Evanson: Love 'em or hate 'em, Forest Grove is home to 'them Cowboys'
People either love or hate the Dallas Cowboys. But if you live in or around Forest Grove, there seems to be a lot of love for a franchise more than 2,000 miles away.
It's not as odd as it seems. After all, the Cowboys have a direct relationship to the relatively small town tucked against the Coast Range on the far west end of Washington County.
It's true: 61 years ago, the Cowboys — far from the perennial powerhouse they are today — were an expansion franchise, a scrap heap of players other teams didn't want or didn't appreciate.
The team held its first training camp at Pacific University in Forest Grove, where NFL castoffs from each of the other existing 12 teams, a bevy of free agents, and a handful or two of rookies ran drills and scrimmaged. When they weren't working out, they could often be seen about town — to the curiosity of locals who had never seen such a sight.
Ron Thompson, a 1963 Forest Grove High School graduate and Vikings Athletic Hall of Fame softball coach for Forest Grove, was 15 when the Cowboys came to town. He remembers it well. The team practiced on what at the time was McCready Field, he recalled, and while he couldn't get very close to the action, it was close enough for him to appreciate the magnitude of a professional team's presence in what was then a small rural town — population less than 6,000, according to the 1960 Census.
"It was wonderful," Thompson said. "At that point in time, the only professional thing I'd seen was the Portland Beavers. So, I'd never seen a professional football team before and they were just huge.
"I remember there was this one guy named 'Jungle Jamie' who was a professional gatecrasher, and he was trying to sell jerseys, and he was just a riot."
Thompson has a good memory: "Jungle Jamie," with his larger-than-life sobriquet, is very real. James Baccelliari infamously walked in with Billy Kilmer and the Washington Redskins prior to the 1973 Super Bowl in Los Angeles, although that was more than a decade later.
When the Cowboys were in Oregon, "Jungle Jamie" acted as an unofficial liaison between the team and its fans before and after a preseason game with the Los Angeles Rams in Pendleton as part of the town's famous Round-Up. But that's a story for a different time.
A couple decades ago, Thompson and his good friend Bob Mills, who later served as Forest Grove's fire chief, traveled to Dallas to watch the team they had adopted — their Cowboys — play. With them, they brought a News-Times article about the 1960 training camp in Forest Grove, which they happily displayed to local fans who questioned their allegiance.
"The people we were sitting by were saying, 'Oh, we've been Cowboy fans longer than anybody,' and we were like, 'Oh yeah?'" Thompson said with a chuckle. "Then we showed them the article and they were amazed. No one down there had even heard of Forest Grove."
Neither had most of the Cowboys, before their arrival. Rumor had it that legendary head coach Tom Landry had previously attended training camps in Oregon and thought the climate ideal for the preseason, and with the boot camp mentality he had in mind for his players, the tiny town 25 miles west of Portland, with just a single movie theater and bar, was a perfect fit.
Thompson passed his professional football fidelity on to his son, Forest Grove High School athletic director Doug Thompson, who's since done the same with his two boys. The younger Thompson believes the local connection to the Cowboys is strong with his dad's generation, but said with his generation and beyond, his allegiance is tied more to the team's track record and general popularity.
Joey Davis, whose dad Steve Davis also remembers the 1960 training camp — and like the elder Thompson, has been a fan ever since — believes more strongly that the connection lives on. He and his siblings have always brandished the Cowboys "star," and to this day, they live and die by the team's performance on Sundays.
"My dad watched them at that training camp, and ever since it's become a family tradition," Davis said. "My uncle, my brother, my sister, my cousins — we fell in love with the Cowboys, and I've felt like they were our home team. Everyone I know in this area is a Cowboys fan for that reason, and I don't see it changing."
It's hard to say just how deep and widespread that 1960 link runs. After all, you can find Cowboys fans everywhere. There isn't a bandwagon bigger than the one for "America's team," and seemingly every city regardless of size has more than its share of Staubach, Aikman, Romo and now Prescott fans.
But while you can find Cowboys fans everywhere, not just anywhere can call them their home team. Forest Grove is one of the only places outside of Texas that can — if even it was for just a few weeks, even if it was 61 years ago. Fan loyalty runs deep.
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