never turned down an opportunity to tell them more.
“He’d have a whole new bunch of cowboy stories when we’d go to training camp,” former Cowboy tackle Bob Lilly once told the Waco Tribune-Herald. “Some of those stories would last over an hour. He also taught us how to whittle. He was our big entertainment.”
Garrison’s football career came to its end following a knee injury he suffered not on the playing field, but in a steer wrestling exhibition.
Since leaving the field, Garrison has stayed active as an authentic cowboy on his Argyle, Texas, ranch. He’s been inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame and the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Garrison also heads up Walt Garrison Foods, which offers an impressive array of barbecue sauces, marinades, and rubs. They’re sold online and at a variety of Texas grocery stores and markets.
From the August/September 2017 issue.