Cowboy at heart: Novacek reflects on time at UW, small-town roots

Posted 1/21/21

For Jay Novacek, “Cowboy” isn’t just the nickname of his former football teams. It’s his lifestyle.

The former University of Wyoming tight end and NFL legend now resides …

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Cowboy at heart: Novacek reflects on time at UW, small-town roots


For Jay Novacek, “Cowboy” isn’t just the nickname of his former football teams. It’s his lifestyle.

The former University of Wyoming tight end and NFL legend now resides in Burleson, Texas, living on a ranch with his wife, Amy. A five-time pro bowler and three-time Super Bowl champion with the Dallas Cowboys, Novacek’s daily life now consists of taking care of various animals and their ranch property.

Originally from Gothenburg, Nebraska — a town of under 4,000 people — this way of life has been instilled in him since adolescence.

“I was one to be out in the country, out fishing, exploring, doing all that stuff when I was a kid,” Novacek said. “Growing up into the lifestyle I have now, I’ve always had that.”

Following high school in Gothenburg, Novacek progressed to the next stage of life — college — and had to temporarily abandon his rural roots.


Laramie to the League

After a successful high school career, Novacek had countless opportunities to play football at the next level. But not many of them gave him the chance to play football while participating in another passion of his: decathlon.

The University of Wyoming was the only program that offered him a scholarship to play football for the Cowboys while competing in track and field. Wanting to be well-rounded is ultimately what led Novacek to Laramie.

“I’ve always said that all other sports help you become better football players; football doesn’t help you become better at any other sport,” Novacek said. “Because of my track background, that helped me become a much better football player.”

In three seasons sporting the Brown and Gold, Novacek posted 1,536 yards and 10 touchdowns on 83 receptions. He broke the NCAA’s single-season record for average per reception (22.6) by a tight end, helping him earn all-American honors.

Novacek made his mark on UW’s track program as well, winning the Western Athletic Conference decathlon championship in 1984 and breaking the school’s pole vault record.

Though Wyoming is affectionately known as the “Cowboy State,” his involvement in Wyoming’s athletic program halted his western lifestyle.

“Weekends were always pretty busy for me,” Novacek said.

Following his time in Laramie, Novacek leveled up: The St. Louis Cardinals (later the Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals) picked him in the sixth round of the 1985 NFL Draft.

A few years later, he signed with Dallas, where he became a household name for his prowess at the goal line and on third down. Novacek was a key piece in the Troy Aikman era, in which the Cowboys won three Super Bowls.

The tight end attributes much of his NFL production to his years in UW head coach Al Kincaid’s run-first, wishbone offense, where the Pokes threw an average of 18 passes per game. This taught Novacek patience and persistence.

“Your previous situations always help you out in later situations,” he said. “You didn’t get all that many opportunities in the passing game in the wishbone, so you have to be ready when opportunities come up. Playing in Wyoming, it was always that situation where you run, run, run, and when there’s a pass called, you have to step up and do that part of the game.”


‘Jay’s Way’

Novacek retired from Dallas in 1997, but he didn’t stop being a cowboy or having the mindset that comes with that title. He got through significant hardships later in life, thanks to his rural background and time with the Wyoming and Dallas Cowboys.

In 2010, his first wife, LeAnne, died by suicide. His son, Blake, was the alleged victim of a fraternity hazing incident at the University of Oklahoma, leaving him with permanent brain damage.

Though incredibly difficult, Novacek saw the obstacles as opportunities to grow.

“It’s always a blessing to be able to go through those hardships, even though you don’t think it is at that time and to succeed and go on,” Novacek said.

Much of Novacek’s mental fortitude can be traced to his years in Laramie, playing alongside what he described as “some of the toughest players” he’s competed with.

“To see that and learn from them, how to be mentally tough no matter what the situation was, it was very important,” he said. “It carried me on.”

According to Novacek, there are three ways to approach hardships: the right way, the wrong way and “Jay’s way.” The former two approaches are just what they sound like. But Novacek describes “Jay’s way” as “how an individual adapts and figures out how to do things successfully the best way he or she knows how” in tough situations.

He developed this philosophy when playing in Dallas. Blocking is a key responsibility for tight ends, and that was one of Novacek’s few weaknesses. Seeing how crucial running back Emmitt Smith was to the team’s offensive production, Novacek knew he had to do something.

“I never end up becoming a good blocker whatsoever, but I’ll tell you what: I got in the way pretty good,” he said.

Ever since, Novacek has used “Jay’s way” as a guide for the various difficulties brought upon his life.

“If you believe in yourself and have the confidence, you can get through anything and adapt,” Novacek said.

The former tight end said he is now living “the life he has always dreamed of” at the ranch in Burleson. His days are relaxing and filled with quality time with wife Amy and his animals.

Between his youth in Nebraska to his days playing for the “Cowboys” to his post-football life and overcoming adversity, Novacek has never abandoned the “cowboy” mentality.

“It’s kind of funny,” he said, adding, “I’ve always kind of been a cowboy even when I wasn’t a Cowboy. It’s pretty special.”