Roger Staubach Outlines His Keys to Success

By: Peter Pollack

Guest speaker offers character lessons earned during NFL career

Roger T. Staubach may best be known as one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the National Football League (NFL), but the perseverance he displayed in his career with the Dallas Cowboys extended beyond the football field to his personal life and to several successful business enterprises. As the Presidential Guest Speaker at the 2016 AAOS Annual Meeting, he spoke about leadership, trust, and teamwork, and related those themes to his various careers in the military, football, and real estate.


Roger Staubach tells a member of the audience to “go long.”


AAOS President David D. Teuscher, MD, asks Roger Staubach about his playing career.

Like many athletes, Mr. Staubach has had many opportunities to interact with orthopaedic surgeons.

“It’s a pleasure to be here,” he said, “especially to thank you for your talent. I was at Purcell High School when I broke my right hand, and that was my first visit to the doctor for an injury. Later, when I was at the Naval Academy, I was chasing a fly ball in the outfield and I tripped and fell and dislocated my left shoulder. That was the beginning of a chronic dislocation. I finally had it operated on. I don’t have full movement, but fortunately, as a right-handed quarterback I don’t need my left shoulder,” he laughed.

As a professional football player, he once tried to run over a defender and separated his right shoulder in the collision.

“They operated on it the next morning. I missed most of that season, but I got real strong by the end of the year, and my right shoulder … I can do everything. I guess that and my left shoulder were different types of operations. Whatever he did, it’s perfect,” he smiled.

Tom Landry
One person who served as a friend and mentor to Mr. Staubach was the legendary football coach Tom Landry. He and Mr. Staubach were friendly as coach and player, but their relationship blossomed after Mr. Staubach retired.

“Coach Landry was an engineer,” said Mr. Staubach. “When he was a defensive coach in New York, he knew that by looking at certain offensive formations you could pretty much guess what the play would be. So when he came to the Dallas Cowboys as head coach, he developed some very creative formations. We had lots of motion, so the defensive players couldn’t look in the backfield to see the formation. And in 1975, we started using the shotgun formation [in which the quarterback stands farther back from the center for the snap]. It was the first time it was used in the NFL. Everybody thought Coach Landry was crazy. No one expected us to do anything that year, but we made it to the Super Bowl, where we lost to the Steelers 21–17. A lot of our success had to do with the creativity that Coach Landry brought to the locker room.”

Mr. Staubach noted that his friendship with Coach Landry survived a sometimes heated difference of opinion.

“We both wanted to win,” said Mr. Staubach. “But I ran, and he didn’t like me running. He told me to stay in the pocket and stick with the game plan; to just throw the football. It didn’t work that way for me. After 11 years of working together, we’d be watching film and he’d still turn to me and say, ‘Someday, you’re going to learn…’” he laughed. “After I retired, we became good friends.”

But to Mr. Staubach, Mr. Landry was far more than a great football coach.

“He was also a great human being,” he said. “He had strong faith, and he lived it. He was a tremendous example to all of us. He didn’t preach to us to be what he was, but he demonstrated it through his actions. I separated my shoulder one year, and he stayed with me the whole night. The next morning he was with me through the whole operation. He was really a very good human being and a fantastic coach. He had 20 straight years of winning, and I don’t think that will ever be duplicated.”

Mike Ditka
Mr. Staubach offered some anecdotes about teamwork and preparation that he learned during his NFL career.

“In 1971, we were a team that could not win the big game,” he explained. “It was driving Coach Landry crazy. It was a 14-game schedule back then, and we were
4 and 3 in the middle of the year, and it was an ugly 4 and 3. When I say ugly, I mean players blaming each other, defense blaming offense, nobody taking on any responsibility or accountability. We wanted to please ourselves, but we weren’t thinking about how our actions would affect somebody else.”

Following a loss to the Bears in Chicago, Coach Landry told the players to get their act together.

“Normally, we met on Mondays to watch game films, but Coach Landry told us that he and the other coaches were not going to be there. ‘You players had better be out there and figure out how you’re going to turn this season around,’ he said.”

The next morning, Mr. Staubach wondered who would step up as a leader.

“I was still kind of a young quarterback at the time,” he explained. “The guy who jumped to the front of the room was [future Bears coach] Mike Ditka. Now I’ll tell you, Mike enjoys life to the fullest, but he also gives back. You’d want to be in a foxhole with that guy. He was a great team player. So he jumped to the front of the room and just ripped into everybody. His cheeks were red and he was talking about all the things we had to do. He really got things cooking. Other guys started to stand up as well and talk about all the stuff we needed to do. And those other guys—the troublemakers—they took a back seat.

“After that meeting, we became a real football team instead of just a bunch of individuals with a lot of talent. We already had the right people in the right places, but up till then we didn’t have them working together,” Mr. Staubach said. “And that’s the key to everything—to your family, to your business as doctors—it’s the key to sports. Not only to have the right people in the right places, but to get them working together.

“Ditka finished the meeting and said, ‘We play the St. Louis Cardinals next week. I’m going to leave everything on the field, because you guys are my teammates. If there’s anyone in this room that’s not going to do the same for me, I’m going to know who you are, and I’m going to personally do something about it,” Mr. Staubach laughed. “We started to play together; we won 10 in a row—seven straight regular season games, two playoffs, and we beat Miami to win the Super Bowl. We had the right people in the right place, and they finally started to work together.”

Armed forces connection
As a former officer in the U.S. Navy, who served a year of noncombat duty in Vietnam, Mr. Staubach has made it a personal mission in recent years to help veterans reintegrate into society.

“I’m sure everyone in this room has had a positive effect on veterans,” he said. “There are many veterans here today. We started Allies in Service, where we help veterans get jobs in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. We’ve been averaging about a job a day for veterans. We have a mentor program that’s been fantastic. We have about 25 companies that have been mentoring veterans. In today’s unstable world, I’ve had so many veterans tell me, ‘It’s just the idea that you’re helping.’ It’s kind of hard for them sometimes. They really have a lot of pride, and they don’t like to ask for anything.

“I was at the airport recently. There were about six veterans in fatigues, and one recognized me. I was talking to him and a woman came over with two 100-dollar bills and said, ‘Take your friends to lunch.’ He protested, but she insisted, and as she walked away, he said, ‘It’s nice that we can have lunch now, but that’s not the point. The point is that people care about us, and they want to help us. We sense that, and we’re going to pass that on to our kids, to our grandkids … that we’re proud to be in the service.”